Friday, 9 March 2018

Corinium Dobunnorum, (Cirencester) - Cotswolds 2018

I can't believe that it is nearly a year ago that Carolyn and I was enjoying a trip to Oxfordshire and this year's long weekend excursion took us to an area close by, centred on the Cotswolds Area of Natural Beauty, but also stacked full of sites to interest the historical enthusiast.

Last year's long weekend trip to Dorchester and Oxford, with this year's based around Cirencester in the Cotswolds. The proximity to South Wales illustrates the frontier position of this early Roman town.

The principle area we were visiting is in the modern day county of Gloucestershire and they do say you only have to 'scratch the soil of the county' to find Rome. The centre of Roman activity that started soon after the Claudian invasion in 43 AD, with a fort established in the area as Vespasian's column pushed into the South West, establishing their farthest base at Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) in Devon.

Like the Dumnonians in Devon, the Dobunni proved to be, in the main, peaceful allies to the Roman occupation and would see their previous tribal capital developed into the second largest Roman city in Brittania, Corinium Dobunnorum, modern day Cirencester.

The link between the two Roman centres was the Fosse Way which can be driven along much of its original route throughout the west country and is a road that readily displays its heritage with long stretches as straight as an arrow, passing over hill and dale, on its route all the way up to Lincoln.

Campaigns in the Roman Conquest of Britain, 43 — 60; and showing Roman military organisation in 68

With the South West rapidly pacified in the years following the invasion, the frontier of Roman occupation quickly focused on the modern day border area with South Wales as the local tribe, the Silures fought a bitter guerrilla war that put this part of Gloucestershire right on the frontier and making Cirencester an important garrison town.

Corinium - Corinium Museum Cirencester (looking from the east towards the amphitheatre on the western side)

Thus with the history of the area front and centre we began our short break with a visit to Cirencester to see the remains of Roman occupation still to be seen in the town, together with a visit to the Corinium Museum which houses a lot of the finds from the town and wider area.

The principle remains of Roman Corinium comprise a small section of the wall rebuilt in stone during the third century and which would have stood six metres high with a walkway and parapet. At various sections of the wall, polygonal towers were placed projecting forward to provide defence to the length, which the base of one can be seen in the pictures below.

The remains of the wall lie on the eastern edge of the town (see the map below to get your bearings) and the embankment along its edge reveals the line of the Roman wall.

The main access route into the town on this side of the city wall would have been through the Verulamium Gate at the eastern end of modern day Lewis Lane. An artists reconstruction of the gate can be seen below as illustrated in the Corinium Museum.

The eastern or Verulamium Gate on Corinium's wall

The other part of the Roman City that can be seen today is the Corinium Amphitheatre which lies on the western outskirts of the town alongside the remains of the Roman quarry.

The view of the hole left in the ground created by Roman quarry working

The other British Roman amphitheatre we visited was in Caerleon, near Cardiff, when we looked at the Roman army base and museum in the territory of the Silures.

Caerleon and the National Roman Legion Museum Part 1
Caerleon and the National Roman Legion Museum Part 2

The amphitheatre at Caerleon was a Roman military facility capable of housing up to 5,000 soldiers whilst providing a display area for military parades as well as 'Roman entertainments'.

The Cirencester amphitheatre is on another scale capable of seating around 8,000 people and the stadium is still an impressive site when viewed from the top of the seating embankment.

Next to the quarry the embanked rows of seating that would have surrounded the stadium loom up in front of the visitor

The view of the town looking towards where the Bath Gate on the city wall would have stood with St John the Baptists Church tower in the background

Last excavated in the early and mid 1960's, the dig revealed up to 28 rows, with the last 11 up in the God's for the Plebs and standing room only.

So with the Roman city remains checked out we headed off to the Corinium Museum, which houses the finds from the city and local area and one I have been keen to visit for some time.

Corinium Museum - Cirencester

The museum is somewhat tucked away down one of the old streets leading into the town square and without any integral parking area we had to find a parking area, not easy in busy Cirencester on a Friday afternoon.

However, although a small museum I can say the collection was worth the effort and unlike the British Museum, the staff were welcoming and very helpful.

The collection is arranged in a logical time-line layout and starts, as you would expect, with the earliest examples of finds illustrating the original inhabitants of this part of Britain, with the finds displayed alongside some well constructed manikins to give a good impression of the look of the locals at this time.

Bronze & Iron Age

An impression of the early local inhabitants

The earliest finds included several flint arrow heads illustrating the basic leaf shaped heads, seen below that eventually gave way to a more sophisticated barbed or tanged style that was in use as the first copper and later bronze tools appear, heralding the Bronze Age.

