|10 March 2007
Lost Roman settlement in Silbury's shadow
Mysterious Silbury Hill has yielded another surprise for archaeologists. The 5,000-year-old monument was the base for a large-scale Roman settlement archaeologists had no idea existed. The hill had already been established for 3,000 years when the Romans arrived in what is now Wiltshire (England), but the legions from the continent set up home beside the road they built between London and Bath where it passed the 40 metres high Neolithic mound, the largest prehistoric structure in Europe. It was already clear that the Romans knew Silbury because their ruler-straight road, which the A4 follows, jinked to avoid it. What the soldiers and the Romano-British who settled there made of the eerie dome no one knows, but the discovery of a fully-fledged Roman settlement has given added impetus to the project to save the hill from erosion and collapse.
Archaeologists used hi-tech equipment that meant they could discover the Roman village without having to put a spade in the soil. The new data shows a village-sized settlement straddling what was the Roman main road where the road crossed the River Kennet. Dr Neil Linford, English Heritage's geophysicist, explained that the research revealed it was laid out in a typically Roman settlement 'ladder' design, with buildings and small streets lying perpendicular to a central north-south thoroughfare. The discovery was made using an array of highly sensitive caesium magnetometers which pick up tiny anomalies in the magnetic field caused by the influence of human activities, particularly fires, even though they were extinguished more than 1,600 years ago.
Dr Linford said: "We are really excited by this discovery because we had no idea that a Roman village of such a size lay this close to Silbury Hill." English Heritage bosses said they were delighted with the discovery. Bob Bewley, regional director of English Heritage, speculated that Silbury may have been an overnight stop on the way to the sacred springs and bathing pools at Bath, but may also have been a Roman pilgrimage site in its own right. "Given the sacred value we know Romans attached to sites close to water it seemed impossible that they would not be drawn in the wake of their prehistoric forebears to Silbury Hill, which lies close to both the Winterbourne River and the Swallowhead springs. To have found such a substantial and organised settlement though is amazing."
The Roman discovery was made as part of a project to stabilise the hill after the top collapsed in 2000. English Heritage announced the work would begin in May and end in September. A spokesman for English Heritage confirmed the restoration of Silbury Hill gave archaeologists more chance to excavate the Roman site nearby.
Sources: Western Daily Press, BBC News, The Guardian, Telegraph (10 March 2007)
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