This week we took the opportunity to dig 3 trenches in the back garden of a cottage that awaits a new tenant.
It lies in the sleepy village of Shapwick. The shop closed in the 1990s. The pub is still open but it lies beside a market cross where there has been no market for hundreds of years. On its own, beside the river, is the lovely parish church. It looks towards the bridge across the Stour but the bridge is gone. Shapwick is a dead end now. However, the earthwork of the old road can be seen continuing across the Sturminster Marshall meadows beyond the river.
This place hides its pedigree. After Dorchester (still the county town), Shapwick was once the second largest place in Roman Dorset (do you believe me?). The village High Street follows the line of the Roman road from Salisbury (Sorviodunum) to Dorchester (Durnovaria) but the line disappears in the arable fields between Shapwick and the crossroads at Badbury Rings (the spaghetti junction of Roman Dorset). These were the common fields in the medieval period but there are place name clues in the furlong names. ‘Stoney Lease’, ‘Blacklands’ and ‘Walls’. The old farmers were obviously finding stuff.
There are few places where the Roman names are known. From Dorset we have two names, Durnovaria and a place called Vindocladia and for centuries historians have been searching for it. Back in the dry summer of 1976, a pilot spotted the outline of a Roman fort in the fields beside Shapwick and in 1991, the local farmer told me to look in a field beside the fort. It was covered in clusters of stone and flint rubble. I picked up part of a grinding stone, fragments of mosaic and painted plaster and a collection of pottery dating from the 1st to 4th century AD.
The local National Trust association gave us money to carry out a geophysical survey of the field. A couple of days in, I went to see John the surveyor. “Found anything?”, he pressed a button on his lap-top and there was a chunk of the town. Wow! Roads, buildings and property boundaries and an array of rubbish pits and post-holes. Since then, we have built up a picture of this place. It extends from the river, continues under the village and below the fields as far as an escarpment overlooking Badbury Rings. This place was already important in the Iron Age. It grew after the Roman Conquest, when round houses were gradually replaced by increasingly sophisticated rectangular houses.
The fort is a rare thing for the south of England. Not a AD 43-44 conquest fort but a ‘burgus’, dating from the late 4th century, when the province of Britannia was under attack and a secure place was needed. In one corner of the fortification, the geophysics shows what looks like a government inn and relay station (mansio)
In the 5th century, Britannia was on its own. It broke up into different political units. Communities that had to fend for themselves. The economic network of society crumbled. The population of Shapwick shrank and the roads and houses deteriorated. Building materials were taken for other uses and eventually, much of the old town became fields and was forgotten. By 1086, Vindocladia was known as the ‘sheep (shap) settlement’ (wick derived from the Roman vicus perhaps)’ and a small remnant has survived to the present day. The village has a long and fabulous past under its quiet streets.