The latest series of Digging for Britain, the BBC archaeology series that reports on the best digs of the past year, has just started. I caught up with last night’s show over dinner and have been blown away by some of the discoveries.
Let’s start at Meonstoke in Hampshire where the University of Winchester has been excavating what was thought to be a Roman villa but has turned out to be a temple complex dedicated to the goddess Dea Nutrix. What is interesting about this goddess is that she’s not Roman. She is generally shown breastfeeding children, but Roman women were not big on breastfeeding. They had slaves to do that for them. Celtic women, on the other hand, did breastfeed, and these temples are found in the Celtic parts of the empire. That probably means that we are looking at a Celtic goddess who has been incorporated into Roman religious life in much the same way as Isis became popular in Rome. The site in Hampshire may well be similar to Bath in that it is a Roman temple built on the location of an ancient Celtic holy site.
There were two features on Stone Age Britain. One looked briefly at the mysterious “square circle” discovered at the heart of the Avebury ring. There’s still a lot to be learned about that, but it is clear that Avebury was a populated settlement, not just a religious site. Far more interesting for me was the news that we appear to have completely misunderstood long barrows such as Cat’s Brain in Wiltshire. Rather than being burial mounds for individuals, they appear to be mounds constructed over communal longhouses that have been decommissioned and burned. What is buried is perhaps not a person, but a community.
My favorite report was one on the dig by the University of Bristol at Repton on what they believe to be the first over-winter camp of a viking army in Britain. The camp is known from later reports in viking sagas, but we’d not had any proven archaeology until now. The new dig has found clear evidence of an army camp, including evidence of weapon-making and ship repairs. The site is associated with a mass grave of some 300 vikings, presumably killed in the battle with the Mercians reported by the sagas. Excitingly several of the dead are women, some apparently with battle wounds. Obviously we can’t prove that they were warriors, but isotope analysis of their teeth shows that they came from Scandinavia with the army.
Oh, and Alice Roberts has adopted my hair color, so I feel properly professorial now.