An exploration into the history of Durocornovium in Wanborough

An exploration into the history of Durocornovium in Wanborough

The Roman town of Durocornovium was located at Covingham, the junction of two Roman roads, the Ermin Way and the road south to Mildenhall (Cunetio). The Ermin Way connected London via Silchester ( Calleva Atrebatum ) to Cirencester ( Corinium Dobunnorum ), the second largest Roman town after London.

Durocornovium was founded in the First Century as a military camp but it became a merchant town covering more than sixty acres & having a population of several thousand at its peak in 350AD.

Duro is a Celtic word meaning "door" or "enclosed market, square, forum, walled town, village"

Cornovium may either be a common noun in Brittonic meaning "horn, peninsula", or derive from the British Cornovii people of the Midlands , based around Wroxeter ; alternately, we may have or an identically-named tribe from the area of Durocornovium.

Where exactly is Durocornovium?

Considerable traces of Roman occupation have been found in the parish of Wanborough. Ermin Street runs diagonally through the whole length of the village. Cunetio (Mildenhall) road, branching from Ermine Street, near Covingham Farm, forms part of the western boundary of the parish. At the junction of these roads we believe was the site of a large settlement which has been tentatively identified as Durocornovium at Nythe Farm east of the A419 (although it may have encompassed Covingham and Lotmead Farms too).

We believe the town, encompassed around 25 hectares at its peak. The farmland is a designated flood plain and has a history of flooding, alleviated by modern drainage, based on clay and gravel beds. Much of the evidence for the site comes from excavations associated with the extension of the A419 and adjacent developments which is means the town may extend to between 40ha and 60ha in total. There is no public access and no remains are visible.

Timeline of excavations

In the 1689 John Aubrey mentioned many ruined houses, black earth pottery and a coin hoard found in a pot. This hoard contained 1600-2000, coins, none later than Commodus

AD 180 - 192. Hundreds of chance finds of coins have been made, ranging throughout the Roman period with emphasis AD 244-367.

In 1821 Sir Richard Colt Hoare produced a plan of the site showing pottery scatters and indications of buildings and earthworks and named the site as the Roman town of Nidum. (known as modern day Nythe).

1862 - Sir R. C. Hoare made a visit to the site and found it had every mark of Roman residence, in coins, figured bricks, tiles, but unfortunately, had not preserved them.

In 1873. Dozens of brooches and occupation debris were unearthed and also casual interments, though no cemetery was found. Sir R C Hoare conjectured that it was Nidum, but is now generally accepted to be Durocornovium on the road from Corinium to Spinis and at the junction of the road to Cunetio..

Test pitting and fieldwalking was undertaken by AD Passmore in the 1920s with a further 216 test pits by Ernest Greenfield in 1966 during the upgrading of the A419 (Ermin Street). An extended phase of work also began in 1966 under the direction of John Wacher concentrating on a section of Ermin Street within the Roman town. It showed that Ermine Street was constructed in the late 1st century to a width of 75 feet, and that a cambered stone surface 15 feet wide was built upon it in the 3rd century. Soon after the first metalling had been laid one of four buildings found was built upon it, which perhaps survived to the end of the 2nd century. Possibly a century later heavy metalling was laid over its west side leading to a semi-circular building, in a foundation trench of which was a statuette of Mercury. In the angle between a side street leading NE and Ermine Street was a 3rd-4th century house of five rooms. A Roman road with wagon ruts was also discovered.

In 1967 a four roomed building was partly excavated and it may have had more rooms and a flagged corridor. Three road surfaces were revealed; Ermin Street, a side road, and a 1st century road. Finds included over 200 coins, brooches, implements, and a stone statue of Mercury. A further building was also found. In an adjacent field five interments are said to have been found in recent years.

1968 - A stone building was found plus cobbled surfaces and post holes. Several more side streets to Ermine Street, were found in 1970 and a number of strip-like buildings, presumably shops, were found in 1969 on each side of the main road, besides at least two courtyard houses. The earliest material found up to 1969 was of Nero-Flavian date but in 1970 pre-Flavian finds pointed to an earlier settlement lying to the southeast. A possible cemetery site at yielded five adult burials, three of children and at least two early 2nd century cremations.