The new fangled arrow heads can be seen left, with flint under pressure from this new stuff, bronze.

Of course the people that greeted the Roman occupation were Iron Age people and as in the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter we saw evidence of this culture based on the wealth expressed in iron with these iron bar hoards welded together in the centuries they lay safely hidden from potential thieves.

The illustration below gives the typical impression of the Britons at this time with this up and coming young couple having just taken possession of their new thatched home and not even aware of all the things the Romans will bring, like glass windows, hot water, shopping, oh and slavery.

Four iron hoard bars, part of 150 bars found at one site. These bars would be crafted into tools and weapons

The Celtic metal work finds, display great craftsmanship and none more so than the 'bling' that would be displayed on the weapons carried by the warriors as seen in the examples of sword fittings below.

Copper alloy sword suspension loop

Copper alloy sword pommel

Roman Occupation

The excellent reconstruction of a Roman cavalry trooper heralds entry into the Roman finds gallery and on seeing this manikin my mind was transported back to the finds we looked at last summer in Nijmegan and Xanten both of which have fine collections of Roman cavalry artefacts.

Valkhof Museum - Nijmegan
Xanten LVR Archaeological Park

The size of the horse, or what my sister used to ride and we called a pony, looks about right, with the trooper quite close to the ground armed with a spatha or long cavalry sword and thrusting spear, perfect for the job of dealing with fleeing Britons once the fight has been won by the infantry.

The Roman dagger side arm or pugio must have been rather disposable if the number of them found and displayed in museums is anything to go by. I don't think I have found one that doesn't have an example of this ubiquitous weapon.

Remains of the ubiquitous Roman pugio, alongside a reconstruction

The comparative complexity of Roman battle gear means that it presents a ready made test of the presence of Roman troops for archaeologists given the amounts of small fittings that were inevitably lost by the soldiers over time and provides detail of the exquisite workmanship the Roman armourers were capable of.

The cavalry also made sure their warriors were suitably adorned with intricately detailed fittings to their kit as these examples express with so fine examples of saddle plates, spurs, harness fittings and spear and javelin heads.

Copper alloy saddle plates, designed to be hung down the side of the saddle. Similar examples have been discovered at Vindolanda, however I cannot find an illustration of their use.

Another 'proof positive' for the presence of Roman troops is Samian pottery, a red tableware massed produced in molds to produce the quantity with a level of decoration that was easy to replicate in this fashion.

With the defeat of the Silures and the relatively rapid pacification of the south of England, if the limited sources are to be relied on, the town of Corinium Dubonnorum grew into a significant civilian town at the centre of an area where land was not under direct Imperial oversight. This meant that individuals of wealth and status could and did construct large villas to farm the area to provide food for the army and wealth for the owners and this wealth displayed itself in these villas and in the public and private buildings within Corinium.

The discoveries in this part of Gloucestershire have been going on for several hundred years, hence the 'scratch the surface' expression mentioned earlier.

The Corinium Museum holds perhaps some of the finest examples of mosaic floors in the country, in a remarkable state of preservation, ranging from local villas to public buildings from within the town.

The Hare mosaic is virtually complete and was found in a Roman town house in Cirencester. Dating from the 4th century AD it was covered over by a hypocaust system soon after its laying, illustrating this part of Gloucestershire has always been a cold part of the country.

The hare motif is a unique centrepiece in Britain and the mosaicist has used tiny pieces of green glass to emphasise the curved back of the animal.

Another amazing example of the town houses and their floors was the discovery in 1849 of a house in Dyer Street during the digging of new sewer trenches.

Four beautiful floors were discovered with three dating back to the 2nd century AD, one of which seen here that has hunting dogs at its centre with the four seasons at each corner.

It would seem that several of these floors had had repairs and changes over time and the dogs may have been a later addition to a previous design.

The wall plaster is from a 1st century timber framed shop in the centre of Cirencester.

The floor below was undergoing some upkeep and cleaning while we were there, hence the shoes and brush seen on it. The date of this floor is from about the 2nd century AD.

Seen below is the Orpheus Mosaic discovered in 1825 at Barton Farm, just on the outskirts of the town walls of Corinium and was probably part of a rich villa complex.

Dating from the 4th century AD, the mosaic shows Orpheus in the centre piece with a voluminous cloak playing the lyre and charming the animals with his music, relating to the Greek myth that said he could play the lyre so beautifully that wild beasts were instantly tamed.

An illustration of how the Orpheus Mosaic would have appeared when complete 

The Venus mosaic and wall plaster were discovered in the Cotswold village of Kingscote in 1977 and was part of a high status house with mosaic floors and hypocausts together with the wall paintings seen below.

