Roman fort shows fear of rebellious Midlands

March 30, 2001

History may have forgotten their stand but archaeologists are revealing hints of the Midlands' stubborn resistance to the armies of Rome.

The great size and fearsome defences of a hitherto unknown Roman fortress near Oxford have surprised Leicester University experts.

Eberhard Sauer, who will describe the discoveries at a conference tomorrow, said: "The fact Rome felt it necessary to have a considerable proportion of its troops here suggests there was a real risk of rebellion."

Although the first months of the Roman invasion of AD43 were comparatively well recorded, little is known of what ensued until the imperial armies reached northern England and Wales.

The Alchester fortress was located in 1998 from aerial photographs and last year, timbers from its huge front gate, preserved in the waterlogged soil, were excavated. Ian Tyers, a tree ring expert at Sheffield University, dated the wood to the autumn of AD44.

Sauer said the defences were particularly fearsome: sharpened stakes may have been attached to the ramparts; two deep ditches lay beyond it, the outermost with particularly sheer sides; and a brushwood-covered, spike-filled trench may have lain between the ditches.

Other finds hint at the relationship between occupier and occupied, including three-winged, barbed arrow heads, deadly against unarmoured warriors, and animal bones butchered in a way that suggest requisitioned livestock.

The fortress, at the junction of two major routes crossing the country, may have held 2,500 men, a large proportion of the 40,000-strong invasion army.

"It seems the garrison would have been in an ideal position to suppress any potential rebellion and coordinate support for the front line," Sauer said.

The archaeologists hope a more spectacular find will follow. Site conditions are ideal for the survival of wooden writing tablets that might include strategic reports, logistics accounts and even personal letters to illuminate the Roman invasion in unprecedented detail.

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