Alchester Roman Town
- This article is about Alchester in Oxfordshire. It should not be confused with Alcester in Warwickshire.
Alchester is the Old English and modern toponym for a small town in the Roman province of Britannia. Its name in Latin is Ælia Castra. It is about 2 miles (3 km) south of Bicester, in the northwest corner of the civil parish of Wendlebury in the English county of Oxfordshire. There is also an adjoining Roman military camp.
Alchester had a strategic location in Roman Britain, sited at a crossroad on the Silchester–Dorchester–Towcester road and the Cirencester–St Albans road (Akeman Street). The area bounded by defences, about 10 hectares (25 acres), is almost square, with the earliest defences consisting of a gravel rampart and one or more ditches; later, a stone wall was added to the rampart. The dating of these two phases is obscure.
The planning of streets approaches a rectangular grid, uncommon in smaller Romano-British towns. Along the main street, aerial archaeology has revealed a number of narrow, rectangular strip buildings. Near the centre of the town lay a building with a central court, surrounded by a portico on three sides. Outside the western defences, excavation in 1766 of what was then a prominent mound known as the Castle uncovered a sizable Roman bath.
Iron Age settlement is attested close to the later Roman town, and Roman occupation of the site began in the Claudian period, possibly in the form of a fort. After the 5th century the place was deserted.
The site has been the subject of investigation since 1996, first under the auspices of Oxford University Archaeological Society, then under those of Leicester, Oxford and Edinburgh Universities. In 1990, playing-card-shaped enclosures with ditches had been discovered on aerial photographs taken in 1943–45. Excavation focussed initially on a Roman military parade ground and marching camp near the later Roman town, and then on an annexe to a large military compound. This proved that the larger enclosure was indeed surrounded by a characteristic army-style V-shaped ditch.
It was common practice for the Roman army when operating in enemy territory to build marching camps against surprise attacks, even when spending only one night. However, the comparative frequency of early objects suggests that the camp may have existed for a longer time, perhaps serving as winter quarters. Alchester, soon to be at a road junction, was in a strategic key position. Situated in the border region of the Catuvellauni and Dobunni tribes, it was thus in an ideal position to exercise control over wide areas and to obtain sufficient food supplies for the winter.
The smaller enclosure, with its U-shaped ditch and square corners was atypical for Roman forts, and was instead interpreted as a parade ground. Parallels for this have been found associated with legionary fortress of Lambaesis (Algeria), as well as at Tomen-y-Mur (Gwynedd). The presence of this would also support the idea of a fairly permanent military base.
Investigation of the front gate, or Porta Praetoria, of the fortress revealed that waterlogged conditions had led to the preservation of two wooden gateposts. Dendrochronology gives both a felling date of between October AD 44 and March AD 45. Evidence from coins found at the site suggest abandonment was likely to have taken place before the death of Emperor Nero in AD 68
In 2003, excavations began of the town wall near the west gate. This had been robbed of building stone in post-Roman times, except for two stones that were found in situ and the wall's rubble foundations. Amongst the foundations was discovered the smashed fragments of an inscription that had been used for building material. This tombstone was for one Lucius Valerius Geminus, a veteran of the Legio II Augusta.
The inscription reads:
Dis Manibus/ L(ucius) Val(erius) L(uci filius) Pol(lia tribu) Gemi/nus For(o) Germ(anorum)/ vet(eranus) Leg(ionis) [I]I Aug(ustae)/ an(norum) L h(ic) s(itus) e(st)/ he(res) c(uravit)/ e(x) t(estamento)
"To the souls of the departed: Lucius Valerius Geminus, the son of Lucius, of the Pollia voting tribe, from Forum Germanorum, veteran of the Second Augustan Legion, aged 50(?), lies here. His heir had this set up in accordance with his will."
- Stillwell, Richard, ed. (1976). "Alchester, Oxfordshire, England". Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites.
- Sauer, E (2005). "Alchester: In search of Vespasian" (pdf). Current Archaeology 196: 168–176.
- Sauer, E; Crutchley, S (1998). "Alchester: A Roman fort and parade ground?". Current Archaeology 157: 34–37.
- Sauer, E (2001). "Alchester Roman fortress". Current Archaeology 173: 189–191.
- Martin, Jon (2011). "Prehistoric, Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon Activity at Whitelands Farm, Bicester". Oxoniensia (Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society). LXXVI: 173–240. ISSN 0308-5562.