ARCHAEOLOGY / Student discovers royal port: A previously unknown Roman town has been found in Kent, writes David Keys

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The Independent Culture
A PREVIOUSLY unknown Roman town has been discovered in Kent. A preliminary archaeological examination of the site - near the banks of the river Swale, north of Faversham - suggests that it consisted of at least 40 stone buildings; 18 have so far been identified from aerial photographs or excavation.

It appears to have functioned as a substantial port from the 1st century AD until well after the Roman period. Of equal importance are the results of research which indicate that the site - or its immediate environs - was still an important port in the Anglo-Saxon period.

After Roman government ceased in Britain, the area seems to have become a major royal estate, possibly even a previously undetected Anglo-Saxon royal centre.

The discovery was made by a London-based archaeology postgraduate student, Paul Wilkinson, while preparing a thesis on ancient port development on the north Kent coast.

At the site - the exact location of which is being kept a closely guarded secret - Mr Wilkinson has so far found much physical evidence of Roman occupation, including ancient roof tiles, pieces from mosaic pavements, chunks of masonry and special tiles used by the Romans to build their central heating systems, known as hypocausts. Other finds include the remains of glass vessels, rough grey pottery and fragments of high-class samian pots imported from France.

Four pieces of evidence suggest that the place was of substantial importance in early Anglo-Saxon, as well as Roman, times. Firstly, it formed part of a royal estate associated with one of the two richest Anglo-Saxon cemeteries found in Britain. Records of the burials excavated in Victorian times have never been academically published and still lie in museum store-rooms across the country. Back in the 1830s, the cemetery - known as the King's Field - produced dozens of gold and silver pendants, brooches, drinking-horn mounts, buckles and sword fittings, together with masses of glass and imported pottery.

Secondly, new research by Mr Wilkinson suggests that the area adjacent to the Roman town was probably the site of Britain's most spectacular Anglo-Saxon royal tomb. Earlier this century a huge artificial mound - 50 metres across and 15 metres high - was removed so that its earthen fabric could be used to repair sea defences.

Because the mound was unknown to archaeologists, it was bulldozed without their involvement and its existence was only rediscovered several weeks ago. Its dimensions made it the second largest pre-Norman man-made mound in Britain. The thousands of cubic feet of earth used to build it had been brought to the site some 1,500 years ago, from at least a mile away.

The great tomb's location - at the end of a long spit of land - was probably chosen for reasons of prestige. Certainly the only surviving Anglo-Saxon literary reference to mound burials - in the epic poem Beowulf - indicate that sites chosen for royal last rites were often on the ends of 'nesses' - promontories or peninsulas.

Thirdly, the port - known to the Anglo-Saxons as Cillincg - was chosen in 699 AD by the Kentish king, Wihtred, as the venue for a meeting of all his nobles. The minutes of the meeting still survive in the form of a royal charter written on vellum in either 699 or the following century.

The site's continuity of use from Roman port to Anglo-Saxon royal estate and port is extremely rare and is paralleled in the name of the town of Faversham itself. It actually means 'metalsmith's settlement,' the first part being from the Latin faber (metalsmith), the second part being Anglo-Saxon for settlement. The hybrid name probably reflects continuity of metal-working activity there from the Roman period right through to the Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages.

Faversham was long known as King's Town - and nearby were the cynincges cua lond - the King's cow pastures. The place's early importance is also reflected in the fact that Faversham was the first north Kentish town to gain the right to have a market, a right acquired well before 1066.

The lost Roman and Anglo- Saxon port of Cillincg was located just two miles north of one of Roman Britain's most important roads - that linking London and Dover.

The port's Roman name is as yet unknown. Its Anglo-Saxon name Cillincg (possibly meaning 'gully stream') gives no clue as to what it was called before the Anglo-Saxon takeover. The name of the stretch of water used by the port as its harbour also gives no clue as to the original Roman name and was merely called Ealhfleot (literally 'shelter inlet').

However the Faversham area has long been famous for its oyster beds and one as yet unidentified Roman oyster industry centre was called Cordonovi. There is a small chance that this may have been the name of Cillincg's Roman predecessor port.

Certainly Ealhfleot continued to function as an important harbour right through the Middle Ages, for even in the early 16th century the inlet had a port facility.

Now Mr Wilkinson plans to step up his research and excavation work to find out who built it, when and why.

(Photographs omitted)

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