After looking at the walls of Winchester, Barry Cunliffe turned his attention to the much more upstanding (and precise) defences of Portchester Castle, a site in the guardianship of English Heritage. This Roman fort of the ‘Saxon Shore’, enclosed 3.6 ha, and subsequently had a Norman castle built in one corner and a church and cemetery established in another.
Cunliffe’s investigations involved a programme of excavations, from 1961 to 1972 (the decade of work costing a dizzying £9,950). They resulted in an impressive series of reports, published by the Society of Antiquaries. These describe the use of the site from the Roman period (plus a dusting of prehistoric flintwork) right up to the early 19th century.
As the north-west quarter of the site is occupied by the Norman castle, the north-east quarter by a cricket pitch, and the south-east corner by the priory and graveyard, the south-west area was chosen for large-scale excavation. This work showed how fugitive the Roman levels are, having been variously ploughed over or built on throughout history, so that buildings of the Roman period are represented only by the impressions made by their basal timbers.
The enclosing defensive walls, with their forward projecting bastions and opposed gates, appear to have survived well, but have actually seen considerable change. The gates have been blocked or modified, and although the distinctive pitched flints and tile courses on the outer surfaces are wonderful reminders of Roman work, the Norman masons took large quantities of flint from inside the ‘shell’ and remodelled its contours when they were constructing the castle.
The key questions surrounding Roman Portchester are – when was it built – and who occupied it? Barry Cunliffe’s conclusion was that the fort was established by Carausius around the year 285, in his role as naval commander charged with clearing the Channel of pirates. It was abandoned soon afterwards, when the initial work was done, and may not have figured much in the Britannic Empire, the brief imperial careers of Carausius and Allectus (286-296). It may have come back into use under the new central government, when the community included both women and children.
Further changes took place in the mid-4th century and occupation appears to have continued on into the 5th without a major break. Just who made up the population, with increasing evidence of a Germanic element to the finds, and whether or not Portchester is the Portus Adurni of the Notitia Dignitatum, are questions that remain unanswered.
More recent work has involved geophysical surveys, which have added considerably to the subterranean picture, and these are incorporated in the excellent (and sometimes delightfully quirky) exhibition at the site.
Cunliffe, B (1975) Excavations at Portchester Castle, Vol 1: Roman, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Vol XXXII.
Series by – Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.