New evidence of Iron Age – Roman transition dug up in Dorset

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The later Bronze Age settlement under investigation. (Image: Bournemouth University; Text: Dr Miles Russell)

Further excavations by Bournemouth University at North Down, Winterborne Kingston, in Dorset, have revealed a later Bronze Age settlement and an enclosed farmstead of later Iron Age date. The investigation, conducted by staff and students together with field school participants and local volunteers, will hopefully shed more light on the transition from tribal society to Roman provincial administration in the 1st century AD.  

‘Discussion of Iron Age Dorset is dominated by hillforts, and it is often stated that sites such as Maiden Castle were attacked by Rome and the native population enslaved’, said excavation co-director Miles Russell. ‘The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence for this, the hillforts having been abandoned well over a century before the Roman army arrived. What we’re trying to do is understand what really happened when the prehistoric communities of south-west Britain were absorbed into a Mediterranean Empire: was there active resistance or passive acceptance? Or did they welcome the newcomers with open arms? Ultimately we are hoping to understand just how Romanised the local population became’. 

One of the areas examined in 2017 was a Durotrigian farm that appears to have been occupied into the 1st century AD. The settlement, defined by a two-phase polygonal (kite-shaped) enclosure ditch, seems to have ended abruptly.  

Excavating a later Iron Age urn from the enclosure ditch of the Durotrigian farmstead. (Image: Bournemouth University)

Co-director Paul Cheetham noted that ‘the evidence indicates that the earthworks had been deliberately levelled, the ditches being backfilled with the site’s cultural material, including large numbers of complete pottery vessels. This may suggest that the farm was abandoned and the land cleared in order to make way for more intensive forms of agricultural practice’.  

Whether such a change was economically or politically driven – possibly akin to the Highland clearances (the forced evictions of tenant farmers in 19th Scotland) – is something which further work on the project will potentially clarify.  

Additional trenches have exposed an area of later Bronze and early Iron Age settlement dominated by large storage pits, the fill of which contained domestic midden waste, and significant amounts of copper- and iron-working debris. Further evidence, revealed during geophysical survey of the surrounding area, suggests the presence of multiple further clusters of prehistoric activity, which will hopefully be studied in the coming seasons.  

Finds this year expand the timescale of activity on this south-east facing hillside – from the upper Palaeolithic to the later medieval. They include a number of late (or sub) Roman burials that have now all been taken back to Bournemouth University for further analysis. The site has now been backfilled, but you can still catch up with the video diary entries for the 2017 season on Twitter by searching for @DuroDigDiaries 

This article will appear in CA 333.


  1. “…. it is often stated that sites such as Maiden Castle were attacked by Rome and the native population enslaved, said excavation co-director Miles Russell. The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence for this …. “. What about the skeleton with a Roman ballista bolt through the spine excavated from Maiden Castle and now on display at Dorchester Museum? Surely that if nothing else is clear evidence of Roman attack?

    • Hello, thank you very much for your question. Miles Russell, who has done extensive research in this area, says in CA 336: ‘Mortimer Wheeler conjures an extraordinarily vivid account of a Roman assault on Maiden Castle, but more recent reassessment of excavation data from the site has called evidence for burnt-out houses is in fact traces of iron-working, while human remains dubbed a war cemetery represent nothing of the sort, bodies having been laid to rest over a very long period of time. The famous ‘ballista bolt’, found in the spine of one skeleton, is actually a spearhead (possibly of British manufacture), while most of the other injuries recorded in the cemetery may relate to execution rather than combat. At Hod Hill, the ballista bolts found during Ian Richmond’s excavation could easily (and more plausibly) have come from the Roman fort, where catapult foundation platforms were discovered; it is quite probable that they could have been discharged during target practice rather than in some speculative attack. Crucially, archaeological evidence also suggests that both Maiden Castle and Hod Hill had been largely abandoned by 100 BC, a century and a half before the Romans arrived.’

      I hope that helps!
      The CA Team

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