Working in the Museum stores bagging and recording archaeological finds, we have just been working on a particularly historic dig carried out in Hamworthy in the 1920s by headmaster Harry P. Smith and pupils from South Road Boys School. It started when a Roman coin and some pottery was found on land belonging to Carter’s tile works and H. P. Smith got permission to dig some trial holes in an adjoining field. The finds suggested the existence of an ancient settlement on the Hamworthy shore. Over the next six years, the boys carried out a series of excavations and hundreds of artefacts were unearthed, dating from the Iron Age into the Roman period. Since those exciting discoveries, several fresh excavations have increased our knowledge of ancient Hamworthy.
On the eve of the Roman invasion, several small settlements and enclosed farmsteads with their round houses dotted the shores of Poole Harbour at Fitzworth, Middlebere, Cleavel Point, Shipstall, Hamworthy and elsewhere. The inhabitants belonged to the loosely federated tribe which archaeologists call the Durotriges and were farmers, fishermen, craftsmen and traders. Unlike some other tribes they still maintained their hillforts, some of which were inhabited while others seem to have been used as regional meeting places. They had recently developed a distinctive coinage, used for trading. For the coastal communities salt-making was a major occupation as shown by finds of large quantities of coarse orange salt pan fragments known as briquetage. There is also evidence for working of Kimmeridge shale. Most important of all was pottery making, a local success story since the products of the Purbeck and Poole Harbour potters were found throughout the Durotriges region where they had begun to supersede local types.
The main port in Poole Harbour was originally at Cleavel Point, where large jetties had been built 200-300 years before between the mainland and Green and Furzey Islands, probably originally joined together. Rising sea levels had since created separate islands and reduced the viability of the facilities at Cleavel Point while making the rest of the harbour more accessible to sea-going ships. It was Hamworthy, with its deep water channel and good access to the hinterland, which developed as an alternative port. Finds of Armorican pottery from Gaul, amporae from the Mediterranean and other exotic goods show that active trading with the continent was taking place there. Unlike Cleavel Point, Hamworthy had no large port structures but ships were probably beached in a bay on the eastern side of the peninsula.
During his excavations, H.P. Smith found abundant evidence of late Iron Age Hamworthy including the traces of eight circular houses and deep ditches running across the site, probably for drainage. The soil filling the house foundations was full of animal bone, charcoal, pottery, flint scrapers and the remnants of clay heaths. The presence of iron slag, nails and other objects suggested metal working on the site.
Ever since the days of Julius Caesar a century before, the Romans had contemplated invading prosperous Britain. In 43 AD the invasion finally came with the landing near Richborough of four legions, perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 men, under the veteran commander Aulus Plautius. His first task was to subdue the tribes of the south east and prepare for the arrival of the Emperor Claudius to participate in the crossing of the Thames and the capture of the local capital, Camulodumum (Colchester). The emperor’s presence at this critical point meant that he could claim a military victory to add lustre to his career. When the emperor had left, Plautius could turn his attention to capturing further territory.
The Durotriges and other coastal tribes were probably well aware of the progress of the invasion but could do little except wait for events to unfold as Plautius sent his legions north and west. It was probably the II Legion Augusta under the future emperor Vespasian which attacked along the south coast, fighting 30 battles, capturing the Isle of Wight and 20 towns and defeating 2 tribes according to his biographer. One of these tribes must have been the Durotriges who seem to have retreated to their hillforts armed with slings and shot in a doomed attempt to stop the Roman advance. One by one their strongholds were overrun, being no match for the organised might of the Romans with their ballistae, mechanised catapults firing iron bolts. How long it took the Romans to reach Poole Harbour we do not know but it may have been a couple of years after the invasion. The small settlements around the harbour would have been in no position to oppose the incomers and were probably easily taken.
Operating in hostile territory, it was important to the Romans to secure their supply lines and it seems that they decided to use Hamworthy as a supply port for the next stage of their drive westward. Excavations in 2000 near the shore in Hamworthy revealed two sets of double ditches at right angles to each other, protecting the port on the landward side and enclosing a building which may have been a barracks. From here the Roman engineers laid out a road up the peninsular to a site at Lake Farm where a camp, later replaced by a fort, was constructed near a crossing of the River Stour. The line of the road was traced in the 1930s by H. P. Smith who also dug a cross section of it on Ham Common. It ran northwest up the peninsular before turning north to Corfe Mullen and Lake Farm, crossing the Stour and then running northwest to Badbury Rings. The flat top of the road was about 10 ft (3m) wide with a ditch on either side and it was constructed of layers of bracken and heather, clayey sand and then shingle topped with fine gravel. From here the Romans moved forward to mop up the Durotrigan strongholds including the largest of all at Maiden Castle, and continue their conquest of the west.
The coming of the Romans was a traumatic event for those who lived through it, but evidence suggests that Hamworthy had a prosperous existence after the invasion. The incomers provided a market for local produce of salt, pottery, stone and shale goods. Even after the military had moved on, the settlement, which was now connected to the wider Roman road network, may have continued as a port trading with the continent. In his excavations, H.P. Smith found imported pottery including Terra Nigra and Samian Ware from Gaul and many fragments of flagons and amphora, probably used for the import of wine or oil. The discovery of a kiln showed that pottery making continued and in fact locally produced Black Burnished Ware became popular all over Roman Britain. Other finds included Roman glass, loom weights, roof and flue tiles, pots of New Forest ware and a hoard of 3rd century Roman coins. A dig in 2003 discovered several burials from the Roman period.
Today, Hamworhty is still the location of the cross-channel port in Poole Harbour. The old Roman Road forms Poole’s western boundary for some miles. Since the time of H. P. Smith’s excavations there have been many finds in the Hamworthy, some chance discoveries and some the results of organised digs in advance of development. Although the area is now much more built up than in the 1920s, there may be still more to find there to tell us about its ancient past.
Photos taken by courtesy of Poole Museum