Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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In last month’s ‘great excavations’ mini-series (CA 337), I mentioned the then editor’s suggestion in CA 8 (May 1968) that ‘one of the Roman towns like Silchester or Wroxeter that are ploughed every year’ be excavated by the BBC as an example of public archaeology – Time Team before the Team, so to speak. With Silchester featured last month, it is worth turning to the other site mentioned, Wroxeter – a well-known Roman site near Shrewsbury. It is a site familiar, I am sure, to many readers of CA for its impressive upstanding remains.
Wroxeter can lay claim to ‘greatness’ for many reasons, including a long history of investigation: the first accurate recording of the city was undertaken by the engineering polymath Thomas Telford back in 1788, and antiquarian investigations occurred across the 18th and 19th centuries. The first ‘archaeology’ on the site technically dates to the 1890s, and then to 1912-1914 (the latter funded by the Society of Antiquaries), but it was Kathleen Kenyon’s 1936- 1937 excavations that really initiated detailed scientific inquiry. (Kenyon again led work on the site in 1952-1954.) Following the enforced wartime interlude, in 1947 the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works (which became, in time, the present-day custodians English Heritage) acquired the site from the Shropshire Archaeological Society.
Here I focus on this post-war work: the training excavations between 1955 and 1985, funded by the Ministry, and led first by Graham Webster and later on in partnership with Philip Barker (both of the University of Birmingham). Webster and Barker’s work – which has been featured down the years in CA – can itself lay claim to the accolade of ‘greatness’ for several reasons: for their exploration and explanation of the site; for their decades-long training programme; and for their impact on archaeological techniques. In particular, Webster and Barker ushered in the use of open-area excavation, which had previously often been frowned on, until the approach was proven – not without challenge – at Wroxeter. This single aspect alone arguably settles the ‘greatness’ test: without the advancement of such openarea approaches here, many other sites, both Roman and prehistoric, might have been excavated very differently.
ACT I: THE CITY
Wroxeter was one of the first sites mentioned by the magazine, right back in CA 1 (March 1967) in a review of Roman swimming baths that also mentions Gadebridge (Hertfordshire), Caerleon, Eccles (Kent), and Bath. Passing mention of Webster’s work on the site is then made over the following years, but it is in CA 14 (May 1969) that he provided the first of a series of detailed updates to the magazine. Webster pays rightful thanks to previous researchers on the site, including crucial aerial surveys by Kenneth St Joseph in the 1950s. The scale of the training is impressive, with 40-50 students at a time visiting for fortnight-long sessions. Webster also flagged his early ambitions for the site: ‘the whole area offers a spectacular opportunity for total excavation. This could be a first-rate tourist attraction of the future’.
CA next returned to Wroxeter in issue 25 (March 1971). In the intervening two years, much activity had taken place, with work on the baths complex wrapping up and new excavations of the basilica beginning. In this period, too, came some of the first really reliable evidence for the post-Roman occupation of the site. Crucially, it was at this time that Barker became fully involved in the site, pushing forward into reality Webster’s hopes for large-scale, open-area excavations.
Work at Wroxeter continued across the 1970s, cropping up regularly in the pages of CA. But fast-forward like a time-lapse video to CA 75 (February 1981), where the magazine celebrated a new milestone in the site’s history: the retirement of Graham Webster from his position as Reader in Archaeology at the University of Birmingham. This was clearly a bittersweet moment for all involved, and CA summarised Webster’s extraordinary impact on British archaeology up to this point, with more than 2,000 students having been trained at Wroxeter alone. Fastforward again, and CA 112 (December 1988) marked in similar style the retirement of Wroxeter’s other ‘great excavator’: Philip Barker. CA went back to Wroxeter in issue 125 (July/August 1991) for an in-depth interview with Webster, ranging widely across his life and work, that included the following two gems: ‘He was sent to Prestwick, to take charge of the building of the transatlantic air terminal, and here he found an Iron Age urnfield which he dug and published. He also met Gordon Childe. “He looks like a little chimpanzee,” he was told, “but don’t be put off, he is all right underneath”.’ Alas, a less happy review of the life and works of the other half of the Wroxeter team, Philip Barker, came a decade later, when CA 174 (June 2001) provided an in-depth obituary. Only one issue later, CA 175 (August/September 2001) sadly reported on the death, in turn, of Graham Webster.
ACT II: THE HINTERLAND
The Wroxeter site is next mentioned in CA 157 (May 1998) (and again in CA 161, February 1999) in a different guise. By this time, the large-scale excavations on the site were well concluded and written up in a series of impressive monographs, but in the mid-1990s the archaeology department at Birmingham had turned its attention to the wider context of the city, in what became known as the Wroxeter Hinterlands Project. This was as innovative in its own way as Webster and Barker’s work had been in the 1960s and 1970s, with the early use of GIS and other computing techniques to analyse and interpret evidence from multiple sources, a forerunner of the type of computerised landscape survey that has since become commonplace.
ACT III: THE VILLA
A final act – for now, at least – in the Wroxeter story came in 2011, when CA 251 (February 2011) and CA 253 (April 2011) reported on the Channel 4 TV series Roman Villa. Fronted by Dai Morgan Evans, the programme tested the skills of six modern builders as they constructed a full-size replica of a Roman villa at the site. They could only use tools and materials known to the Romans, along with a manual on Roman architecture written by Vitruvius in 25 BC. As a bemused CA 253 reported of the show: ‘Roman techniques do not stand up well to the damp British climate: “the villa requires constant maintenance,” says Marc Badger, Head of Visitor Operations at Wroxeter.’ The thousands of trainee diggers and millions of visitors to have experienced the site down the years might not disagree with the disparaging review of our country’s climate, but few, I suspect, would challenge Wroxeter’s claims to greatness. This is a site that continues to fascinate and to reveal new secrets. It will return to the pages of CA in the future, I am certain.
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Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 5 April. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI338’