Kingston Lacy’s Roman Amphitheatre

Old John Bankes died back in 1772 and as he wasn’t married his younger brother Henry inherited. Henry only lived another 4 years but he did something remarkable. He commissioned a cutting edge surveyor called William Woodward to make a detailed record of his Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle Estates in Dorset. This week Francesca kindly digitally photographed the whole survey.

The archive room at Kingston Lacy House. Until the 1980s the Bankes family archive including Willliam Woodward's survey was stored in the mansion and few people had seen it

The archive room at Kingston Lacy House. Until the 1980s the Bankes family archive including Willliam Woodward’s survey was stored in the mansion and few people had seen it

Yesterday, I sat in the conference room in Warminster and saw a remarkable aerial and lidar survey of Brownsea Island. The surveyor did whizzy things on the computer and zoomed into and enhanced images, measuring any detail on command. Things have come a long way since the 18th century but Woodward’s surveys are still accurate and detailed and also works of art.

One can imagine Mr Woodward arriving at Kingston Lacy House in 1775 and being shown into the library to meet his important client, Henry Bankes, surrounded by the portraits of his ancestors. The surveyor would have placed the books on the desk and explained the conclusions of his work. The money that could be made by enclosing the common arable fields and creating compact farming units….

This is Woodward's fold-out front map which shows all the land of the Kingston Lacy Estate each lettered compartment has a detailed map within the leather bound survey book.

This is Woodward’s fold-out front map which shows all the land of the Kingston Lacy Estate each lettered compartment has a detailed map within the leather bound survey book.

And there the books stayed through generations of the Bankes family gathering dust in the archive cupboard until 1982 when the Bankes family estates were given to the National Trust.

I was given the job of creating a very different survey. To audit with management recommendations all the archaeological sites I could find on NTs newly acquired Kingston Lacy Estate. Woodward’s survey was the oldest detailed map of the land so I went to its new home in the Dorset Records Office in Dorchester.. to take a look.

Wow! Historic maps are wonderful. There was so much information…There was Badbury Rings hillfort… there were the three barrows clearly visible as they are today beside the entrance track… and there was the Roman Amphitheatre..Roman Amphitheatre?

A detail of the front map. Badbury Rings hillfort.. three mounds which are Bronze Age barrows... Roman Amphitheatre!!?

A detail of the front map. Badbury Rings hillfort.. three mounds which are Bronze Age barrows… Roman Amphitheatre!!?

What was William thinking of? Things ‘classical’, Roman and Greek, were very fashionable in his day. What had he seen to make such a mistake? The only known amphitheare in Dorset is in Dorchester, the local administrative centre then as it still is today… I had to go and have a look on the ground.

The 'amphitheatre' when I first saw it under stubble. The ranging poles stand on opposite sides of the 60m diameter enclosure which has a hollowed area at the centre.

The ‘amphitheatre’ when I first saw it under stubble. The ranging poles stand on opposite sides of the 60m diameter enclosure which has a hollowed area at the centre.

I peered over the gate into a wheat field, there was certainly an earthwork. A ploughed down circular enclosure with a dip in the middle about 60m across. I asked the farmer and he said he thought it had been caused by a German bomb in WWII. That didn’t work, Woodward had seen it before it was ploughed over 230 years ago, it must have been an impressive earthwork then.

The site lay right next to the Roman road to Dorchester. Woodward shows the ‘amphitheatre’ entrance facing the road. Where was the town or settlement or Roman fort which would justify such a building (this was before we discovered the Roman settlement a few hundred metres to the south…see the blog post on Vindocladia)

A photo of the 'amphitheatre' taken from a model airplane after ploughing. The white mark is the chalk bank and the darker line the outer ditch. An earlier field boundary ditch emerges from below the chalk bank at the bottom of the picture.

A photo of the ‘amphitheatre’ taken from a model airplane after ploughing. The white mark is the chalk bank and the darker line the outer ditch. An earlier field boundary ditch emerges from below the chalk bank at the bottom of the picture.

