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Archaeological work carried out on this site in the past, by the East Dorset Archaeological Society and Bournemouth University, revealed that farmer Simon Meadon's land at Minchington, Cranborne Chase, is brimming with archaeological remains. Two main areas in particular were found to contain evidence for buildings, enclosures and possibly even burials. For the last time in this series Time Team had just three days to make sense of it all.
A large-scale geophysics survey confirmed that the landscape contained a variety of archaeological features. These turned out to be from a number of different periods. For example, trenches on the hilltop at Goldfields revealed a circular enclosure ditch, which was excavated to reveal a cross section of the ditch fill. Though no dating evidence was found, the shape of the ditch was considered to be Bronze Age.
A second enclosure ditch and associated post holes were excavated that contained pottery indicating an Iron-Age date. Cutting through the ditch feature (indicating that it was a later event) was a grave. This grave was associated with six other grave cuts, three of which were excavated. Grave goods, including a complete dimple sided pot, indicated that they belonged to relatively low status individuals of the third or fourth century AD.
Roman bath house and villa
Further geophysics surveys indicated structures in the valley bottom at Myncen Farm. Excavations here revealed the site of a Roman building, complete with a hypocaust system, a series of walls and an intact plunge pool complete with painted plaster sides relating to a bath house.
The presence of a bath house indicated that an associated Roman villa complex must be nearby. Phases evident in the wall construction indicated that the building was upgraded in the third or fourth century, the same time as the burial ground was in use over the ridge.
Rebellion and revenge
Dating evidence from the site appeared to stop in the mid-fourth century AD, although many villas were occupied until the end of the fourth century and sometimes later. Guy de la Bédoyère speculated that this fact could point to a particular time in history, when Magnentius, a rebel emperor, broke away from Rome.
Magnentius's rebellion, in 353 AD, was quashed and the Roman emperor Constantius II sent his imperial secretary, Paul, to Britain to sort out the situation. Paul was extreme in his revenge and many villas of sympathisers of Magnentius were destroyed. It is possible that this villa could have been destroyed at this time.
Life and death in Roman Britain
The excavations at Minchington could reveal a snapshot of life and death in Roman Britain. The landscape shows a continuity of occupation from earlier prehistoric settlement. By the third or fourth century, the 'gentry' had developed their villa in the valley while the lower classes worked the land and buried their dead over the ridge.
Are the two sites related? They were certainly in use at the same time, so perhaps they were part of the same estate. One thing is certain: farmer Simon Meadon is only the latest in a long line of people who have managed and worked the landscape of Cranborne Chase.
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The view from above
Archaeologists use aerial photography all the time because the pictures taken from aircraft can highlight archaeological features that can't be seen on the ground. If there are walls or ditches under the surface, for example, these can affect how plants grow.
This is because ditch fills hold more water than the surrounding landscape, and so in the summer, when the ground becomes dry and parched, the routes of ditches appear a darker green where the grass above them is still supplied with water to grow. In the case of walls lying under the surface, grass growing above them can become parched more quickly than in the surrounding area, so they show up as lighter lines on the surface.
Though much of Britain has now been photographed from the air, this isn't always what archaeologists require. If a particular area they are interested in hasn't been recorded from the ideal angle, during the most suitable season or in the best light (the angle of sunlight and shadows can make a dramatic difference to which features show up), it may be desirable to charter a special flight. Of course this is expensive and the money is not usually available.
At Cranborne Chase, Time Team tried out a new system to get close-up aerial photography of the trenches and surrounding landscape in a quick and financially viable way: This was done by Julian Cox and his radio-controlled helicopter from Autography Aerials.
This electrically powered model is much quieter and cleaner than the petrol-engine versions that modellers use. Mounted under the helicopter is a Sony DSCV1 five-megapixel digital camera to take the high-quality images. 'At the moment we can stay in the air for about five minutes carrying all the equipment,' says Julian. 'That's plenty of time to get up to 400 feet and into position to take a whole load of great photographs.'
The clever bit is in getting the camera into position to compose the photograph. 'The viewfinder from the camera is connected to a neat video link,' Julian explains. 'This transmits what the camera can see to a video receiver attached to the standard radio controller that I use to fly the craft. The receiver is then connected to a special "head-up display" (HUD) attached to my glasses, so that I get a direct live feed from whatever the camera can see. The results, I'm sure you'll agree, look excellent.'
With a mains transformer fitted in his car, Julian can set up the helicopter in five minutes, fly and photograph, download the images and burn a CD all in under half an hour. 'This is great,' says landscape archaeologist Stewart Ainsworth. 'We can send it up and be looking at the results on site in no time.'
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You often hear Phil Harding or Mick Aston saying 'OK, let's get that recorded and then move on'. But what does that involve?
Usually, in this series, it's involved Steve Thompson from Wessex Archaeology. Steve works behind the scenes creating the site archive. This involves recording all of the archaeology in photographs and drawings so that anybody can understand what was found, where and how. It also helps the author of the site report when they are looking back on the dig and trying to interpret the site.
