Saturday, 13 August 2022

Could Roman temple be buried in woods?

ARCHAEOLOGISTS are digging up what could be the remains of a Roman temple in woodland

ARCHAEOLOGISTS are digging up what could be the remains of a Roman temple in woodland on the outskirts of Henley.

About 15 volunteers from the South Oxfordshire Archaeological Group have been working on the site at High Wood, near Binfield Heath, for the past three years.

They have cordoned off and cleared a 1,500 sq m patch of land and dug a series of pits, unearthing the foundations of a building which is made from flint and mortar.

At the moment, the experts are not sure how big the structure is, nor what it was used for. The only distinguishing feature is a flat mortar surface with traces of scorching, suggesting it might have served as a fireplace.

The team have also found old roof tiles and fragments of plaster and pottery, including samian ware, a type of high-quality crockery that would have been imported from France.

There was also a large number of sheep and goat bones, suggesting it may have been a religious site where the creatures were sacrificed to a God.

The project started in 2013, when members of the amateur group found pottery fragments scattered on the ground while looking for traces of old Roman roads.

They returned the following year and cut back the thick undergrowth of saplings and brambles by hand, which took several weeks.

They then carried out a geophysical survey to establish what might be buried there.

This involved different procedures, including the use of a ground-penetrating radar device and another that detects magnetic fields to “see” beneath the soil without having to dig. However, this revealed very little because the ground was extremely uneven. 

David Nicholls, the project leader, believes the site was disturbed by treasure hunters during the Seventies and Eighties.

A similar phenomenon occurred at Wanborough, near Guildford, during the Eighties, when looters stole Roman gold coins worth millions of pounds from beneath a farmer’s field.

It’s likely that a large number of coins were buried at High Wood at one stage but this is no longer the case. The team swept the entire site with metal detectors and found only six. They dug several smaller test pits last year and the main dig started two months ago with the permission of the Phillimore Estate, which owns the land.

The archaeologists are allowed to work between February and July, after which they must move off while the site is used to rear game.

So far they have dug eight pits measuring 1.5m by 1m and a larger one measuring 6m by 3m. 

They work for four days every fortnight, typically from Friday through to Monday, and do not expect to uncover the entire building this year.

Some of the volunteers come from the Henley area, others from High Wycombe, Hemel Hempstead and even Wiltshire.

The site is near a public footpath and walkers often stop to watch the work and take photographs. Several have joined the team since the work started as anyone may take part, regardless of previous experience.

The volunteers break up the surface soil using a hand mattock, which is similar to a pick-axe, then use trowels as they dig deeper.

All disturbed earth is sifted for artefacts and finds are gently washed using water and toothbrushes.

These are then reported to Oxford Archaeology, a professional organisation which is providing advice and support.

Mr Nicholls, who lives in Caversham, said: “At the moment we believe it’s a fairly rare structure, possibly a Romano-British temple.

“Unfortunately, there seems to have been a lot of interference with the site since antiquarian times. 

“The terrain is like a First World War battlefield — it’s absolutely horrendous. We think a large amount of quite valuable material could have been moved.

“People would come up in the dead of night, possibly from London, and secretly dig around here by hand.

“It would have been a big effort so they wouldn’t have done it unless there was some kind of reward. It’s a shame because a lot of historic evidence has been lost.”

The work costs about £6,000 a year, most of which is funded by grants. The biggest expense is cataloguing the excavated items, which is carried out by specialist contractors.

Other finds have included four pieces of chain mail from between the 1st and 4th centuries and about 30 pieces of quern stone and mill stone, which were used to grind materials by hand.

Mr Nicholls said: “We’re at a very early stage and don’t even know whether it’s one building or two at the moment. We think we’re only working on part of a much larger site.

“At the moment our work is raising more questions than answers but hopefully we will find out more as we progress. There’s a huge amount to be done and I’ll be long gone before it’s over.

“If this turns out to be a temple site, it would be quite rare as there are only six in southern England with two others that aren’t yet confirmed.

“It doesn’t seem like a small farmstead or anything that served a military or industrial purpose, so it’s still a bit of an enigma.

“We haven’t found any personal items or artefacts so it probably wasn’t a domestic property.”

He added: “Lord Phillimore has been extremely generous in granting us access and we’re very grateful.”

Mr Nicholls, 77, grew up in St Mark’s Road, Henley, and was director of a company that restored historic buildings before he retired.

He first took part in a dig at the age of 12, when he helped to excavate the remains of a 3rd century Roman villa in Harpsden Wood. A few years later, he helped to uncover a Roman farmstead at Bix.

He said archaeology had changed dramatically over the decades with much more technology now being used. The volunteers use GPS devices and lidar, a type of laser imaging, to create a three-dimensional map.

Mr Nicholls added: “It’s the challenge of finding out more that keeps me coming back. We start out knowing nothing about a site and gradually uncover something that no one has understood before.

“Everyone who takes part feels the same way — it’s a great and worthwhile search for our own history.”

To join the dig, email Mr Nicholls at

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