Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – an Early Romano-British cemetery at Alton

A small Early Romano-British cremation cemetery was excavated at 87 High Street, Alton in 1860 and again in 1980. The first excavation uncovered a richly furnished cremation burial and most of the finds ended up in the Curtis Museum in the town. In 1980, before the construction of the Inner Ring Road, further exploration took place and eight more graves were excavated. All of the graves contained a large assemblage of pots as grave goods and several contained other items as well. The pottery suggests a date in the 1st century AD.

Digging in progress: 1980

Excavation in progress: 1980


The richest burial, known as Grave 2, was a shallow pit first discovered in 1860 and only completely excavated in 1980. The earlier excavation found 18 pottery vessels, two glass vessels, 19 glass gaming pieces and a gold signet ring. Metal corners were noted surrounding the gaming pieces and the presence of the ring suggested that these were originally contained within a wooden casket, along with the cremated remains of the deceased.

Some of the 19 glass counters

Some of the 19 glass gaming pieces

Grave 2: the bindings of the gaming board found in 1980

Grave 2: the bindings of the gaming board found in 1980

The two glass vessels

The two glass vessels

The 1980 excavation added a further 13 pottery vessels to the contents of this grave, as well as four copper alloy corner plates and a drop handle (which probably represent the remains of a gaming board). In addition there were two spoons, a fragment of an iron knife blade and a glass bead. The cremated bone is from an adult of indeterminate sex, although the signet ring and gaming pieces suggest he was male.

Cast of the signet ring gem stone.

Cast of the signet ring gem stone.

The stone inset in the gold signet-ring was engraved with four symbols representing Roman deities. At the time of the burial, Roman law dictated that gold rings could only be used by people of high rank, indicating that the deceased was of high status, possibly a native aristocrat. A signet-ring was generally passed to the heir at the time of death as proof of succession and it is unusual for one to be found in a grave. The most likely explanation for the inclusion of the ring is that the deceased was young, or without heirs.

Alton Grave 5 - horse's head to the left.

Alton Grave 5 – horse’s head to the left.

Another of the Alton graves, known as Grave 5, was in a deep pit with two distinct deposits. The upper layers contained 13 broken pottery vessels, a scatter of animal bone and cremated human bone. The lower deposit had been carefully covered with earth and levelled before this upper material was added. The lower deposit itself contained 40 pottery vessels, two brooches, two finger rings of copper alloy and iron, a copper alloy cosmetic set (tweezers, nail-cleaner, ear scoop), copper alloy fragments of a casket (including studs, lock plate and drop handle), an iron knife and eight nail fixings from a wooden box. The grave also contained an inverted horse skull. Cremated bones from an adult of indeterminate sex were contained in a pot with a lid placed in the grave early in the sequence of filling. The grave goods suggest that this may be a female burial. The broken pottery in the upper fill of the grave may represent the disposal of things used to prepare a funerary feast after the remainder of the grave had been filled.


Further reading

Millett M (1986) Early Roman Cemetery at Alton, Hants Field Club Vol 42, pp 43-87

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, with help from Stacie Elliot.


Buried in time – the Iron Age (ii)

Iron Age burials at Owslebury (excavated 1961-72)

 A site occupied from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD

This complex site a few miles south of Winchester began life as a ‘banjo enclosure’. It was subsequently unenclosed, except for a ditch at the entrance, but in the early 1st century BC a number of ditched enclosures and trackways were dug and created.

The burials associated with the site suggest a small group of occupants made up of perhaps two families. Typically for sites in Britain, few intact burials relate to the Middle Iron Age (pre 100 BC) but among those that do are two infant burials found in a storage pit and the cremated remains of a child accompanied by two broken pots, a burnt bronze bracelet and a large glass bead.

One significant burial was of a male accompanied by weapons: a sword; a shield with a bronze boss, and a spear. The sword, in a wooden scabbard, was suspended from a baldric (buckled by a continental style bronze belt hook) attached by a leather strap and two bronze rings. The shield boss and belt hook date to the period 100 – 50 BC.

Burial 39

Burial 39

Owslebury 'Burial 39' the Warrior Burial.

Owslebury ‘Burial 39’ the Warrior Burial.

Two cemetery enclosures existed on the eastern slopes of the site. At the centre of one of them was a cremation in a large urn accompanied by six vessels with lids, dating to the local Late Iron Age. Another cremation was contained within a wooden box with four small pottery vessels.

Some of the grave goods are on show in the Museum of the Iron Age at Andover.

Excavations at Owslebury by John Collis.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, with help from Stacie Elliot.


Buried in time – the Later Bronze Age

Latch Farm Barrow, Christchurch 

A Bronze Age barrow later used as an urn cemetery – 1500 to 1000 BC

In 1937 Mrs C M Piggott examined a large barrow at Latch Farm ‘in the fork of the rivers’, in advance of gravel digging. The contractor was ‘extremely considerate’ and helped in many ways, but speed was of the essence and so ‘in just over three weeks, with two paid men and three voluntary helpers the barrow was excavated as fully as circumstances demanded and time allowed.’

 latch1  latch2

A newspaper article ( The Christchurch Times, 2/10/1937) describing the dig – and a Beaker from one of the early burials

The barrow survived to only 0.60m in height, but definition of the ditch allowed its full 30m (100ft) diameter to be appreciated. The primary burials, in what was probably originally a bell-barrow, were identified as a cremation in a tripartite urn and another in a small oak coffin.


The number of small pits shows the density of burials in the south-east quadrant of the barrow.

A large Late Bronze Age (Deverel-Rimbury) cemetery occupied much of the southern half of the monument, totalling about 90 cremations in all, 70 of them in pottery urns. By this time the barrow ditch was silted up and burials took place there also. Some of the burials were covered by slabs of local ironstone, possibly to mark their position. The catalogue in the published report states that the first four urns ‘are in the possession of Mr Herbert Druitt of Christchurch, who is regrettably unwilling for them to be published with the rest of the pottery’.


Deverel-Rimbury pottery is named after two sites in Dorset and its main characteristic is of large, rather unlovely, urns with simple finger-impressed, applied decoration. J B Calkin, Honorary Curator at the Red House Museum in the 1960s, spent a good deal of time classifying the vessels and describes barrel, bucket and globular forms. If the pottery does suggest anything, it is of a more egalitarian society, with a much greater percentage of people than previously being buried in a monument. The main burial rite has changed also, from inhumation – the burial of a body – to cremation.

Some of the Latch Farm pottery is on display at the Red House Museum.

Christchurch Old Collections

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, with help from Stacie Elliot.