Roman Sherston

by Pat Smith

During the mid 1980’s Andrew used to fly his kite in the fields behind our house. There had been pigs grazing these fields for years and the land hadn’t been ploughed in living memory. Occasionally we walked across the fields with Andrew and noticed areas where the pigs had rooted up a lot of stone, which in some areas appeared to be in lines.

In one place there was even a row of stones several inches above the ground as if there were foundations of buildings. There was also the odd piece of pottery, possibly Roman, which was interesting, but we didn’t take much notice beyond commenting ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if there had been a Roman villa here’.

However when the pigs went the field was ploughed one day in September. They still hadn’t finished when darkness fell so they carried on using headlights. We saw the tractor stop on one of its returns and wait in the same place for some time. We didn’t realise why until next morning when we heard that the plough had pulled up a big slab of stone.

Romano British Burial - Sherston Stone Slab © David Forward

Romano British Burial – Sherston Stone Slab © David Forward

It was quite large – over a metre long by 40cms, and had been snapped in half by the plough. The driver of the tractor, farmer Nigel Freeth, had stopped to look and saw a sheet of metal underneath and a void. Having no idea what he was looking at, he pulled aside the metal – being lead it was quite easy – and by torchlight he could see a skull (not the hoard of coins he was probably hoping for!).

Next morning the farmer contacted the council and they sent out Chris Chandler an archaeologist from the Thamesdown Archaeological Unit. What the farmer had found was a stone coffin or sarcophagus with a lead lining containing the body of a child. The sarcophagus and its contents were taken away for investigation and are now in Malmesbury’s Athelstan Museum.

Mr. Chandler looked round at the site and saw what we had seen – areas of stone (although a lot had been taken away by then, by the farmer), and shards of pottery, and decided the area was worth more investigation. However the farmers were planning to plant winter wheat in October, so an appeal was launched in the village and some money was raised to compensate Nigel for the loss of the crop on the area that was to be examined.

So towards the end of October 1989, a team of local people who were interested, and led by the professional archaeologist, started an excavation. There was a core of people from Sherston and a few from other villages, all overseen by Chris Chandler from Thamesdown Archaeological Unit. And for nearly 6 months one or two days a week a group of about 20 people could be seen on their knees with trowels and scrapers.

Very quickly it became obvious that there was quite a complex of buildings in that field. The experts believed that this was a large farmstead, consisting of several buildings, some for human occupation, and some for animals. There was even a grain or crop store. There was nothing marked on even the earliest local maps we could find.

The investigation into the coffin showed that it was a Romano-British burial but as there were no artifacts in the coffin it was not possible to pin-point a date. It was quite unusual for a lead lining in a stone coffin and was thought therefore to be possibly quite ‘high status’, but it was also obvious that the child’s feet had been cut off and placed alongside the legs as the coffin was too small. Could it have been a second-hand coffin?

Romano British Burial - Sherston Sarcophagus © David Forward

Romano British Burial – Sherston Sarcophagus © David Forward

Throughout the winter, a remarkably dry and mild one, the dig continued several days a week. Apart from foundations of walls indicating long corridor buildings, we found large amounts of pottery including the well-known Samian ware, coins, bone pins, brooches, flint arrowheads, shells and bones from food, signs of farming and areas where iron had been worked. There were also pottery tiles from the roofs of buildings, and painted plaster which had decorated the walls of the rooms.

And then one day I was trowelling an area when I exposed a smooth convex structure which I recognised immediately as a skull! I called Chris Chandler over and several of us continued very carefully in the same area and eventual exposed an adult skeleton. This then had to be reported to the police in case it was a more recent death, but it was decided that it was at least 1600 years old.

A few days later in the same area very close to the first one, we found another skeleton. On further examination we could see that it was an adult and small child, buried together. After again notifying the police and receiving permission to move them, all the skeletons were very carefully removed bone by bone with careful drawings and photographs being taken of them as they had been found. The skeletons and all the artifacts were taken to the workshops in Swindon where they were carefully examined.

We later learned the gruesome fact that both the adults had been murdered, and their heads had been severed, but they had been carefully buried. The theory put forward, was that in the 4th century AD after the farmstead had been abandoned and fallen into ruin, some ‘squatters’ had been living in a small shelter (of which we found evidence) and had been attacked and killed by pirates who came up the Bristol channel and moved inland looting and killing. Other members of the murdered people’s family were then thought to have buried the dead before moving on. The bodies were of an elderly woman and a young man with the child.

Romano British Burial - Sherston Child's Skull © David Forward

Romano British Burial – Sherston Child's Skull © David Forward

The shelter they had been living in had a hearth in the corner of just a single room. The buildings were extensive and had been occupied for at least 3 centuries. The conclusions were that the site had been first occupied in the Stone Age, where a small industry had existed to make flint arrowheads and tools. Flint is not naturally occurring in this area so it must have been brought here, and the large number of flints and flakes showed more than just casual use.

The pottery found shows that habitation continued in a small way until the Roman invasion when the buildings were enlarged. The burial of the child in the stone coffin was thought to be 1st century Romano-British but the enlargement of the building and the fairly sophisticated painted plaster on the walls and wealthy Samian pottery shows that the area was farmed for a long time and became fairly wealthy. The decline of the buildings and the murder of the ‘squatters’ probably ended the occupation of that area. There was no evidence of any later buildings or habitation.

Although Chris Chandler felt that we had only exposed about a third of the buildings, so there was a lot more to excavate, the funding for his continued presence at the site was denied and after 6 months the dig was closed. The soil that had been removed in the excavation was spread over the site again and it was all returned to farmland. Chris did feel that there may well be a bath-house and possible mosaic further down the field and the finding of a natural spring could confirm that. We found one tessera from a mosaic.

I did write to the ‘Time Team’ programme inviting them to come and continue the dig, but they declined the invitation. They said that although it was very interesting and important to Sherston, there are a lot of very similar sites in this area, scattered close to the Fosse Way, and it was not important enough, and too expensive to keep open.