The Venus Mosaic from Kingscote

The wall plaster and floor are contemporary and thought to date from the end of the 3rd or 4th century AD.

The plaster wall continues the theme of Venus alongside Cupid, the armourer of Mars and was reconstructed from thousands of fragments and illustrates the fresco style of wall painting where the design was added whilst the wall plaster was still wet.

The area of the dig is now covered over but Carolyn remembers visiting the site as a young girl and I have a copy of her guide book that she picked up on her visit that shows the size of this site covering some thirty hectares.

The Forum and Basilica at Corinium is illustrated in the picture below and an impression of the size of these public buildings is well illustrated by the size of the footing and heads of the pillars.

The Corinthium column capital seen below is the largest example found in Roman Britain, discovered in 1808 the column it supported would have been 13 metres (nearly 43 feet) high.

The examples of these public building decorations would have most likely been highly coloured as illustrated in the examples seen in Xanten last year.

Painted column head displayed in the Xanten Museum Park

One of the finest pieces of Graeco-Roman art in Britain, seen below, was discovered in the centre Cirencester in 1732.

This little statue depicts Cupid and has two small indentations on the shoulders where it is believed two wings would have once adorned the figure.

Designed as a table lamp-stand, the figure was probably made in Italy in the mid 1st to 2nd century AD and has silvered eyes with the pupils probably filled with glass to make them stand out.

The stunning statue of Cupid discovered in 1732

The leaded bronze fragments of an imperial statue, some with copper inlay are an unusual find as these statues were often recycled when destroyed to retrieve the precious metal for other uses.

The copper inlay on these bronze fragments display a flower design - top right

Based on excavated finds in Britain and the Western Provinces, the figure below depicts a Roman cavalryman of the 4th century AD and are thought to have been a familiar sight in 4th century Corinium.

The late Roman era finds include the Bisley Warrior seen below depicting Mars or local warrior God in the garb of a 3rd century infantryman.

The Bisley Warrior

Roman military equipment underwent a bit of a change in the 3rd century with the gladius being replaced by the longer spatha for the infantry, with sword now being carried on a broad baldric attached to the scabbard by a slide.

Roman troops of the 3rd century AD - Nikolay Zubkov

The changes to the Roman side arm are illustrated in the sword fittings seen below with an example of the copper ally scabbard slide, item (9) and the scabbard chape (10).

The pilum (1) and balista (2) still found a use with heads from both seen below, together with two tanged arrow heads.

The cavalry harness in the 3rd century became much more simplified with decorated and pierced plates as seen at the bottom (4), (5) and (6).

The Romans were a superstitious lot and seemed to hedge their bets when it came to keeping various deities happy and the Corinium Museum has examples of worship to Roman and it would seem local Gods.

The Septimus Stone seen below once stood at the base of a Jupiter column. The Latin inscription reads:

"To Jupiter, Best and Greatest. His Perfection Lucius Septimus ... governor of Britannia Prima restored this monument, being a citizen of Rheims. This statue and column erected under the ancient religion Septimus restored, ruler of Britannia Prima."

Christianity was to dominate in the later period of the Roman era, not before suffering persecution from several emperors causing devotees to be cautious when declaring their beliefs and the famous 'Acrostic' is believed to be an example of this caution with an early coded message scraped on to a piece of 2nd century wall plaster.

The words read the same both across, down and backwards, with various theories doing the rounds about its precise meaning. One thing is certain and that these are comparatively rare with only six examples known, with two from Britain and two from Pompey.

The Cirencester Acrostic
Another common deity in this area seems to be a worship of the three Mother Goddesses and the example directly below discovered in 1899 dates from the 2nd of 3rd century AD and may have stood in a temple.

The three Mother Goddesses

Finally below we have a votive relief of Mercury with a faint trace of an inscription "DEO MERCVRIO' (to the God Mercury).

Alongside religion the Romans were very much into commemorating the dead and the tombstones they put up add to the texture of our limited knowledge of them and their lives with their inscriptions.

The example below is a Romano-British tombstone dating to the 2nd century AD with the inscription "I DM BODICACIA CONIVNX VIXIT ANNOS XXVII, " To the shades of the Dead. Bodicacia, spouse, lived 27 years."

It was forbidden under Roman law to bury the dead within town walls and thus burial areas grew up along a road leading out from one of the gates, in Cirencester this was Bath Gate near the amphitheatre, where many of the finds were made.

A large glass jar used as a cremation urn discovered in 1765

Grave goods often included jewellery or in this case a copper-alloy enamelled cockerel 

The example of piece of a lead coffin is unusual as this would have been an expensive way to be buried and the Egyptian style motifs seem to suggest a North African link to this individual.

