Wickham: Roman roadside settlement and wells

Excavations by CA Andover in 2018-19 prior to housing development at Wickham, Hampshire, revealed the remains of a Roman road and an associated roadside settlement. This was not unexpected: Wickham lies on the Roman road network between Winchester, Chichester and Southampton and would have been an important trading post, serving the local community as well as passing travellers. Our excavations revealed the remains of Roman enclosures, structures and pits – and a surprisingly large number of deeply cut wells and waterholes – indicating a thriving settlement.

Plan of the excavations at Wickham
Plan of the excavations at Wickham

The larger structural remains comprised rows of large postholes with stone packing, with lots of iron slag associated. These were once buildings flanking the Roman road in plots of land used for industrial activities such as iron smithing. Although little direct evidence for agriculture was found, small-scale farming was probably undertaken. The settlement seems to have reached its peak of occupation during the later 2nd century AD. The large number of wells and waterholes is puzzling but these may have served the industrial processes that were taking place, as well as the needs of passing trade.

The timber-lined well, under excavation
The timber-lined well, under excavation
The construction method for the well comprised of four oak beams at the base, with lighter jointed beams above
The construction method for the well comprised of four oak beams at the base, with lighter jointed beams above

One of the wells was lined with timber. We can see from the preserved timbers that the Romans had sophisticated carpentry techniques. Saws and axes would have been used to work the oak timbers producing lap-joints allowing the beams to be fitted together to form a substantial lining for the well. Smaller fragments of branches may be the remains of a wattle lining.

 

A 3D model of the timber-lined well

The waterlogged conditions not only preserved the timber well lining, but also a number of interesting artefacts providing fascinating insights into everyday life at Roman Wickham, including fragments of a writing tablet, a wooden bung, a wooden stake or depth-gauge, and the sole of a leather shoe. These remains are important as they do not always survive. Environmental remains also provide us with information about the immediate surroundings of the settlement. The writing tablet would have had a wax cover and a metal stylus would have been used to write letters, official documents or lists of information. A technique known as reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), which captures the surface of an object enabling fine details to be enhanced, has been used to see if there is any writing on the tablet fragments. This has revealed a series of geometric images rather than writing. As these tablets were often used by officials it is tempting to think of someone whiling away a few minutes in between official duties.

The RTI imaging of the writing tablet fragments
The RTI imaging of the writing tablet fragments

A short video of the excavation – and the challenging site conditions – can be found on the Cotswold Archaeology YouTube channel. Further post-excavation work will be undertaken over the next year allowing specialists the time to examine the finds in greater detail, and we plan to publish the results in Hampshire Studies.

Pippa Bradley

 
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