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New publication: Venta Belgarum: Prehistoric, Roman, and Post-Roman Winchester

New light on the rise and fall of Roman Winchester

A new significant publication gives us the first comprehensive picture of how Roman Winchester was created, flourished and declined.

Although there was an Iron Age hillfort on St Catherine’s Hill and a possible trading centre at Oram’s Arbour, Venta Belgarum was laid out on a new site that has persisted as the medieval and modern core of the city. It is likely that Roman army surveyors were responsible for laying out the streets, the radiating road system and a defensive circuit. It’s been suggested that that this was done in the first century AD, unusually early, when Rome’s ally, Togidubnus, the likely occupant of the magnificent villa complex of Fishbourne, was ruling the area, or after his death when the area was integrated fully into the province of Britannia.

Venta had innovations marking a new Romanised way of life, which usually included a complex of baths. Although this hasn’t yet been found for Winchester, an aqueduct of perhaps twenty-four-kilometres has been traced that would have brought water from the springs in the Itchen Stoke area, probably to feed Venta’s major buildings and perhaps the baths. Again, this magnificent engineering project is likely to have also been overseen by the Roman army.

The only intact Roman altar found in Winchester records the presence in Venta of Lucretianus who is described as a beneficiarius consularis, an army rank for someone seconded to report directly to the provincial governor himself - so a person of some importance who must have had a significant role in the new Roman town. The altar records that he restored “something” (perhaps a shrine) to the Italian, German, Gallic, and British Mother Goddesses most likely near to Jewry Street where it was found. Elsewhere the excavations at Lower Brook Street revealed the remains of a temple built not in the classical style but following the distinctive Romano-Celtic design; nearby was found in waterlogged conditions a wooden statuette of a woman which was probably associated with the temple. For image see right.

Roman Winchester flourished, with stone for building being brought from Bath, Roman food delicacies from the Mediterranean, and wine from the Rhineland as well as jewellery and glass from across the Roman Empire. Romanised houses were built in the city with mosaic floors and decorated wall plaster as well as central heating.

Documentary sources reveal increasingly turbulent times for Roman Britain in the later fourth century onwards both because of army revolts and incursions from “barbarian” invaders. In Winchester, the defences of the town were strengthened, and it appears from isotope analysis of bones from the Lankhills cemetery that people came to Venta from mainland Europe, perhaps as a local militia. From the late fourth century onwards, it seems that the town was in decline as trade dried up and buildings were not repaired. Although dating is difficult, some areas of the town were deserted, and others turned over to agricultural production, so by the fifth century Venta no longer functioned as the urban centre it once was although there are traces in the walled town and surrounding areas of people who used material culture that was Germanic.

It was not until the seventh century however that the royal house of Wessex commissioned the first monumental stone structure for two hundred years – the first stage of what became the great Old Minster, the precursor of the modern Cathedral. In the ninth century the town was given a new street layout, and the defences were refurbished. What Bede describes as Uintancaestir – ‘Walled place of Venta’ – then flourished as a political and cultural hub under King Alfred and his successors.

All this information has been published by Archaeopress in a magnificent two volume study – by Francis M. Morris and Martin Biddle - Venta Belgarum: Prehistoric, Roman, and Post-Roman Winchester, volume 3.i in the Winchester Studies series. The first volume reports on the prehistoric, Roman, and post-Roman archaeological phases of the 14 sites excavated in 1961–71 (directed by Professor Martin Biddle and involving 3000 volunteers from around the world), as well as listing and describing all significant observations of the defences, and the streets and buildings within the walls. The second volume presents about 4000 of the finds from the excavations of 1961–71, with additional significant objects from earlier excavations in Winchester and other Winchester collections. Finds are described and discussed by leading experts by era and type, with coins and selected pottery followed by objects grouped by industry or purpose.

This magnificent book in two volumes, is available as an e-book from Archaeopress at the very reasonable price of £16.00. The research and publication have been funded through generous support from Winchester City Council and Hampshire County Council as well as from trusts and individuals including the de Laszlo Foundation and the late Nigel McNair Scott. The publication will be launched at Winchester School of Art on Tuesday, 7th February 2024.

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Archaeological excavation work begins on Central Winchester Regeneration site

Archaeological trial trenching has begin on the Central Winchester Regeneration site. The work is being carried out by PCA (Pre-Construct Archaeology). There are two events coming up where members of the public can get involved.