After the Roman collection the next gallery looked at the early medieval/dark age finds from Anglo-Saxon Gloucestershire.

The young man on the left is based on a burial discovery of a 16-18 year old male.
His face is a forensic reconstruction from his skull. and the shield is based on the remains
together with the boss  seen below
The finds displayed here have come from the Butlers Field Saxon burial site and date from the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries.

Shield boss discovered with the young man seen above

Two spear heads and a knife from the burial of the 16-18 year old male who formed the basis
for the manikin reconstruction at the top of this section

Below are finds from a very wealthy Saxon lady's grave, nicknamed "Mrs Getty" because of the valuable items buried with her, which included two gold saucer broaches, top left.

These 7th century seaxes and spear heads were part of an amazing collection of weapons recovered from one burial site with four examples of the Saxon short sword or long knife, and with one having deposits of mineralised leather suggesting it was in its scabbard when buried.

The wooden spear shafts were long gone when these spear heads were recovered but the length was estimated by measuring the distance from the spear point to the foot of the grave and suggested the shafts were about 1.67 (5.5 feet) and 1.9 metres (6 feet).

Butlers field also gave up four rare and extremely beautiful gold pendants, two worn by women and two by children. Their positions on the body confirmed these were pendants and not broaches.

The gold is thought to have come from melted down gold coins and the wear on two of them suggest they were regularly worn and not hidden away.

With my own Dark Ages collection put together last month I will now need to get some houses and other buildings put together so these pictures of local reconstructions will come in handy as a reference.

The late 8th century up to the Norman conquest in 1066 saw great upheaval in the area with Cirencester occupied by the Viking Great Heathen Army in 879 AD.

The various items below cover this extensive period with coins, jewellery, spear heads and prick spurs from those intervening centuries.

(5) Silver hooked fastener 8th-9th century, (6) Plaited gold ring 10th century, (7)  Copper alloy face pendant 7th-11th century,
Decorated gold button 8th-11th century

(1) Silver penny of Coenwulf, King of Mercia 796 -821 AD, (2) Silver penny of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex 849 -899 AD,
(3) Silver penny of Edgar the Peaceful, Saxon King of the English 959 -975 AD, (4) Silver penny of Cnut, Danish King of all England 1016 -1035AD.

The English Civil War 

The Cotswolds and indeed Cirencester's proximity to Oxford and Bristol put this area right in the box seat during the English Civil War and during our stay I planned to visit the last battle site of the first English Civil War at Stow on the Wold which, with the defeat of the Royalist army, would see King Charles flee from Oxford in a vain attempt to surrender himself to the Scots at Newark and hopefully split the alliance against him.

17th century Cirencester

Cirencester had declared for Parliament when it successfully resisted an abortive Royalist attempt to seize the town in January 1643. The following month Prince Rupert returned and captured the town in a two-pronged attack killing 300 of the defenders and taking 1,200 prisoners, together with much livestock and stocks of wool.

The Civil War hoard seen below was found at Weston-sub-Edge in 1981 in a specially made lead pipe beneath floorboards of the Hall of Friendship which was previously a barn. A scrap of paper discovered with the hoard declared "Ye Hoard is £18".

The last coins in the hoard date to 1642 and they include some rare half-crowns minted by the Royalists in Oxford after the war broke out.

And with my visit to the battlefield at Stow on the Wold I grabbed a picture of a cannonball (8) recovered from the battlefield and a bronze mortar dated 1638 (9) seen next to it.

Next up, more from our trip to the Costswolds last month including Roman Villas, Long Barrows and English Civil War battlefields, the Dacians are increasing and some Devon Wildlife.


  1. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed all of this but what stuck me most were the silver pennies. So simple but to my historical based mind it is those little day to day pieces that connect me to the past. How many people touched what I'm viewing, what were their personal stories, etc. Might sound weird but I like those small aspects the most.

    1. Hi Adam, thank you, glad you enjoyed the read.
      I agree entirely. It is those common everyday items that as you say would have likely passed through the hands of or come into contact with numerous people in the past that seem to give a connection to them that feels tangible.

      It is not at all weird and to my mind it's a big part of what history is all about, connecting the generations through everyday objects and life experiences that link us through our human condition no matter if you lived in the 7th century or the 21st century.

  2. Thank you Johnathan
    For the many hours of research and information you share on your blog.
    In the last six months or so I’ve returned a minimum of 3-4 times a week. Reading and then rereading with great interest All the different chapters of the blog. Really enjoying the ECW topics and the Roman site visits local to me in Cheltenham.
    Fantastic really appreciate your huge enthusiasm and effort
    Kindest regards