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The Dark Earth at Winchester

12 September 2012

Current Archaeology 271 (Oct 2012) (see also www.archaeology.co.uk) has an article on some recent excavations in Winchester by one of those big archaeological bodies, Oxford Archaeology, see page 34. The title, 'Uncovering Winchester' by Nadia Durrani, talking to Ben M Ford, excavation director, reveals that Winchester as a town had been rebuilt some 40 to 50 years prior to King Alfred's decision to make it his capital. It may even have been inexistence much earlier – bridging the Dark Age. The current investigation mainly took place in NW Winchester and it was found a settlement existed there in the Iron Age, at the intersection of two major trackways (to all points of the compass). This was Oram's Arbour, located in the valley of the river Itchen and later developed in the Roman period as an administrative area and urban market centre. Basically the town thrived in the Roman period, until the middle of the 4th century. At this time all the buildings had been abandoned and the remains of others were superseded by the innocuous 'dark earth layer' that we have all read about in Steve Mitchell's articles in SIS journals. The dark earth layer is found at various other Roman towns not only in England but on the continent and it is thought to indicate decay of organic material against a background of urban abandonment and a drop in population numbers. However, it is also clear that further up the slope from the river life went on in the 4th and 5th centuries, but even here activity reverted at that point to horticulture (growing crops or rearing animals) until final abandonment (a clean strata of soil laid down). The dark earth layer is supposed to represent the Dark Age – but was there really a dark age of the kind imagined in the past by archaeologists? Activity at the area investigated returned in the 8th and 9th centuries but settlement appears to have re-established on the same alignment of the Roman road (which itself is aligned on an Iron Age holloway) but some 20m up the slope. Hence, we don't know if early Saxon levels can be found even further up the hill and none of the evidence actually contradicts Steve Mitchell. He claimed the dark earth deposits represent a rising water table in the Late Roman period as known from certain documentation – the letter to Aetius for example. This forced people to evacuate the low lying ground and migrate upwards, the low ground and river sides becoming full of marsh and bog and generally water logged. Is that all that is required to interpret the mysterious dark earth layer – it would seem that might be so.

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