Fontmell Magna in Roman Times

November 8, 2006

ROMAN FINDS
Over the past three years 72 Roman coins have been discovered along with 24 pieces of broken jewellery and fastenings in an area of about half the size of a football pitch. The owner of the field, to whom they have all been handed over, has kindly deposited them in our Archive. Initially this number of positively-identified Roman objects suggested a farm or villa was somewhere nearby.

WHERE MIGHT IT BE?

Roman coins

Roman coins

As seen from air photos, low-light photography and hedge-line changes nearby, a site was most likely to be in an area which is now legally classified as an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area). By law this prevents anyone disturbing the soil – even the landowner is not allowed to plough or cultivate such fields, and must leave them down to permanent pasture, grazed by livestock if need be. However, one field is not so classified and this is where the metalwork is appearing. The finds were at once reported to the Archaeology Section of the Dorset County Council. We were advised that it would be best to wait until the area was ploughed and cultivated. Then it should be field-walked several times to see if any building materials such as roof or floor tiles, pottery and any other materials could be found. The subsequent results have been nothing like as dramatic as was the metal work, with only a handful of non-metallic items appearing.

A PUZZLE
Let us assume that the area where all the metalwork has appeared

Roman metalwork

Roman metalwork

was an ‘in-bye’ field or allotment where the finds would have been thrown out with the household rubbish. Most of the coins were of low value, just like our 1 or 2 penny coins today. The relative absence of pottery shards and building rubble might suggest the large number of coins could have come from a buried hoard which had been scattered by the ploughing of centuries.

Roman metalwork

Roman metalwork

But was it worthwhile burying a lot of low-value small change, even in Roman times? And what about all those pieces of bronze fastenings and decorative jewellery? None of the bronze items were complete. Could this have been a hoard of broken bronze items to be smelted down and reused? This is the suggestion put forward by archaeologist Trevor Steptoe of the Dorset Archaeology Group after reading our initial report on this website. Similarly, the relative absence of building rubble and metal nails might suggest that any Roman building would have been further away.

NOT A VILLA, BUT A BRONZE-SMITH’S HOARD?
The continuing appearance of low-value Roman coins and broken Roman jewellery and the relative absence of both building rubble and Roman pottery makes it far more likely that this is indeed a bronze-smith’s hoard, abandoned or mislaid, and which has subsequently been scattered across a wide area by ploughing. As Mr Steptoe says, maybe somewhere nearby are the faint traces of a little cob-structure, just post-holes in the subsoil, with the remains of the smith’s kiln. From the ground they would be much more difficult to locate than a more substantial settlement.
If a kiln was near to the area of the fields, then one would expect

Roman finds

Roman finds

metallic slag to have been picked up by the metal detectors, but none has been found. So any kiln is much further away? The change in the shape of the hedge lines from the typical large curves surrounding Fontmell Magna to a cluster of little rectangular fields (which were recorded on a plan of the village in the 18th century), plus faint traces of platforms in a nearby field, doesn’t entirely rule out the presence of a settlement within easy walking distance, but they too are in the ESA area and cannot be physically explored.
Pure conjecture, of course, and definitely not archaeology, but perhaps the bronze-smith or his assistant was attacked (rumours that ‘the guy’s got jewellery’) on his way home and his sack was lost or discarded when it was discovered only containing metal rubbish? One can only dream of what might have been.

Author: John Gadd