A collaboration between Oxford Archaeology, the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology, Dorchester Abbey Museum, and the people of the village of Dorchester-on-Thames. Work began in 2007, and from 2008 the project was funded in part by the Heritage Lottery Fund and specifically targeted at education, outreach and community involvement.
The project examines the long-term development of this key area of the Thames Valley through a combination of reconsideration of existing evidence and new fieldwork initiatives, involving geophysical, test-pits, surface surveys and excavation. Interest focuses in particular on a number of key periods of transition in the history of Dorchester.
A geophysical survey undertaken in 2008 during a survey training week revealed part of the Dorchester cursus, a Neolithic linear monument over 1.6km long, which was largely destroyed by gravel extraction and road building from the 1940s to the early 1980s, but apparently survives to the north of its previously-known extent. The cursus is one of the earliest monuments in the country for which a solar orientation can be demonstrated. In the early Beaker period (c 2450 cal BC), the monument was reused. A Beaker grave was dug at its centre, into the backfill of the cursus ditch, within which was placed an inhumation burial of a male with the Beaker pot at his feet. The ditch was then re-dug as a continuous circuit, although retaining the entrance, and a barrow mound heaped over the grave. Another pit dug next to the cursus contained a near-complete Collared Urn of early Bronze Age date, and required the presence of the entire conservation department of the Ashmolean Museum to lift it.
Since 2008, the focus of the excavation has been on the late-Roman to early post-Roman sequence adjacent to and above the principal north-south Roman road through the town. It seems likely that in the late Roman period this was a largely open area, at least partly surfaced with gravel, and perhaps serving as a market place or other public open space. Fragmentary remains of a building some 5.5m wide, probably of timber construction on a rubble foundation and fronted by a gravel surface, lay at the edge of the site 25m from the road line. The building must have been out of use by the time it was cut by a late Roman curving ditch, probably after AD 350 at the earliest. In the late 4th century and early 5th century, the road and associated surfaces were cut by a number of pits, and the road was also cut by a row of postholes, suggesting that a structure had been placed on the metalled surface. Some of the pits were related to the sequence of post-Roman dark earth deposits which originally covered most of the site.
Large quantities of finds have been recovered. These include an important late Roman pottery assemblage, and early Saxon pottery was also recovered, along with two ring-shaped loomweight fragments. An enigmatic object found in 2008 proved to be a fine copper-alloy Medusa head mount, probably of 3rd or 4th century date. This seems to have been reused as it is backed with a very substantial lump of lead, originally contained within thin copper alloy sheeting.
One of the smaller pieces of fieldwork involved the recovery of the remains of a late Roman grave on the top of the southern bank of the Dyke Hills earthwork in 2010. The grave contained the remains of an adult male, an iron axe head and components of a belt set, which included a large elaborately decorated buckle. This remarkable piece, of Continental origin, is dated to the first half of the 5th century and the burial is clearly of military character. Graves of this late- or perhaps ‘sub-Roman’ kind are extremely rare in Britain.
The Heritage Lottery funding has allowed a programme of community and education wok to be developed. For example, during one season, a marquee was set up for school visits. Schools who visited the excavation were also able to take part in a range of hands-on archaeological activities.At the museum the visitors can see finds from the excavations displayed and interpreted in their new cases, again funded by the HLF. The museum now holds three loan boxes containing real and replica archaeological finds and a range of teaching resources relating to Dorchester's history and archaeology, but also carefully related to the National Curriculum. In addition, hundreds of people have visited the project during open days, which have included children’s activities and material on display.