Life in the hinterland of Roman Alchester

A great deal of archaeological work has taken place in recent years around Bicester, Oxfordshire, in connection with the expansion of the town. In the summer of 2019, Cotswold Archaeology undertook excavations on the western outskirts of the town on a 9.45ha site at Howes Lane.

The area has a predominantly rural character and lies just 2.5km north of the Roman town of Alchester, which is considered to have been the principal Roman settlement in Oxfordshire, lying on Akeman Street at the mid-point between the tribal capitals at St Albans (Verulamium) to the east and Cirencester (Corinium) to the west. It was also at the crossroads with a road heading northwards to Towcester, on Watling Street, and southwards to Dorchester-on-Thames and on to Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum). Tree-ring dates of AD 44–45 from the military fort annexe excavated at Alchester show that it was a military focus immediately after the Claudian invasion, and therefore of major importance, the fort possibly sited at the boundary of the tribal territories of the Catuvellauni and Dobunni.

Two of the areas of excavation at Howes Lane on the western side of Bicester, looking north-east. An Iron Age roundhouse is just visible in the smaller area, with Iron Age enclosure ditches in the larger area
Two of the areas of excavation at Howes Lane on the western side of Bicester, looking north-east. An Iron Age roundhouse is just visible in the smaller area, with Iron Age enclosure ditches in the larger area

So what was this site like in Iron Age and Roman times?

CA’s excavations targeted three areas covering about 1.3ha of the site, and uncovered traces of both Iron Age and Roman settlement. The earliest clear settlement dated to the Middle Iron Age and included a roundhouse to the east and agricultural enclosures to the north, with traces of enclosures and fields to the west (where later occupation lay). This appears typical of the accumulating evidence for the area, which shows that it was not densely occupied before the Middle Iron Age, and that Middle Iron Age settlement was lightly spread and generally unenclosed.

A Middle Iron Age roundhouse with the entrance to the fore, looking north-west
A Middle Iron Age roundhouse with the entrance to the fore, looking north-west

There is extensive evidence for the reorganisation of settlement in the region by the late Iron Age. By the 1st century AD, the land at Howes Lane was more widely divided into fields and enclosures, with pits and waterholes around the edges. A stone-lined cistern was found in the southern part of the site, and such features have been found more generally in the area. Similar stone-lined pits found at Whitelands Farm (a Roman settlement not far to the south-east) were thought to be for steeping grain for malting.

A small circular Roman well or cistern constructed within an earlier rectangular cistern. Water management was a preoccupation in Alchester and the surrounding area in Roman times
A small circular Roman well or cistern constructed within an earlier rectangular cistern. Water management was a preoccupation in Alchester and the surrounding area in Roman times

The almost complete absence of charred cereals within samples taken from Iron Age and Roman features suggests that farming was largely pastoral, which would have suited to the damp ground. Although Great Oolite Limestone lies immediately under the modern ploughsoil the water table is high and impermeable clay is encountered not far below the surface. Snail and charcoal evidence indicates that the land was grassy and open, with hedgerows probably enclosing the fields.

The Roman fields do not appear to have been laid out with great regularity, although there is a general alignment with the Alchester to Towcester road that ran south-west/north-east about 1.5km to the east. Closer to Alchester, from the 2nd century onwards there appears to have been more regularly planned fields aligned on Roman roads, possibly the effect of the military seizure of land, but finds from outside the town show little of the military presence.

One of two Roman burials at Howes Lane found around the enclosure edges. The graves were shallow and others may have been lost to the plough
One of two Roman burials at Howes Lane found around the enclosure edges. The graves were shallow and others may have been lost to the plough

In summary, the land around Alchester was wet and seems to have been used for grazing on a more intensive basis in the Roman period than had been the case earlier, presumably supplying food to a ready urban market at Alchester. In contrast to other Roman towns, there has been little sign of commerce and industry in the nearby settlements or in the suburbs north and south of the town, where they have been examined by excavation.

The land around Alchester became even more prone to flooding in late Roman times, and the town was eventually abandoned, never to be re-occupied. The market town of Bicester developed from the 6th or 7th century onwards, and has recently become one of the fastest growing towns in the country.

Andrew Mudd

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