Funeral Urn

1976 - The most extensive dig which allowed a chronology for the town to be created. Aerial photographs taken by Bryn Walters in 1976 showed parchmarks of a mansio building, and adjacent bath house, in the central part of the site. The mansio was a large hotel where government officials or military messengers on imperial business stayed overnight after a tiring day travelling the road on which the settlement was built. Comprising a range of rooms, corridors and possibly stairwells it was arranged around two courtyards, with a covered link to a 'substantial range of baths.'

Field investigations also indicated metalled roads extending eastwards into the current survey area. The combined investigations revealed a building, ditches, pits, pottery and other cultural material that showed several phases of development within the town.

History and Development

Pre-Roman habitation

The site shows evidence of Neolithic and Bronze Age farming With the Iron Age and the creation of hill forts in the area there's little evidence of habitation, and the only datable item is a coin of Eppillus who lived during the late 1st century BC to early 1st century AD. He was the son of Commius , king of the pro-Roman Atrebates tribe and is known to have controlled a mint at modern Silchester .

Phase 1 habitation (AD 50-80)

The original development is assumed to be military in nature and dates from the period when Roman legionaries built the road (Ermin Street) through the area, backed by the discovery of material dating from the reign of Nero. One building from this period has been identified, an apparently short-lived construction showing signs of iron working or blacksmithing, perhaps indicative of a mutatio (horse station).

The name suggests the presence of a legionary fort. The modern day name of the site reinforces the idea. Nythe is an anglicised version of nidum (nest) and a name applied to forts elsewhere, such as Neath in Wales. So far no evidence of this has come to light, though some ditches uncovered during excavation might possibly be those from a marching camp.

With the military emphasis moving north the site was abandoned for at least twenty years before Britons resettled the place as shown by the remains of roundhouses dated to that time.

Phase 2 habitation (AD 80-230)

Durocornovium was the site of intensive building. The discovery of lime kilns and lead working point to building trades in full swing. Clearly it was benefiting from its location on the road, backed by a further southward road to Cunetio and Venta Belgarum .

Perhaps more relevant was the political significance. Durocornovium rested on a junction of roads linking regional administration centres at Calleva Atrebatum , Corinium Dobunnorum , and Venta Belgarum . As the names suggest, these towns were designated as civitas and used as governmental bases for control over the local British tribes. This centralised system might not have been sufficient for the control of a potentially rebellious populace and it's believed that some administration was spread to outlying towns which would have included Durocornovium.

Stone buildings dominate this period and some evidence of monumental columns were found during roadworks. A mansio (a sort of hotel for travelling officials) was been identified 110 metres from the road, a substantial structure that so far remains unexcavated. Other remains include a possible granary.

After AD200 it is still likely that many of the buildings were constructed of timber, with sarsen foundations and platforms used to raise them above any flooding level. Development continued throughout the 3rd century, with the widening of Ermin Street, the replanning of a gridded street pattern.

The large quantities of cultural material indicate that there were some crafts in the form of metalworking and woodworking. However, it appears that the town must have relied on trade and commerce, rather than industrial activity.

Recent finds at Groundwell have pointed to the affluence of the area during the height of the Roman Empire. The discovery of a Nyphaeum, a shrine at a well-head, agrees with another Roman structure at a spring south of Durocornovium at Callas Hill.

Swindon hill was inhabited largely for the availability of spring water and typically this was something the Romans recognised in their religious life, raising the possibility of a major temple site either destroyed or undiscovered. Remnants of monumental stonework were removed during bridge building which has raised speculation that the temple site is currently beneath a bridge pier. There is no evidence of any aqueduct,but given the close proximity of Dorcan Stream and the River Cole, it was unlikely one was needed.

Phase 3 habitation (AD 230-400+)

Redevelopment is the main feature of this period. It appears the Roman roads were diverted slightly and some newer buildings were built on top of the old disused road surface.

Although many Roman towns in the later empire built stone defences (such as walls and a gatehouse identified at Cunetio , near Marlborough ten miles to the south) this defensive work did not occur at Durocornovium. It may be this was impossible on the marshy ground existing at the time, or simply that it was economically not viable, and it is notable that the hill fort at Liddington immediately to the south was re-occupied in the 3rd century. It was not for shortage of stone: the Romans quarried stone on Swindon hill and although there is no evidence that stone was used at Durocornovium, it remains highly likely as a local resource that it was.