ONLINE: Wednesday 26 July at 2pm on Teams – PCA will join the CWR Archaeology Panel to discuss the project, joined by Keith Wilkinson from the University of Winchester who will have a radiocarbon dating update. There will be a panel discussion and the opportunity to ask questions. The meeting will be recorded, so if you are unable to join on the day, you will be able to watch it back on the Winchester City Council website. To request a link to join the presentation and Q&A email 

IN PERSON: Saturday 29 July – Join us for guided tours of Trench 1 (next to Coitbury House). The tours will start and finish at our stall in Abbey Gardens and attendees will get a chance to view some of the finds from the excavation. Meet at the PCA Gazebo in Abbey Gardens anytime between 10am and 1pm.

More information can be found by clicking the link below:

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CBA Festival of Archaeology in Winchester

A brilliant time at this year’s Festival of Archaeology in Winchester 15–17 July

WEC joined Hyde900’s event outside the City Museum in Winchester to celebrate this year’s Council for British Archaeology (CBA) Festival of Archaeology. Members of the WEC team, including Professor Martin Biddle, Katherine Barclay, Clare Chapman, and Pru Kemball were on hand to answer questions. Visitors were particularly interested in WEC’s and HTT’s (Historic Towns Trust) map of Winchester which traces the city’s development from its time as the Royal centre of Anglo-Saxon England through to the city known by Jane Austen. A foldable version of this map which is great to use ‘on site’ in Winchester is available to purchase via our website , or you can order a framed version via Francis Frith.

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Friends of Winchester Cathedral Annual Lecture: Michael Wood will be interviewing Martin Biddle

Friends of Winchester Cathedral Annual Lecture: Michael Wood will be interviewing Martin Biddle

6 October 2022 at Winchester Cathedral

The historian and documentary maker, Michael Wood, will talk to Martin about his extraordinary life in archaeology,
and in particular his pioneering project in Winchester, begun in 1961 and still very much alive today.
The evening will start with a drinks reception in the cathedral at 6.30pm and the lecture will follow shortly after at
7.00pm, closing with a Q&A session. If you’re not able to join the event in person, don’t worry, as you’ll have the
option to join online too. £15.00 for Friends of Winchester Cathedral and Friends of WEC and £18.00 for non Friends.

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Hyde900 Community Dig August 2022 – bookings now open!

Hyde900's community dig is set to take place 18 – 21 August, 09:00–17:00.

Hyde900 will be putting on their annual community dig on the site of Hyde Abbey, the final resting place of Alfred the Great.  Time slots are now available online for this year's community dig and there is something to suit all participants; you can choose between digging, sieving, cleaning finds, or recording data. Bookings are for 2-hour sessions, and training and equipment will be provided on the day.

The dig is taking place in Hyde, courtesy of the kind householders who have given the go ahead for their gardens to be dug up.  Assuming the pattern of artefacts that have been revealed continues, there will be lots of exciting finds to uncover and process!  Previous years' finds from the gardens include medieval and later-medieval pottery, Norman and late-medieval stonework, glazed encaustic tiles and, of course, the Norman cloister arch.

For more information and to book your place please visit Hyde900's website.


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Sigmund stone

‘Winchester’s late Saxon connections with the Danish Royal House’ – CBA Festival of Archaeology lecture by Martin Biddle

'Winchester's late Saxon connections with the Danish Royal House'

Professor Martin Biddle talks about the Scandinavian presence and influence in Winchester, especially in the time of Cnut, as evidenced through architectural decoration, burials and finds of the Old and New Minsters.

This lecture from the Winchester Excavations Committee forms part of the 2022 CBA National Festival of Archaeology (theme: 'Journeys'), and the WEC Annual Lecture Series.

‘Humans and Animals in Roman Winchester and Beyond’ – Talk by Prof. Mark Maltby

Mark Maltby, Professor in Archaeology at Bournemouth University, has given a talk in Winchester on 'Humans and Animals in Roman Winchester and Beyond'. Prof. Mark Maltby is the editor of Winchester Studies volume 9.ii The Animals of Early Winchester.

There were significant changes in how animals were exploited in Roman Britain. The study of animal bones from sites of this period along with other archaeological evidence has shed new light on diets, husbandry practices, butchery methods and the ritual use of animals.  This talk focuses on some of these developments focusing particularly on zooarchaeological evidence from Winchester and other sites in southern England.

