My First Dig

6 mins read

I was delighted to see an advance copy of the latest issue of CA – are we really up to number 336? — with its marvellous photo of Maiden Castle on the front. It sent me back to memories of my very first dig which took place at the very tail end of Maiden Castle project, excavating a hillfort at Blackbury Castle, not indeed in Dorset, but just over the border in Devon, where my parents were living at the time. Blackbury was being dug because it was the best known parallel to phase 2 of Maiden Castle.

It was a single rampart camp, but there was a ‘barbican’ entrance, that is two arms projecting out to form the entrance. As Blackbury is the only known example of such a barbican entrance – there may be others hidden under later hillforts – two of his assistants, Kitty Richardson and Alison Young went along to excavate. As a young enthusiast, I went along to join in the excavations, and I remember the great man himself coming along to inspect the dig and standing on the ramparts and haranguing us all. It was a great experience for a 16-year-old schoolboy —, but I seem to remember that I spent most of my time digging a roundhouse in the interior.

But the excavations at Maiden Castle were much more than just the excavation of a war cemetery.  Wheeler was a great man and his object was to cover the entire history of the site – he tried to look at the whole story. He discovered, for instance, that underlying the Iron Age hillfort was a completely unknown Neolithic Causewayed camp, while running down the middle was a Neolithic bank barrow. He then worked out the very long Iron Age sequence,  from the small initial hillfort – the original backfilled southern ramparts can be seen running clearly across the front cover, and all the subsequent phases — to say nothing of the late Romano British Temple. And as I remember it, he also dug a considerable area in the interior.

The one thing that puzzles me about the article is the belief that most of the hillforts were deserted by the time of the Roman conquest. Yet Tacitus records that when the future Emperor Vespasian was campaigning in the south west, he conquered no less than 20 ‘Oppida’ which are usually considered to be hillforts: but if the hillforts were moistly abandoned, where were these ‘oppida’?


What is ‘Imperial domain’?


I was also fascinated by Simon Elliott’s article on how the Roman military shaped Britannia’s industries, and I wonder just what he means by ‘military’. One of the fascinating sidelights of the Vindolanda tablets has been the extent of private enterprise that was taking place in the early years of the Roman conquest: but how does one separate out military from non-military? The problem is that many of the ‘private’ contractors may well have been retired solders. Roman soldiers served for 20 years, so if you joined at the age of 20, you would be retired by the age of 40 and would be faced with the task of making a career, and not many of them choose to make their career as building contractors? And if they did, would not their work be quite indistinguishable from the work they had done as a soldier?  In other words, if one sees military style building, surely it may well have been done by a contractor who had been trained in the army?

But what really worries me is what happened to the actual practical logistics of having the army running major mining and quarrying. If the army was engaged in running businesses, where were the barracks? From the time of building Hadrian’s Wall onwards, for the next century there were no troops stationed in the lowlands in apart from the briefly occupied Fort at London. And if troops were engaged in running the mines and building bridges and roads, who was actually occupying the forts on Hadrian’s Wall?

However, the gist of his argument is that the iron smelting factories in the Weald were run, not by the army, but by the Navy, as is evidenced by the numerous tiles stamped CLBR, which stands for the Classis Britannica or the British fleet. Now the Navy is not the Army and in the Roman Empire they were very different and under different control. The army was under the control of the Roman state, the SPQR, the Senatus Populus que Romanus.  The Navy however, was under control of the Emperor. And we must remember that down at least into the third century, the Emperor and the State remained different. The State was the Res Publica, and the Emperor’s affairs were the Res Privata. It is similar in a way to the present situation where Buckingham Palace is owned by the state and the Queen is merely a tenant while the Queen herself owns Sandringham as her own property. And in the High Empire,  the Navy was controlled directly by the Emperor not by the state. It was part of the Res Privata, which was very important for the running of the Empire,  because the Emperor always needed money to pay bribes or to pay donatives to the troops. And the Navy and the mines were part of the Res Privata. The distribution of the CLBR stamps is very interesting. Some have even been found in London, which helps prove my belief that London was not one of the Civitas Capitals in Britain, but was part of the Imperial domain. It was the Emperor’s town, as shown by renaming it Augusta in the fourth century.

In fact I suspect that the real management of imperial domain was done by the Imperial slaves and the Imperial freedmen or ex-slaves, who flitted around the Empire and reported directly to the Emperor. I suspect that the people that the managers of the iron works really feared were the Imperial slaves, who were very bright accountants, who really put them through it.  And that is why the iron workings are so extensive. The Emperor always needed money to pay bribes or donatives to the troops and that is why the mines on the Weald were run so efficiently. I am sure Simon Elliott is quite right that the Weald was Imperial domain – as indeed was London and much of the Fens. But Imperial domain was not just another part of the state – it was the Emperor’s private property, on which he depended for the money that he needed to grease the wheels of government, and to make the Roman Empire really work.



Peter Wade-Martins


I was also delighted to see in the books section that Peter Wade Martins has written his autobiography. Peter was one of our great supporters of Current Archaeology in the early days and we had articles from him in CA 6, 19 and 36. He was running a big excavation at North Elmham in Norfolk which was the site of a major Saxon church. The church was originally destined to be the cathedral of Norfolk but the see was moved to Norwich where it has been ever since. North Elmham was abandoned, and the town that surrounded it became an open fields where Peter was able to discover the town layout.

He then went on to become the county archaeologist of Norfolk and set up one of the best of the early County units. One of his biggest successes was his collaboration with and support for Tony Gregory, who was one of the first archaeologists to reach out to the metal detectorists and encourage them report their findings and the pioneer of what has become the Portable Antiquities scheme. Indeed, it is because of his influence that East Anglia generally heads the table of counties in the Portable Antiquities scheme. Indeed, one suspects that the history of Anglo Saxon England is distorted because of the volume of metal detectorist finds.

However, Peter’s most important innovation was his work with the Norfolk Archaeological Trust. Peter argued that the ‘Rescue’ movement should become like the National Trust and buy archaeological sites and put them down to grass and thus rescue them permanently for archaeology. His biggest success was in the purchase of the Roman town at Caistor St Edmund just outside Norwich, the Roman predecessor to Norwich (see CA 141). He began when the owner of the core of the town died and left the land to the trust, some 35 acres, but he went on to buy the surrounding area of the town, some 120 acres, and we have had a number of articles on the excavations that have been carried out there.

So thank you, Peter, for all the work you have done for archaeology – and thank you too for all your help and friendship over the years. I shall look forward to reading your book.





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