'By photographing and drawing all the features, making sure all the context sheets (a paper record of the excavations) are filled out, and drawing the main site plans, I'm creating a full record of what has been found,' says Steve. 'After you've excavated a site there's not much left so it's important to record everything meticulously for future reference.'
Continually jumping from one trench to another, Steve is kept busy for the whole programme – and afterwards. Recording is time consuming and often archaeological features need to be recorded before they are dug. This means that if Steve isn't on the ball the excavation could be held up. Fortunately Steve has gained a solid reputation for speedy and accurate recording which fits in well with the programme's tight three-day timescale.
After the dig
After the three days, when the cameras have stopped and the diggers have gone home, Steve remains on site with a few trusty stalwarts. After the shoot it becomes much more like a normal archaeological job. There's no location catering or cups of tea on tap. 'We just get on with it and get the site recording finished off. After I'm done, the site supervisor, Kerry Ely, directs the machines to backfill all the trenches and that's about it. All that's left is the film, the finds and my records.'
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Time Team has carried out a number of other investigations into Roman sites in Britain, details of which can be found in the Past programmes section of this website. These include the 1997 Live dig on the site of a Roman villa at Turkdean, in Gloucestershire. As well as a detailed report on the dig, our special Live website included a chronology of Roman Britain, a range of Roman recipes and other links and resources.
Time Team returned to Turkdean as part of its 1999 series to see if it could make sense of the spectacular geophysics results that there had not been time to investigate during the Live programme. That same series also included a programme on a Roman bath house found at Beauport Park, East Sussex, and another programme based around a Roman settlement next to a fort at Papcastle, in Cumbria. The 2000 series included an excavation of Roman remains at Cirencester and at Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall. All of these pages contain further information and extensive links to Roman-related websites.
As well as investigating another Roman villa, this time in the Waltham Villa programme, the 2001 series also saw Time Team searching for the remains of a Roman villa at Lower Basildon in Berkshire. There is a special feature on the web pages for that programme on Roman mosaics, including an extensive list of Roman mosaic websites and suggestions for further reading and places to visit.
The 2002 series also featured Roman digs at Castleford, Ancaster and Cheshunt, while the 2003 series featured those at Dinnington and Sedgefield. The 2004 series featured three Roman sites, at Whitestaunton, Ipswich and Cranborne Chase.
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A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm by Martin Green (Tempus) paperback £17.99
Investigations have been carried out at Cranborne Chase near Salisbury for many years and Martin Green has been instrumental in the progress of our knowledge of the area. His family has lived and farmed the land in this area for centuries and this factor, allied with his unending enthusiasm for archaeology, has proved to be an inimitable combination. This book encompasses up-to-date information on the nature of settlement and human occupation in the Down Farm landscape, from Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers through to early agriculturalists, Iron-Age farmers, abandonment and renewal from the Romano-British through to the Medieval period, finally leaving us with the farm and landscape of today. Accompanied by many plans, diagrams, drawings and reconstructions, this is a wonderful testament to the work of 'the most professional amateur in Britain'.
Roman Britain by Tim Potter and Catherine Johns ('Exploring the Roman World' series, British Museum Publications, 1992) hardback £19.95; paperback £12.99
A survey of the effects of Roman culture on Britain and its people, by two British Museum curators. Includes evidence from the latest archaeological discoveries, including the Vindolanda writing tablets and the Thetford and Snettisham treasures, as well as a gazetteer of noteworthy sites to visit.
Roman Britain by T W Potter (British Museum Press, 1983, 2nd edition 1997) paperback £8.99
The four centuries during which the Roman presence in Britain rose, flourished and declined changed every aspect of life: industry, trade, government, the arts and learning. This book gives an illustrated outline of the period.
Roman Britain by Martin Millett (English Heritage, 1995) paperback £15.99
Making full use of the archaeological material available, this introductory study of four centuries of Roman presence in Britain explores the central themes of daily life, laying particular emphasis on the social, economic and cultural history.
Life in Roman Britain by Joan Alcock (Batsford/English Heritage, 1996) paperback £15.99
An excellent social history of life in Roman Britain covering food and drink, clothing, recreation, administration and religion. Richly illustrated.
Companion to Roman Britain by Guy de la Bédoyère (Tempus, 1999) hardback £25
This book is a comprehensive compilation of historical and epigraphic facts about Roman Britain and seeks to set the record straight about where facts end and opinions begin. Includes a complete breakdown of all military units, when and where they were stationed and so on, together with details of buildings, officials, administration and the first full list of the Gods of Roman Britain.
An Atlas of Roman Britain by Barri Jones and David Mattingly (Blackwell, 1993, 2001 edition) paperback £15.99
An amazing accumulation of archaeological evidence has been used to map every aspect of Roman life on a countrywide scale, including the distribution of Roman forts, towns, villas, potteries and quarries. Lots of additional plans and useful descriptions on each topic.
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