Prof. Maltby graduated in Prehistory and Archaeology at the University of Sheffield; he was a Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology at Southampton for 13 years and has been a lecturer at Bournemouth University for over 30 years. His major research interests revolve around zooarchaeology. Mark has carried out a large numbers of research programmes on sites of all periods from the Mesolithic onwards, both in Britain and Europe, as far east as Russia and as far south as Malta. He is particularly interested in how zooarchaeology can be incorporated into studies of Roman and medieval towns. Mark has published widely on human-animal relationships in Iron Age and Roman Britain. He has specific interests and resultant publications on the history of butchery practices, the use of salt in preserving meat, and the exploitation of birds.

The slides for the talk are available here.

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Launch of WS 10 ‘Environment and Agriculture of Early Winchester’

Our latest Winchester Excavations Committee publication, 'Environment and Agriculture of Early Winchester', which is volume 10 in the Winchester Studies series, was launched at The ARC in Winchester on Friday 29th April. The book is available now from Archaeopress, as either an e-book or a printed publication. This marks the first time a Winchester Studies volume has been made available as an e-book upon publication. We are very grateful to Archaeopress for all their hard work in facilitating this. Thank you also to all who supported the publication of this volume and attended the event in Winchester.


This new comprehensive survey of Winchester’s past environments shows that from Roman times onwards the citizens of Winchester had ready supplies of orchard crops including apples, pears, damsons, plums, and cherries, probably grown within the city walls, as well as sloes, nuts and blackberries harvested from the hedgerows; royal visitors and the bishops also enjoyed grapes (and wine) and figs. Documentary sources reveal that the Bishops of Winchester had vineyards from the thirteenth century onwards; they were so plentiful in the south side of the city that a church there was named All Saints in the Vines. These studies also show that whilst in early Roman times bread was made from spelt, from the later Roman period increasingly bread wheat similar to what we use today was probably threshed and initially processed at rural farms such as at Owslebury, where evidence of these activities have been found. By the thirteenth century, at least nine watermills were operating for general use in Winchester as well as additional ones supplying the Bishop’s Palace at Wolvesey and the Cathedral monastery. Records show corn came for milling from Andover, Avington, Barton Stacey, Baybridge (near Owslebury), Botley, Clatford, Crawley, East Meon, Hurstbourne, King’s Worthy, Nerdon, Overton, Stockbridge, and Winnall.

Winchester’s participation in the international trading networks of the Roman Empire is demonstrated by the presence of a range of exotic plants including the Mediterranean stone pine which may well have been imported specifically to be burnt as part of Roman temple rituals. In a medieval deposit at Lower Brook Street were found two peach stones which are most likely to have been imported at this period. This was not a high-status area at the time so perhaps one of the people living there worked at Castle for example, where medieval royalty often came. Comparison of the two sites reveal that the garderobes of the Castle were frequently cleared out whereas the pits used for the disposal of human waste in the Brooks area were not. This failure whilst of benefit to archaeobotanists probably contributed to the ill health of the ordinary citizens of Winchester, including the spread of the Black Death and other medieval plagues that reduced the population of Winchester from 10,000 to 6,000.

Documentary sources reveal that as well as those at the Castle there were extensive gardens at the Bishop’s Palace at Wolvesey where fruit and vegetables were grown on a considerable scale and sold for cash under the direction of a gardener, who, in the 1290s, had an annual salary of £3 15s. 10 (c. £3125 today). Excavations at the site revealed a feature which does not appear to in the documentary record but seems to have been a raised garden from where the first Norman bishop, William Giffard (1109–29) could have admired the building of the current Cathedral.

As well as reviewing a range of documentary evidence Winchester Studies 10: The Environment and Gardens of Early Winchester (edited by Professor Martin Biddle, Lady Jane Renfrew and Dr Patrick Ottaway) analyses seeds, pollen grains, plants, mosses, wood and insects preserved from waterlogged sites across the city, and also deposits of preserved grains carbonised accidentally. An analysis of carbonised grains in the moulds used in the medieval period to cast bells, revealed that the clay had been strengthened by the inclusion of horse manure – shown by the presence of oats and chaff which at this time were regularly fed to horses.

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Environment front cover

New publication: ‘Environment and Agriculture of Early Winchester’

This wide-ranging study describes the natural environment of Winchester and its immediate surroundings from the late Iron Age to the early post-medieval period. Historical and archaeological evidence consider humanity's interactions with the environment, fashioning agricultural, gardening and horticultural regimes over a millennium and a half.

More information on this latest volume from The Winchester Excavations Committee can be found here.

Available to purchase from Archaeopress.

Environment front cover

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