OPPIDA

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The oppidum of Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex) protected by a series of massive dykes, constructed at different periods during the late Iron Age. In the north-west corner of the map is the earlier oval hillfort of Pitchbury.


In a number of places in eastern and southern Britain large new open settlements were appearing, loosely called oppida. The hillforts in these areas were for the most part abandoned, although a few larger ones were adapted. There is little precise agreement on what constituted an oppidum. For some they were settlements of large size, often on low-lying ground and protected by linear dykes. Suetonius, writing of Vespasian’s campaign in AD 43, refers to the capture of 20 oppida in the Dorset area. Such a comment can only refer to large hillforts. It would seem that they were semi-urban sites, minting their own coinage, producing a variety of commodities and trading in imported goods of many kinds. They are often referred to as administrative and royal capitals. Some two dozen large oppida recognized in southern Britain include Verulamium (St Albans, Herts), Colchester (Essex), Chichester (Sussex), Bagendon (Glos) and perhaps hillforts like Maiden Castle (Dorset). In the north it seems reasonable to see Stanwick (Yorks), Traprain Law (East Lothian), and possibly Eildon Hill North (Roxburgh), as related sites. Some smaller, lowlying sites, which seem to have replaced local hillforts, might also be considered. Dyke Hills (Oxon) seem to have replaced Wittenham Clumps (Oxon) for example.


In a number of cases British oppida are characterized by large scale linear dykes though these were unknown on the continent. At Colchester, Silchester, Chichester and Verulamium these dykes cover a number of kilometres, not always in a pattern comprehensible to modern eyes. They may indicate phases of expansion. The area within them was not totally occupied with settlement. Many different activities were taking place, with fields and enclosures separating them. Evidence so far available does not really suggest a close-knit urban community, and yet the presence of many imported goods, rich burials and the minting of coins, Iron Age shrines and rectangular buildings all point to something bigger than just a local market centre.


A complex of dykes marks the landward side of Colchester (Camulodunum), Essex, where development probably began around the Gosbeck’s farm site and then expanded northeast to take in Sheepen. Excavations have revealed circular and rectangular buildings and a ritual site, surrounded by pits and drainage ditches. Much imported pottery and amphorae were found, together with clay moulds indicating the remains of a mint. The imports may well have reached Colchester by way of a port on the River Colne. Metal working and pottery making were amongst the local industries represented.


Occupation at Verulamium (St Albans, Herts) began at the end of the first century BC on a plateau west of the later Roman town, known as Prae Wood. Here Mortimer Wheeler found traces of a rather primitive settlement with many circular huts, pits and gullies enclosed by strong boundary earthworks and larger linear dykes, one of which still runs between the Ver and Lea valleys. Outside the settlement were at least two Aylesford-type cemeteries and the site of a mint in the vicinity of the later Roman forum.


At Braughing (Skeleton Green, Herts) initial settlement, perhaps as early as the third century BC, might have centred on a small earthwork known as Gatesbury Wood. By about 20 BC occupation had expanded rapidly to the south and west of Gatesbury, on both sides of the River Rib, until it covered about 100 ha. (247 acres). Analysis of fragments of coin moulds shows that silver coins were minted at Braughing. Linear dykes are missing; only small-scale enclosure ditches are known. Natural features may have taken their place. The scattered nature of the excavations has revealed isolated areas of settlement, which include rectangular buildings, roads, storage pits and the inevitable gullies. A very wide range of imported pottery, including Gallo- Belgic wares, was found, together with metalwork and Celtic coins.


Whether some of the large hillforts should be considered as oppida is open to question. Although the majority efforts were abandoned by the first century BC some were increased in strength and, as Wheeler describes at Maiden Castle (Dorset), ‘the whole enclosure was packed as closely as might be with dwellings and storage pits; the place was wholly urban in the density of its population and had nothing of the straggling character of village settlement’. At South Cadbury (Somerset) Leslie Alcock has similarly written, ‘within the defences, storage pits and timber round-houses proliferated. The settlement can no longer be considered as a village, still less as a hamlet, it is reasonable to describe it as a town.’ Clearly both these forts had become industrial and commercial centres, as well as providing permanent residential facilities. Caesar describes defeating Cassivellaunus at an oppidum somewhere in Hertfordshire. From his account he is clearly describing a hillfort such as Ravensburgh near Hexton (Herts). In northern England, Stanwick (Yorks) is by far the largest of the oppida to have been identified. Though small in comparison to Colchester, it is 300 ha. (741 acres) in extent. Its size and the nature of the terrain would have made it ideal for cattle production. Like the sites in the south it was also most probably a centre for the import and distribution of fine, continental pottery, amphorae and glassware.


In Scotland two hillforts have been singled out as being of oppida potential, though their minute size shows that they are not in the same class as those in the south. Traprain Law (East Lothian) increased its size during the late Iron Age, eventually reaching 16 ha. (39.5 acres) by the Roman conquest. It seems to have been the capital of the local tribe, the Votadini, and continued to be used during Roman times. The identification of Eildon Hill North (Roxburgh) is even more doubtful (plate 61). It is a complex site also covering 16 ha. (39.5 acres) on the top of a great dome-shaped hill. It was enlarged at least three times and eventually enclosed over 500 hut platforms that may have housed up to 3,000 people. This was the headquarters of the Selgovae, and appears to have been abandoned after the arrival of the Romans in AD 79. No particular hillforts in Wales have been singled out as oppida, but a dramatically sited hilltop fortress such as Tre’r Ceiri (Gwynedd) might be a serious contender. Probably dating from the end of the first century BC until the fourth century AD, it is packed with 120 stone-built huts, most of which belong to the later years of occupation.


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