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The History of Roman Dorchester

Friday, July 29th, 2011
Roman Dorchester
Roman Dorchester

“Really, what have the Romans ever done for us?” asks one of the characters in a famous scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It only takes a short walk around Dorchester to realise the answer is really quite a lot, actually!

It’s been almost 2000 years since the Romans first came to Dorchester, and the signs of their passing are still evident today. The town has long fascinated historians with its wonderful ruins, which are considered among of the best preserved Roman remains in the entire UK.

This week on the blog we’ll be explaining why Dorchester is such a great place to come and learn about Britain’s rich and enchanting ancient past.

Maiden Castle

Maiden Castle
Maiden Castle

The Romans first arrived in the Dorchester area in 43AD, encountering the local Celtic tribe called the Durotriges who has built a giant hill fort at Maiden Castle.

The site had been home to tribal peoples from around 3500BC, but it didn’t last long once the Romans were on the scene. As anyone who has seen Gladiator will know, the Romans weren’t squeamish when it came to combat, and the stones and slings used by the tribes were no match for the brutal Roman weaponry and tactics.

When archaeologists excavated the area in 1934, they found a Celtic skeleton with a Roman catapult bolt embedded in his spine. What a way to go!

Maiden Castle is open to the public all year round and entry is free. As well as offering great views of Dorchester and the surrounding countryside, making your way up to the summit of the hill-fort gives you a real sense of stepping back in time thousands of years into Dorset’s ancient past.

Dorchester Roman Town House

Dorchester Roman Town House
Dorchester Roman Town House

A wonderful insight into urban life in Roman Britain came in 1937 when archaeologists stumbled upon the remains of a 4th century Roman town house at Colliton Park. They were able to uncover the full layout of the house, plus outbuildings and other features such as the well.

To date, this is the only fully exposed Roman house in the UK, and it gives us valuable information on how the Romans lived their lives. The house is thought to have belonged to a wealthy family involved in the governing council of Durnovaria (present day Dorchester).

There was one thing in particular found at the site that really stunned the archaeologists, and that was the house’s beautifully preserved mosaic. This decorative feature contains hundreds of tiny colourful mosaic tiles arranged artfully to create a gorgeous, intricate overall picture.

Like Maiden Castle, the Dorchester Roman Town House is completely free and open to the public all year round. To help you get a better understanding of the house there will be a number of open days taking place this summer, with experts on hand to explain what life was like for the inhabitants during the Roman era. The open days take place every Wednesday afternoon from 3rd August until 14th September.

Maumbury Rings

Maumbury Rings
Maumbury Rings

When they weren’t off conquering or building roads, the Romans were big fans of the theatre. The Maumbury Rings site was originally a pagan burial site, but in the Roman period it became an arena for plays and other entertainments, with room for up to 10,000 spectators.

While its size and shape has altered considerably, the purpose of the Maumbury Rings hasn’t changed much at all in the centuries since the Romans, and it is still regularly used for open air concerts, theatre performances and festivals. In recent years there have even been historical re-enactments on the site featuring fully armour-clad Roman legionaries!

Dorset County Museum

Dorset County Museum Roman Mosaic
Dorset County Museum Roman Mosaic

To get the background on Roman Dorchester and to see artefacts retrieved from all the sites mentioned above, make sure you stop in at the Dorset County Museum on High East Street. It’s a goldmine of information on Dorchester history, and contains an enormous wealth of Roman material including glassware, pottery, beads, and mosaics.

History Walks

Don’t forget our free guided Dorchester history walks, taking place every Wednesday for the next 8 weeks with town crier Alistair Chisolm. He’ll be taking you round some of the town’s main points of historical interest, covering everything from the Roman period right through to Thomas Hardy’s 19th century Dorchester.

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