During the 3rd & 4th centuries approximately 1500 people lived here. There was a unique development at Durocornovium in the 4th century. Whilst it is possible that conventional stone buildings continued to be used, there was a proliferation of wooden buildings built on top of sarsen stone pilings to stay above ground level, a feature that explains the relative bounty of coins dating from that time as coins were dropped and lost through the floorboards. Such a change in architecture reflects what archaeologists believe was an increase in local flooding. It might also reflect changes in the economy and the availability of skilled trades.

Post-Roman habitation

After the removal of Roman legions from Britain at the beginning of the 5th century the civil administration collapsed within fifty years. With no economy to support the town, it was quickly abandoned.

Saxon settlers used Durocornovium as a source of building material when they settled on Swindon Hill. Such removal of stone and damage from ploughing since the Dark Ages has effectively destroyed much of the evidence. The road through the site remained in use and a coin dating from the reign of Henry III was found embedded in the cobbled surface. Modern roads still follow the general course of those built by the Romans.

Durocornovium existed for more than 350 years; at its height it occupied 94 acres – 52 football pitches – before its gradual decline into oblivion after Romans abandoned Britain and the Dark Ages descended.

Industry and Commerce

This was a town on a major communication link and for that reason a busy commercial element is probable. At Roman agricultural sites in the area, particularly to the south, the existence of ovens for drying corn indicates a trade in grain. The Romans also quarried stone from the hill to the west.

Located in what is now West Swindon the Romans maintained a considerable pottery industry. The town has shown evidence of pottery remains from all over southern Britain, and some from Gaul and Africa, yet the potters of Durocornovium created a unique style of painted wares which never became fashionable nor widespread.

Tools, treasures... and an ancient curse

Finds from Durocornovium include glass vessels from France, pottery from France and Germany, a lamp from Italy and a bowl from Northern Africa as well as household goods from all over Britain.

knives indicate industries ranging from textile to carpentry – even a small-scale glass factory.

Brooches, rings, bracelets, hair-pins, buckles, belt-fittings, nail-cleaners, tweezers, leather shoes have also been found; intriguingly, an assortment of keys, locks and latches.

Evidence of a GP's surgery – for those who could afford it – are suggested by the discovery of surgical implements such as spatula, a scalpel and a wince-inducing traction hook.

Other than coins, other finds include a carved stone statue of Mercury, the god of merchants, possibly from a road-side shrine or temple.

And – fascinatingly - a curse, scratched on a lead tablet. Only partially complete, it runs along the lines of 'I beg that you do not permit him to drink nor eat nor sleep nor walk and that you do not allow any part to remain of him or the family from which he springs'.

Sadly the god or deity invoked is missing, as is the crime – which may have been theft, or perhaps one of passion.

No remains of the fort have been found but there is plenty of evidence of military occupation: spears, spear-heads, arrow heads, pilum (javelin.)

Durocornovium artefacts are held at the Swindon Museum, Bath Road, Old Town and the British Museum, London.

Pewter Bowls

Neighbouring Roman communities – South Marston

From the 1st to 4th Century AD, South Marston is likely to have been a large Romano-British farming settlement.

Roman pottery and coins have been found throughout South Marston West, North West, and North of the village centre .

Alfred Williams in "A Wiltshire Village" mentions the existence until about 1840 of a Roman camp at Rowborough farm with stone walls four feet high enclosing an area of an acre on a mound; It may be that a straight Roman road led from the Ermin Way to Rowborough. Maps show a spur off the Ermin Way which lines up with Rowborough Lane & a track through South Marston Farm & an archaeological feature (200m track) recorded by the County Archaeologist in the field adjoining Marston Farm.

To the South of the village centre, numerous Roman artefacts have been found.

Pottery fragments found in and around South Marston

These have been recovered from an area of approximately 10 acres. There is a great deal of common and day-to-day pottery, typical of low-status sites. Starting from the bottom of the picture, we see light coloured, rough pottery; next is typical greyware; then there is a good selection of black burnished ware. The remainder contains a small quantity of English-made Samian ware, a very small quantity of decorated pieces, metal pins, and one piece of Roman glass.

Further south of the village centre, more Roman finds were unearthed when the police station was built. These included North Wiltshire greywares, black sandy wares, Savernake ware, sandy orange and buff wares.

It is likely that the proximity of Ermin Street and Wanborough made South Marston an ideal farming area. The excellent soil and plentiful supply of water would have contributed to a good yield that could easily be transported for distribution elsewhere.

All of this leads us to the conclusion that during Roman rule in Britain, South Marston was a large, bustling, farming community.