The students unearthed the previously unknown village in East Dorset in southern England, as part of their studies this year. It is customary for university students from many institutions around the world to go on digs as part of the archaeology curriculum.
“The Durotriges Big Dig, hosted yearly by Bournemouth University, gives students a hands-on experience with a live archaeological site. In previous years, students have uncovered Roman villas and skeletal remains, as well as a host of archaeological artefacts,” says a press release from the university.
Researchers hope the dig will reveal what the fate was of inhabitants of Maiden Castle when they moved out of that hill fort about 2,100 years ago.
This settlement is among the largest found in Britain from before the Roman invasion of the 1st century AD. The village appears to differ from other settlements of the time because it's not in a hilltop fort and it didn't even have defensive palisades. Archaeologists leading the dig hope it will give some insight into life in that part of Britain before the invasion.
The boundaries of England and Wales; the territory of the Durotriges tribe is overlaid in red. (Map by Jbp1201/Wikimedia Commons)
“We’ve exposed remains of 16 roundhouses in the two trenches we’ve dug,” said archaeologist Miles Russell of Bournemouth University, co-director of the dig. “They are pre-Roman house structures, the last that inhabitants would have been living in before the Romans arrived. We know that there are around 200 of these across this area, so we’ve got ourselves a prehistoric town or proto-urban settlement. What we’ve discovered is extremely significant for the whole of Southern Britain because in the past archaeologists have tended to look at really obvious sites, like the big hill-fort of Maiden Castle near Dorchester. What we have here is an extensive open settlement, not a hill fort, so it wasn’t visible as a settlement from the earthwork on the landscape. What we’ve discovered is one of the earliest and largest open settlements in Britain.”
Paul Cheetham, the other co-director and also an archaeologist at the university said:
“What this suggests is that there are other big centres of occupation before the Roman arrival, this is a big open settlement, probably one of the first that the Romans encountered when they arrived. It exposes the myth that everyone lived in protected hill forts – these inhabitants lived in this fertile farmland, away from the traditional hill forts we are all used to hearing about.”In addition to the roundhouses, students have excavated animals bones buried in strangely combined configurations, including with a woman who'd apparently been sacrificed, which made news earlier this month. They've found quern stones used for grinding, spindle whorls used for weaving and evidence of working in iron, copper and lead.
The Celtic inhabitants of the small, industrious Iron Age settlement apparently sacrificed the young woman by slitting her throat and then buried her body in a curious arrangement of animal bones. Her head rested on animal-skull fragments, and her legs rested on animal leg-bones.
The team is also excavating other burials of hybrid animal bones at the site that recall myths from the Mediterranean and Near East about bird-woman harpies, goat-lion chimeras, eagle-lion griffins, man-goat satyrs, man-bull minotaurs and man-horse centaurs. Ancient peoples imagined combining various animal and/or human parts into one fantastic and sometimes grotesque beings. Some were understood as monsters, others as wise counselors or guardians of shepherds and the countryside.
A sheep with its own head that was fragmentary plus the head of a bull on its rear end has been excavated along with other animal combinations at a farm in Dorset, England.“The discoveries are helping to transform our understanding of key aspects of Late Iron Age Britain – the type of society that existed just a couple of generations before the Roman conquest,” said Russell.
“Our investigations at the site suggest that life there was peaceful and prosperous. Although the settlement was relatively large, there appears to have been no defensive palisade or ramparts. The sacrifice of so many animals and the unusual treatment of their bones is likely to shed totally new light on Iron Age belief systems – and may suggest that the Ancient Britons had beliefs or mythologies which involved hybridized animals, just as the ancient Greeks had.”Featured image: Archaeological dig site near Winterborne Kingston in Dorset. Credit: Bournemouth University.