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Avebury and environs in the Roman period
In the photograph above Silbury Hill is seen from the south. The prehistoric henge is out of sight further north. The Roman town occupied the slope between the line of trees of the left and the skyline. Swallowhead Springs, which are regarded as the start of the River Kennet, are hidden from view roughly where the lines of trees come together in the mid-distance in front of Silbury Hill. The Kennet flows on the far side of the line of trees to the right. Waden Hill forms the skyline to the right of Silbury. The A4 road – here close to the course of the Roman road – runs across the photograph in front of both Silbury and Waden Hill.
In comparison to the prehistoric period there has been comparatively little written about Avebury during the Roman period. However that does not mean the Romans weren't important around here. Far from it – in most other parts of England the amount of Roman activity would be regarded as fascinating.
For a start there was a Roman small town, probably with one or more shrines and temples. It was to the south of Silbury Hill. The reason it is not better known is that no one knew about until about 2007 when English Heritage announced that a Roman settlement with regularly laid out streets and houses 'the size of 24 football pitches' had been found at the foot of Silbury Hill. Curiously, it does not appear on the so-called 'itineraries' of roads compiled during the Roman Empire, so we do not know its name. No one was looking for it – the English Heritage survey was part of a programme looking for the best place to park all the equipment needed to stabilise the inside of Silbury Hill after it had partially collapsed in 2002.
This town is half-way between previously-known Roman town of Verlucio (ten miles to the west at Sandy Lane) and Cunetio (ten miles to the east at Mildenhall; pronounced 'Myn'ull'). Ten miles is the typical – I'm tempted to say 'regulation' – distance between Roman settlements along their principal roads. The best guess is that the small town at Silbury started as a 'guest house' (or mansio) for people travelling on official business. But most probably it developed into something bigger because Silbury Hill and the various springs, such as Swallowhead, made this an appropriate place for shrines and such like. A similar small town on the Fosse Way in north Leicestershire, known as Vernemetum, takes its name from an Iron Age great or especially sacred grove.
There is evidence of Roman settlement and associated burials to the north-east of Silbury Hill too, on the lower slopes of Waden Hill. The Romans visited West Kennett long barrow and the henge, leaving coins and items of jewellery. Whether these were accidental losses or intentional offerings is however unclear.
The modern A4 road runs between Silbury Hill and the newly-discovered Roman town. The Roman road from London to Bath also follows the same course, at least here. However the modern A4 mostly follows a route established in the eighteenth century when turnpike roads were built. To the immediate west of Silbury Hill the Roman road runs well to the south of the A4 – look out for two radio transmission masts on the summit of Morgans Hill as these mark the course of the Roman route. To the east of Silbury Hill the Roman road can be detected just to the north of the A4; where this crosses the Ridgeway there are two slight linear bumps which are the remains of the banks (Latin fosse) either side of the carriageway. At this crossroads once stood several high-status Roman tombs, but these have been ploughed away. Still surviving nearby are several Bronze Age burial mounds, mostly reused by the Anglo-Saxons; several more have been flattened.
The Roman road can be followed along the south side of the Kennet valley through Marlborough – it is the course of the 'back road' known as George Street. Further to the east the road continues through Axford, heading north-east to Ramsbury and then intersects with a different Roman road (now the B4000) running from Cirencester to the vicinity of Newbury.
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Copyright Bob Trubshaw 2015
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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs
Articles about Anglo-Saxons in and around Avebury
Articles about Medieval life in and around Avebury
Articles about aspects of Avebury's twentieth century history