English Heritage is the semi-autonomous body charged with caring for and preserving England’s multitude of historical sites and buildings. Similar bodies fulfil the same responsibilities for Scotland, Ireland and Wales. When you pay your £4.50 at the gateway to some medieval castle or Tudor palace, it is English Heritage that receives the money and, later on, disburses it to check the woodworm in the oak beams or repoint the crumbling masonry.
Unfortunately, the interval between receiving the admission fee and disbursing the money for repairs is becoming increasingly short as government cut-backs and obtuse tourists who prefer theme parks to history put increasing pressure on English Heritage’s financial reserves. The announcement, therefore, that English Heritage has spent £850,000 on acquiring an empty field on the outskirts of Swindon is an indication that the field is of unusual importance.
The story begins with an anonymous metal detector walking over the grassy slope of Abbey Mead, swinging his infernal instrument from side to side and ever and anon halting to dig in the soil. Although such activities are strictly forbidden on ancient sites, no one knew of any reason why he should not pursue his lonely hobby in this particular field, which everyone believed was public open space.
Early the following day the detector concerned approached the curator of the small and unimportant Swindon Museum and handed him a cardboard shoebox. Inside were the products of his detecting: scraps of Roman pottery, pieces of broken Roman tiles and fragments of a metal brooch which, though heavily corroded, was also clearly Roman.
Intrigued, the curator communicated with the County Archaeologist, a Mr Roy Canhan, who looked up the field on his map of the area. As far as he could tell, the field had never been disturbed; there were no buildings or remains of buildings on it, though the larger scale maps did reveal the existence of a few humps and bumps that could, possibly, conceal something. More as a formality than anything, he wrote to the Swindon Planning Authority to ask whether there were any plans to develop the site and added the address to his list of things to do sometime in the future.
A couple of weeks went by and then one Friday Mr Canhan received a reply from the Planning Authority, informing him that Abbey Mead was indeed scheduled for development. Work on constructing 45 luxury homes was due to begin the following Monday!
Spurred into action, Mr Canhan went out to the site and wandered between the surveyor’s pegs and the heaps of earth at the bottom of the slope where the developers had already started work. The humps and bumps on the map translated into what, with a little imagination, could be the outline of a building and a little poking about in the ground turned up more Roman pottery. The thought that he had discovered a hitherto unknown Roman villa sent Mr Canhan scurrying back to his museum in excitement.
There were many villas in Roman Britain, some large, the majority small, but what interests the archaeologist is the possibility that they may contain treasure in the form of mosaics and frescoes. Lullingstone Roman villa housed a beautiful mural showing robed men praying with uplifted arms between panels decorated with the traditional Christian symbols of the Chi-Rho and Alpha and Omega. The Hinton St Mary villa was floored with a huge mosaic showing Bellerophon slaying the Chimera and a central roundel with a serene, clean-shaven face superimposed on the Chi-Rho, perhaps intended the represent the face of Christ. The possibility that some such treasure might be destroyed by the bulldozers of the developers, caused Mr Canhan to sweat profusely.
Invoking his powers as County Archaeologist, Mr Canhan contacted the developers and to their credit, they immediately suspended operations and within a short time arranged alternative employment for the men and machinery that had been assigned to the site. Mr Canhan set about arranging for a more exhaustive survey of the site to be undertaken.
English Heritage maintain a team of scientists precisely for this sort of situation, but the pressure of work was such that nearly three months went by before the experts from the Ancient Monuments Laboratory could come down to Swindon, bringing with them the sort of equipment a small town musuem does not normally keep in its back room. The team walked slowly and carefully across the slope, measuring soil resistivity in a regular pattern, and then fed the results into a computer. Within moments the machine began to churn out page after page of figures that, to the expert eye, told of the presence of walls, floors, doorways and rooms.
It became apparent that the building buried beneath Abbey Mead was very much larger than even Mr Canhan had thought, but a few trial diggings turned up anomalies that did not fit in with the picture of a Roman villa. Archaeologists now believe that the site is, in fact, an important sanctuary, a temple complex whose magnificence is yet to be revealed, but which may well have been a centre of pilgrimage for much of the south and west of Britain, if not for the whole country.
There are a number of shrines which appear to be built on artificial terraces and platforms surrounding a spring on the slope. The majority of the finds are from the Roman period, but a couple of small pieces hint at pre-Roman activity on the site.
Once the site had been assessed, it became apparent that building work would be delayed indefinitely, if not forever, and the developers agreed to sell the field to English Heritage. Mr Canhan hopes that there will be very little excavation of this interesting site. His dream is to turn it into a display case for non-invasive archaeology where visitors can operate soil resistivity probes, side-scan sonar, ground penetrating radar and other sophisticated equipment and see for themselves what lies undisturbed beneath the grassy hillside. This will provide invaluable training for young archaeologists as well as informing the general public of these new techniques.
Anyone interested in knowing more about the Swindon Temple Complex can contact Mr Roy Canhan, County Hall East, Bythesea Road, Trowbridge, WILTS BA14 8BS or by phone on 00-44-1225-713733.
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