HS2: excavations of small Roman town at Fleet Marston, near Aylesbury

As part of the HS2 archaeology programme we have been working for over a year with our COPA partners at Fleet Marston, near Aylesbury, excavating the remains of a Roman town that lay on a major Roman road, and discovering more about what life was like in Roman Britain, two thousand years ago.

A team of around 50 archaeologists worked on the site, uncovering a series of enclosures with evidence of domestic structures, as well as commercial and industrial activity. These enclosures developed in a ladder-like plan to either side of Akeman Street, a major Roman road that linked the Roman towns of Verulamium (St Albans) and Corinium Dobunnorum (Cirencester), going via Roman Alchester (near Bicester). The fieldwork uncovered the remains of Akeman Street’s well-constructed limestone surface and flanking drainage ditches.

a Roman lead die from the site
a Roman lead die from the site

We also recovered over 1,200 coins along with several lead weights, indicating that the town engaged in trade and commerce. Widened parts of the road may have been used as a market, providing extra room for carts and stalls.  Other metal objects found, such as spoons, pins and brooches, were of a more domestic nature, while gaming dice and bells suggest that gambling and religious activity occupied people’s time here too. Apart from being home to many inhabitants, the settlement is likely to have been an important staging post for travellers and soldiers on their way to and from the garrison at Alchester.

A late Roman cemetery, the largest of its kind now known in Buckinghamshire, was also excavated. The cemetery contained around 425 burials. As was typical in the late Roman period, the cemetery predominantly contained inhumation burials but also included some cremation burials. The number of burials, along with the development of the settlement, suggests that there was a population influx into the town in the mid to late Roman period, linked perhaps to increased agricultural production. There were two separate areas of burials, suggesting the cemetery may have been organised by tribe, family, ethnic grouping.

Fragments of a Roman samian ware pottery vessel
Fragments of a Roman samian ware pottery vessel

Among the burials were a number of decapitations, approximately 10% of those buried there. There were several instances of the head being placed between the legs or next to the feet. One interpretation of this burial practice is that it might have been used for criminals or a type of outcast, although decapitation is well-known elsewhere and appears to have been a normal, albeit marginal, burial rite during the late Roman period.

The remains of a Roman drying oven
The remains of a Roman drying oven

Further to the south, on a low hill away from Akeman Street, we found evidence of large Early Iron Age enclosures with wide deep ditches. The nature of the Iron Age activity is currently uncertain, but the enclosures suggest this area was used for farming before the town was established. Early in the Roman period, the area was the site of open-cast gravel quarrying, possibly used for the construction or maintenance of Akeman Street and its branch roads. A stone-built drying or malting oven, the latter providing potential evidence for brewing, was also revealed in this area.

The excavation of the site at Fleet Marston, including the burials within the cemetery, has provided a snapshot of the lives and beliefs of the community that lived there during the Roman period. A programme of post-excavation assessment and analysis will be carried out over the next few years, which will offer the opportunity to address questions about the nature of the settlement uncovered here, and on the origins, diet, family links, lifestyles and beliefs of the inhabitants of the Roman town.


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