4.2. An Augustan urban foundation?

The changes in site morphology and consumption practice at the site in the period c. 15 BC-AD 20 certainly suggest massive upheaval. It is perhaps no coincidence that similar changes are noted in several other large contemporary sites in the region. At Colchester a series of dykes were dug denoting the territory of the Camulodunum oppidum (Hawkes and Crummy 1995), in addition to the rich grave of Lexden being dated to this period (Foster 1986); at Braughing in Hertfordshire a similar nucleated settlement was established, whereas at Silchester this period corresponds to the creation of a planned settlement with elements of axial design (Fulford 2000, 546; Creighton 2000, 205). All of these sites underwent similar changes in pottery consumption to those witnessed at Elms Farm, particularly concerning the importation of Gallo-Belgic pottery (with roughly equal emphasis on both drinking and dining) and wine amphorae. Given such similarities and the presence at many of these sites of material indicating direct ideological contact with the Roman world, it has been suggested that parts of south-east Britain in this period were undergoing a process whereby new forms of settlement were being conceptualised and founded according to the Roman urban model, with ideas being brought to Britain by returning Caesarean hostages educated in Augustan Rome (Creighton 2000; 2006; Pitts and Perring 2006).

Focusing on the Elms Farm evidence, the case for an Augustan urban foundation is as follows. The timing of the changes in settlement morphology (particularly evidence for rectilinear planning in the regular subdivision of plots) and consumption practice at Elms Farm puts the date for a possible foundation into the same period as sites witnessing similar phenomena in both consumption and morphology, such as Colchester, Silchester and possibly Braughing (where pre-conquest literacy was in evidence) (Partridge 1981, 351). Furthermore, if the burnt contents of pit 15417 do represent the remains of a disinterred cremation burial (Atkinson and Preston 1998, 94), it is a very lavish one, with the quantity of amphorae and other ceramic imports being closely paralleled in date and ceramic content by the contemporary burial at the Lexden tumulus, Colchester. It is possible that the location of such richly furnished burials at the heart of such newly reorganised settlements could represent the graves of Hellenistic-style hero-founders, which played a vital part in the foundation of a new city (Rykwert 1988, 35). Indeed, a similar rite has been identified later in the region, at mid-1st century AD Verulamium, supposedly in memory of a late Iron Age king (Creighton 2006, 124-30).

Finally, there is the creation of a central ritual space at the heart of the settlement around a pair of shrines, loosely echoing the religious focal point of an Augustan colony, the Capitolium. Beneath the square shrine was a central pit 'which was clearly not structural and may also have had a ritual significance', and beneath the circular shrine was a miniature pot, interpreted as a votive (Atkinson and Preston 1998, 92). Such ritual activity, particularly the pit under the square shrine, could have represented a central part of Roman urban foundation ritual - the ritual pit or mundus, containing the first fruits of the town's agricultural endeavour. It is possible that British hostages educated in Augustan Rome may have become familiar with such practices, as evidenced by the occurrence of what may be images of Roman augurial ceremony on contemporary British coinage, involving the curved staff or lituus (Creighton 2000, 212), the very purpose of which was to define and describe urban status (Rykwert 1988; Pitts and Perring 2006). Indeed, the Augustan period is synonymous with the foundation of numerous official Roman colonies elsewhere in the Roman world, with each colony having an urban kit modelled on the core elements of the political and religious topography of Rome (Bispham 2006, 74). Although the evidence from Elms Farm is not as immediately striking as that from other larger centres (see also Woodward and Woodward (2004) for an account of possible later foundation rites at Dorchester), it is nonetheless possible that the formalisation of the settlement in the Augustan period represents the actions of a lesser Iron Age dynast as part of the same process. The subsequent success or failure of such settlements (with Braughing representing a clearer cut example of such failure) seems to owe more to uneven investment and fossilisation in the aftermath of conquest than to any difference in site status in the late Iron Age. Perhaps further light will be shed on this hypothesis with the full publication of the Elms Farm archive (Atkinson and Preston, forthcoming).


© Internet Archaeology URL:
Last updated: Tue May 08 2007