David the warden asked a volunteer to send up a camera mounted on a model plane so that it could take aerial photographs after ploughing. Later, we walked across the site picking up prehistoric flint and the odd piece of Roman pot. The whole thing looked promising. This was a rare puzzle.. so Tim the managing agent and the farmer gave us permission to put in two trenches where the enclosure bank was crossed by the hedge.

We laid out a trench on either side of the ploughed down earthwork against the hedge beside the road down to Shapwick. Badbury lies beyond the Beech Avenue trees at the top of the picture. The ranging rod lies beside the outer ditch where a Roman spiral ring and a 3rd century coin were found in its filling.

We laid out a trench on either side of the ploughed down earthwork against the hedge beside the road down to Shapwick. Badbury lies beyond the Beech Avenue trees at the top of the picture. The ranging rod lies beside the outer ditch where a Roman spiral ring and a 3rd century coin were found in its filling.

We found that a ditch had been dug and the chalk bedrock had been heaped up to form a once massive circular enclosure bank. Over the following centuries the ditch had gradually silted up. In the filling we found a lump of Roman roof tile, then a spiral bronze ring and a 3rd century Roman coin. Perhaps it was an amphitheatre after all.

Then we realised that there had been an inner ditch but it had been backfilled almost immediately. Within the chalky fill were lumps of bone and thick black pottery. We were surprised when our trowels touched bone, then a whole skeleton was carefully uncovered at the bottom of the ditch. It turned out to be the the well preserved remains of a young pregnant cow. This was not the only animal burial we found, we also uncovered two sheep buried in pits within the enclosure (just in our narrow trenches..were there lots of burials hidden across he site?). We waited for the Radiocarbon dates to come back. When they arrived they dated the site to long before the Roman period. The animals had been buried in the period 1100-900 BC, the time when King David and later King Solomon ruled Israel.

The outer ditch had silted gradually of the centuries but the inner ditch had been dug out and backfilled soon afterwards leaving the body of a young pregnant cow in the bottom.

The outer ditch had silted gradually of the centuries but the inner ditch had been dug out and backfilled soon afterwards leaving the body of a young pregnant cow in the bottom.

Over 1500 years ago, did the local Romano-British community regularly gather here to watch fights, contests and entertainments? If this was an amphitheatre it was like Maumbury Rings, Dorchester and had been adapted from an earlier earthwork. The Kingston Lacy amphitheatre started life as a Late Bronze Age sacred site complete with valuable livestock offered as sacrifices to whatever gods were worshipped at the time.

An important site. The farmer kindly agreed to conserve it and took this area out of the plough. It has remained a small pasture field ever since. The earthwork is clear to see now, covered in grass rather than stubble. Thanks for the information Mr Woodward.

6 thoughts on “Kingston Lacy’s Roman Amphitheatre

  1. That was really interesting, especially as it’s somewhere I know (the dogs & I walk at Badbury Rings sometimes). I’ll have to look & see if I can spot where it is next time I’m out there, ie look for the unploughed field.

    • Julie, If you want spot the amphitheatre…as you leave Badbury, cross the Blandford Road and Beech Avenue and head towards Shapwick, Stop by the first gate on the right hand side of the road and look into the field back towards the Beech Avenue. You will be looking at the sites of our 1988 trenches across the bowl of the ‘amphitheatre’ enclosure..

      • Thank you. And I hope you don’t mind, but it flagged this post with NT Kingston Lacy on their Facebook page. They’ve now posted a link to it.

      • This site should be fully investigated and then opened to the public. I had a look today and there’s a fairly extant earthwork still.

      • Yes the earthwork is still clear and we have carried out aerial photography, geophysical survey and an evaluation excavation. The land is part of an AHA farm tenancy but can be seen from the gateway. The archaeology has been protected by putting it under pasture.

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