18th December 2015:
When a human skull was discovered during redevelopment work at the Worthy Down base in Winchester for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO), a visit from the local police was followed by a team of archaeologists who determined that it, and many other subsequent findings in the area, was of Roman origin.
While undertaking groundworks on site, an eagle-eyed employee from construction and development contractor Skanska spotted the skull within the site of a former firing range and immediately halted works to report his findings. A team from Oxford Archaeology was called in and quickly established that the burial was ancient.
Further investigation revealed a cluster of at least 11 burials within the area and artefacts found with the skeletons included a coin of the Roman emperor Valens (reigned AD364-378), which indicated that they were likely to date from the 3rd-4th Century AD, during the late Roman period in Britain.
Winchester City Council was informed and approved excavation of the graves, using procedures agreed in advance with the DIO for dealing with such discoveries during the redevelopment of the site, which is part of Project Wellesley. This resulted in the archaeological recording and recovery of all of the burials in the area due to be the location of a retaining wall.
Tracy Matthews, Archaeology Officer for Winchester City Council, said of the burial finds: "This is a really exciting discovery. This new discovery has given us the first extensive remains of the Roman period in this area. Analysis of the finds will provide a fascinating insight into the lives and deaths of some of the area's early inhabitants."
Human burials are a rich source of archaeological information on the diet, social status and lifestyle of the deceased. Genetic analysis can also be used to find out where the people came from originally.
For such a small group of burials the new Worthy Down find includes a surprisingly wide range of burial practices. One of the bodies had been decapitated, the head placed between the legs. Two more of the skeletons excavated were found with the bodies and legs fully extended, but lying on their side, a rare practice whose significance is unknown. A third burial was on its side, but in a crouched position, a rite more commonly associated with pre-Roman burials in Britain.
Seven of the bodies excavated at Worthy Down also seem to have been buried wearing hobnailed shoes or boots, a regular feature of Roman burials. One of the Worthy Down burials is aligned east-west – the most common grave alignment found in late Roman cemeteries. In contrast the other burials in this group are aligned NW-SE. The choice of location suggests that the burials represent a rural community whose cultural identity was more rooted in local tribal tradition than Roman culture.
A further phase of excavation will take place in the next few weeks to record and recover further burials exposed in the adjacent areas.
Project Wellesley is a £250 million redevelopment to deliver world-class training facilities for key support personnel from each of the UK's armed forces at a single location. It will see the creation of the Defence College of Logistics, Policing and Administration, at Worthy Down. It will also cover areas including catering, supply, transport and military human resources. It will enable the Ministry of Defence to train personnel more efficiently and effectively so that they can provide the best possible support for military operations.
Forces TV visited the site to film the excavation. Click here to see its report.