Sherborne’s Romans at Woeful Lake

Dave agreed to join me but we only had a day. Two monuments at risk to investigate on the Sherborne Estate. 90 minutes there and 90 minutes back. Tim had agreed access with the farmers so we just had to get to the fields and begin.

From the Wiltshire Saxon minster settlement beside the river Were, we travelled north past Chippenham (where Alfred captured the Dane Guthrum in 878) across the M4 and up to Cirencester (Corinium Dubunnorum capital of the Roman province of Britannia Prima) then across the Gloucestershire Cotswolds passing near Chedworth Roman villa until we reached the Sherborne Estate. A large agricultural estate of several thousand acres.

The grand stable block for Sherborne House (not NT), once the centre of the Sherborne Estate.

The grand stable block for Sherborne House (not NT), once the centre of the Sherborne Estate.

We bumped down the track to Home Farm and lugged our geophysical survey equipment across the ploughed field to a faint bump. This is a scheduled monument and we needed to demonstrate that it was in fact a Bronze Age burial mound to persuade the farmer that it should be taken out of cultivation and preserved under grass.

Pegs, strings and measuring tapes. We laid out our 20m grid, assembled the resistivity meter, balanced the magnetometer and we were off, carefully avoiding each other. Dave’s magnetometer is thrown out by all the metal on the resistivity frame. Four grids each to cover the site but it was already after lunch when we packed the gear in the car and headed for Woeful Lake.

The barrow mound, a faint rise in arable. The survey enabled the burial mound to be take out of the plough.

The barrow mound, a faint rise in arable. The survey enabled the burial mound to be take out of the plough.

This was a bigger and better mound but also well worn down by years of ploughing. It was a couple of miles distant on the road down to the 17th century deer coursing grandstand of Lodge Park. Three and a half grids in.. and the res. meter stopped giving sensible readings. The cable wire had broken. Dave carried on, I packed up and then walked around the field for a bit.

I had already found one or two fragments of Roman pottery (we’d found nothing at all at Home Farm) and what was Roman pottery doing on a Bronze Age burial mound? I started to get my eye in and found fragments of worked flint which was more fitting ..but also lots more pottery, animal bone and fragments of non Cotswold stone..therefore brought in by the people that once lived here.

People had certainly lived here because as I walked across the field, with the sun beginning to set, clusters of stone revealed the outlines of buildings within the ploughsoil and within them concentrations of Roman occupation debris. I paced and plotted and made a rough map. Then we had to go. Dave finished the last grid and we headed home.

The barrow? mound at Home Farm had a square ditch around it. Interesting but unexpected

The barrow? mound at Home Farm had a square ditch around it. Interesting but unexpected

That evening, I poured the data into the computer. The Home Farm site didn’t look like a 4000 year old burial mound. It had a narrow rectangular ditch around it. However, Woeful Lake was a classic round barrow. Both my fragment of res. and Dave’s survey showed a broad circular quarry ditch defining the burial mound. In the small bit of survey we had time for, we could see that later boundary ditches and perhaps a rectangular building had been constructed around and against the mound.

The barrow at Woeful Lake does all the right things on the geophysical survey and more. A circular quarry ditch surrounds the mound. At the top of the survey, it looks as though a ditched avenue once led to the mound. The two ditches on either side converge on it but seem to respect and be diverted by the supposed avenue alignment. There is an inner ditch within the main quarry ditch and rectilinear ditches at the centre. Bottom right, the edge of a rectilinear ditched structure cuts into the barrow crossing the ditch. The black blobs across the survey are pits perhaps graves.

The barrow at Woeful Lake does all the right things on the geophysical survey and more. A circular quarry ditch surrounds the mound. At the top of the survey, it looks as though a ditched avenue once led to the mound. The two ditches on either side converge on it but seem to respect and be diverted by the supposed avenue alignment. There is inner ditch within the main quarry ditch and rectilinear ditches at the centre. Bottom right, the edge of a rectilinear ditched structure cuts into the barrow crossing the ditch. The black blobs across the survey are pits perhaps graves.

A good days work, but we had only scratched the surface. Woeful Lake Farmhouse is built at a spring line in the hollow at the upper end of a valley, if the barrow field contains Roman debris, it is likely that all the fields around the valley contain settlement remains. Had we discovered a small town?

This is the portable stone altar found in the Woeful Lake fields by Ann's team.

This is the portable stone altar found in the Woeful Lake fields by Ann’s team.

Ann from Gloucestershire Archaeological Society was willing to organise a team to find out.. and three years on, the fieldwork is progressing well. Ann has just produced her latest report. Fieldwalking and geophysics have shown that the remains extend over a large area. Carved stones, including a little portable altar, and metalwork include an ornate bronze furniture fitting. I’m quite excited at the prospect of reading the pottery report (Ann gave me a taster on the phone this week) which will give us an understanding of the length of time people lived there and where they were importing their stuff from. It will give us an idea of how wealthy some of them were.

Beyond Simon, the resistivity surveyor, is the farm set down at the head of the valley. The Roman settlement surrounds this spring line.

Beyond Simon, the resistivity surveyor, is the farm set down at the head of the valley. The Roman settlement surrounds this spring line.

We succeeded at Woeful Lake, the barrow is now out of cultivation and no longer a scheduled monument at risk and the Roman spin-off was an unexpected bonus.

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