BBC4 Digging for Britain
MVAHG – Excavation sheds new light on rural history in the Meon Valley
‘This dig demonstrates that even a time period as well documented as Roman Britain can still be rewritten by new archaeological discoveries. It’s a wonderful temple site… and a very unusual hexagonal building.’
Professor Alice Roberts, BBC4 Digging for Britain
The MVAHG/Winchester University excavation featured in the first episode of a new series of the prestigious BBC4 programme Digging for Britain, which aired on 22.11.17. The film is edited over the two summers of 2016 and 2017 and shows Meon Valley Archaeology & Heritage Group (MVAHG) community volunteers and Winchester University students working together to discover the history of the site. Alice Roberts set the scene for viewers:
‘In AD 43 the Romans arrived. Their battles and building project are well recorded, but when it came to the British countryside they ran out of ink. There has always been a question of how far Roman culture and influence spread into rural Britain. Hampshire’s Meon Valley is shedding light on this mystery. In the 1980s Archaeologists digging here discovered a Roman building of such importance that it is now housed in the British Museum. With little to go on except its quality and rural location, it was labelled a villa. A new investigation at the site is leading archaeologists to a radical re-think.’
Dig director, Professor Tony King introduced the project, showing the geophysics from the 2015 survey completed by the Meon Valley Archaeology & Heritage Group. ‘Here we have a hexagonal building, one of only four such buildings found in Roman Britain. This has introduced a whole new idea to us that this might be a temple site.’ As the topsoil is cleared by volunteers and students, the hexagonal foundations are astonishingly clear to the eye. As Alice Roberts continues, ‘If this turns out to be a temple, it would be hugely significant in an isolated location, it would suggest that Roman culture was far more ingrained in the countryside than we’d ever imagined before.’
The footage which follows shows the progress of the dig and the hunt for evidence that the Romans were worshipping here. The first clue is the unearthing of a 4th century House of Constantine coin, which could be a votive offering. Other finds back this up with the discovery of a pit containing vertebrae from a cow and sheep bones, plus deliberately placed round pebbles. This pit suggests some ritualistic purpose and predates the site. As the team extends the trench, a bath house is discovered with painted plaster. This plaster shows traces of opus signinum, a waterproof mortar which was used in Roman bath house.
As Alice Roberts says:
‘The Discovery of the bath house next to the temple makes the villa interpretation look increasingly shaky. Tony now believes that it’s much more likely that this was a sprawling complex of religious buildings.’
The finding of further votive offerings, such as the discovery of part of a Dea Nutrix figurine, leads Professor King to believe that this is a temple site which could have acted as a regional religious centre with people coming here for processions and festivals.
In the studio Alice Roberts asks Tony King about these findings. ‘We have 3 buildings: a large aisled building, a bath house and what we’re pretty sure is a hexagonal shrine. There are only four of these in Roman Britain.
Tony King shows Alice Roberts some plaster which comes from the changing room of the bath house. ‘We’ve got what we think is a naked female figure’, he says. Bringing out a lamp to closer examine the plaster, Alice laughs and says, ‘Yes I think you might be right. We’ve got a naked female figure. That is a pair of breasts I believe!’
He comments that bath houses are associated with temple sites. ‘Temple sites sometimes have quite a lot of other buildings next to them, which could be a hostel for pilgrims or visitors.’
He continues: ‘In the 1980s we discovered the villa and thought “right we’ve got a villa”. It had a lot of elaboration to the architecture. We can maybe account for this now by saying it is a building that is associated with a temple site.’
Tony explains further that the temple building itself is the house for the god or goddess, which would have had some sort of image such as a statue in it. ‘This is not a place for congregational worship. Most of the activity probably went on outside the building and that is why we find things like the pit with the pottery and bones and so on in it.’ He shows Alice the round balls which came from within the hexagon, ‘they’re flints, probably fossil sponges.’ This reiterates the idea that people are bringing small offerings and small coins to the site.
‘Isn’t that lovely – the icing on the cake!’ Alice exclaims when Tony shows her the Dea Nutrix (nourishing mother goddess) found within the hexagon area. This is the back of a head and headdress of a figurine made from clay. These figurines were imported from central France and people bought these to dedicate at temple sites, often deliberately breaking off the head.
Finally Alice asks, ‘Do you think this gives us an idea that Roman culture and Roman ideas about religion are perhaps permeating into the British countryside more than we’d imagined?’
‘Hexagons are not found in Iron Age Britain’ Tony replies. ‘So this is a new idea that deities were worshipped on the site probably going right back to the Iron Age. The people who come to this site are probably local people.’
‘I rather like that about the Romans.’ comments Alice. ‘They don’t clear the original gods and goddesses out of the landscape, they work with them.’
‘Yes’ affirms Tony. ‘The Romans integrated with the locals. It is a form of imperialism. They are taking over the local gods and calling them their own.’
‘It’s a wonderful temple site… and a very unusual hexagonal building. This dig demonstrates that even a time period as well documented as Roman Britain can still be rewritten by new archaeological discoveries’
This episode (Series 6, episode 1) can be seen on BBC iPlayer until 23 December 2017.