TONY Robinson strides along a gently sloping field in the heart of a new Swindon housing estate before coming to a halt at a freshly excavated test pit. He peers into it and then surveys the grassy surroundings.
With a familiar mixture of enthusiasm, charm and curiosity he proclaims: “There is something really interesting and Roman under here. That’s without question. But at the moment we don’t quite know what.”
Earlier, his colleague in television archaeology, Mick Aston, isn’t quite so ebullient – at least, not upon arriving at what he perceives to be the deliberately concealed Ash Brake housing area of Abbey Meads.
Pencil and notebook in hand I am keen – as a journalist covering the event – to record Mick’s thoughts on the impending excavations at this enigmatic ten-acre swathe of greenery occupied by our ancestors some 2,000 years ago.
But from beneath a commotion of wiry white hair he is spluttering with anger and frustration “It’s taken me ages to find this place,” he rages. “Who the hell designed these roads.”
Clearly, Mick has more respect for the builders of nice straight Roman roads than their modern-day counterparts who conceived the spaghetti-like warren of ways, gardens and closes that comprise the North Swindon Development Area.
Ten years ago next week The Time Team descended en masse on Swindon in order to probe the town’s mysterious Roman ruins at Groundwell Ridge.
Three days of digging, scraping and head scratching in the town’s northern reaches – from Friday to Sunday – is the main focus of “the biggest single archaeological investigation ever undertaken in the UK.”
Millions tune into Channel 4 for The Big Dig, which involves 1,000 excavations across the country. At the heart of it, though, is a Time Team special on The Romans in Swindon.
Trowels to the ready, some 80 local volunteers join TT presenters, future knight-of-the-realm Tony, Mick and Carenza Lewis for the escapade, bolstered by experts specialising in everything from Iron Age coins to Roman religion.
It culminates in a 90-minute special from Tony and the gang at Ash Brake, aided – bizarrely – by comic Eddie Izzard, a knowledgeable amateur archaeologist.
Dozens of nearby residents hurl themselves into the spirit of the occasion by creating gaping holes in their lawns in search of artefacts.
It is a truly remarkable weekend – not least in a town, as our detractors often insist, that lacks any “real history.”
So what exactly were the Romans up to in Swindon (or at least, this corner of the countryside which later became part of our sprawling 21st Century town) all those years ago?
No-one, for sure, really knows. English Heritage maintains the site was a substantial villa complex – a luxurious home for a succession of wealthy landowners from around 100-350AD.
The much respected Association for Roman Archaeology (ARA), however, insists the evidence points to something far more significant… a water sanctuary with major religious and medicinal purposes.
Anyhow, it is 1996 and a metal detector makes excited noises soon after a digger has gouged through virgin countryside at the Abbey Meads development.
Its owner is thrilled to discover Roman coins and takes them to Swindon Museum in Bath Road. Swindon’s archaeological advisor Roy Canham and Bryn Walters, a Swindon expert on all things Roman, are soon at Abbey Meads.
Seconds after producing his trowel Bryn removes a lump of clay and is confronted with a “beautiful Roman wall.”
He says today: “We always knew there was something there: aerial photos from the 1960s had shown man-made features beneath the soil.”
It was always assumed, however, the remains were medieval – 1,000 years or so after the Romans abandoned Britain to its invaders, ushering in the Dark Ages.
Builders agree to temporarily halt work, enabling Bryn, fellow archaeologist Bernard Phillips and a team of local volunteers to get cracking. What they find is “mind blowing,” says Bryn.
Significant remnants from several grand buildings are revealed. They find a cistern which was once part of a Roman nymphaeum – a shrine to a water nymph. Among the pottery is tableware produced in France by Reburrus the Gaul around 160AD. Mouth-wateringly, they unearth a magnificent, though crushed, 4th Century silver-bowl – now at Swindon Museum – used for ritual banquets.
After further probes English Heritage breathlessly announce a “complex and well preserved” Roman site. It would be an outrage, everyone agrees, if this precious slice of Roman history is obliterated by diggers.
Sniffing a story-with-legs, the Adver launches a “Save our Heritage” campaign.
Thrillingly, English Heritage in May, 1999 stump up £854,000 – its biggest ever grant – while Swindon council chips in £100,000, enabling the latter to buy the land from developers.
They declare the site “a rare Roman health spa,” dotted with “a complex of shrines or temples” created around springs that once bubbled from the hillside.
There is evidence, it says, of “fine mosaics and painted walls.” Chairman Sir Joycelyn Stevens hails it “one of the most important Roman sites in the whole of Europe… absolutely unique.”
Swindon, he adds, “has been put on the map of Roman Britain from zero.”
Artistic recreations depict an opulent complex of streams cascading down irrigated terraces lined with pergolas and landscaped with gardens, pools, temples, shrines and courtyards.
A haven of relaxation and healing for high-ranking soldiers, well-to-do Romans and elite members of local British tribes. “Britain’s Lourdes,” says one commentator. “Wiltshire’s Pompeii” suggests another.
Despite the media hoo-ha, the Time Team is not permitted to excavate the heart of the complex but only the bits on the edge.
The man most of us know and love as Baldrick enthuses: “This site is just brimming with potential.”
But if he has a cunning plan, he isn’t telling.
The next year English Heritage uncovers a spacious Turkish-bath type complex with the remains of an elaborate, tiled bathing area and a heating system.
And then the bombshell. “It’s a not a Roman health spa after all.” It is a Roman villa, the centrepiece of a once thriving estate, they divulge.
A viewing platform is erected above the latest excavations – which comprise 20 per cent of the villa – and on a chilly July morning we gawp down as archaeologists Pete Wilson and David Miles point out what’s what.
Mr Miles says: “The villa would have had running water, lavatories, baths, a gymnasium, rooms with plastered walls, window glass and a central heating system.
“No-one in Britain would live in this sort of luxury and comfort until the late 18th and early 19th Century,” he adds, before the ruins are sadly re-buried with no immediate plans for future digs.
The Swindon-based ARA aren’t buying it. ARA director Bryn says: “It’s obviously not a Roman villa – it’s nothing like a Roman villa.”.
Meanwhile, Swindon’s Roman heritage lies a metre or so beneath our feet, tantalisingly out-of-reach.
These are the reasons why the site was an important water sanctuary with religious significance and not a villa, according to ARA director Bryn Walters:
- Far too many 4th Century Roman coins were recovered for a villa plus unusually high quantity fragments from many fine Roman glass vessels.
- The considerable amount of small broken bones – residual from feasting – are far more than would be expected at a conventional villa. The superb silver bowl would only have been used for hand washing during ritual banquets.
- The layout of the Roman buildings identified by scans indicate a plan most unlike a Roman villa. A small lead plaque found there is an offering to the Egyptian goddess Isis, a water goddess revered by the Romans.
- The head from a statue of Serapis, consort to Isis, found at nearby Highworth strongly suggests there had been a cult centre, undoubtedly dedicated to Isis and Serapis on the Blunsdon to Highworth ridge in the 4th Century.
Membership to the Association for Roman Archaeology is available to anyone interested in Roman archaeology. The ARA’s head office is based in Swindon. Tel: 01793 534 008, or via its web pages: www.associationromanarchaeology.org/
Annual membership is £17.50. Members gain free access to almost every Roman site in Britain, along with three colour magazines a year. Tours and excursions in Britain and abroad are organised annually.