Situated on the River Thame near its confluence with the Thames, where that great river was crossed by the major Roman road between Alchester and Silchester, Dorchester-on-Thames seems to have become a local administrative and economic centre in the Roman period. It appears to have continued as a local power base even at the end of the Roman period.
There is evidence of building activity in Dorchester as late as the last decade of the fourth century. There has also been found an unusual preponderance of Theodosian coinage; the latest Roman coins circulating in Britain (AD 388-402).
In the late 3rd century AD, the earth bank which had surrounded the town for about a century was replaced by a stone wall with an earth rampart. Over time, the tail of this rampart slid back slightly to cover part of the street behind. It was in this end of the rampart overlying the street that a small collection of iron was buried, probably in a shallow pit, at the very end of the fourth century or perhaps slightly later. Found during excavations in 1962, the hoard consisted of a ploughshare, a coulter, a chisel, a spud and ten pieces of scrap iron (nail, bucket mount, binding fragments).
Another hoard was uncovered the following year buried in a large pit along with late Roman pottery and glass and a hoard of 857 coins dating to c. AD 395-410. The ironwork from this second hoard comprised an axe, a sickle, a padlock key and 25 pieces of scrap iron (nails, hinges, rings, binding fragments).
The deposits may have been ritual, and compared with other late Roman ironwork hoards in southern Britain, they are typical in terms of their composition. They are a mix of pristine tools and scrap iron, representative of no particular trade or source, and they are not valuable enough to have warranted concealment for the purpose of protection in times of danger.
Ironwork hoards are known from pre-Roman Britain and are also found in the south during the fourth century AD at the same time as a renewed interest in pagan cults. There are interesting parallels for the 1962 hoard at Madmarston Camp, Oxfordshire and South Cadbury Castle, Somerset. Each of these hillforts had a small hoard of ironwork deposited in the immediately pre-Roman period in the tail of a rampart. Such a coincidence is unlikely, and the similarity probably reflects ritual practice associated with beliefs for which we have no written evidence and the significance of which is now lost to us.
Hoards like these and the pewter hoard at Appleford are excellent examples of the importance of archaeology for understanding the past. Through excavation and the careful study of deposits, we can observe behaviour, such as the burial of certain types of objects, which seems to have no practical purpose but which is clearly deliberate and not random. Archaeology shows a certain continuity of Celtic culture and belief through the Roman period for which we have no literary evidence. However, the reason why this specific ritual practice should re-emerge precisely at the end of the Roman period is still a mystery.
Objects from the hoard are on display in the 'Rome' gallery on the ground floor.
Click to enlarge
Aerial photograph of Dorchester-on-Thames taken by Major George Allen on 4 July 1933
(Album Ref 20, 118)
Coin of Theodosius from the North Mendip hoard. The type of coin found at Dorchester-on-Thames
Click to enlarge
Plan drawing of the finds of the 1962 iron hoard, from the Frere excavation archive
Iron plough coulter from 1962 hoard (AN1967.1240). Item no 10 in plan drawing of hoard.
Frere, S. S., ‘Excavations at Dorchester on Thames, 1962’, Archaeological Journal, 119 (1962), 114-49.
Frere, S. S., ‘Excavations at Dorchester on Thames, 1963,’ Archaeological Journal, 141 (1984), 91-174.
Hingley, R., ‘The deposition of iron objects in Britain during the later prehistoric and Roman periods: contextual analysis and the significance of iron’, Britannia, 37 (2006), 213-257.
Manning, W. H., ‘Ironwork Hoards in Iron Age and Roman Britain’, Britannia, 3 (1972), 224-250.
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16 December 2011