Archaeologists reveal prehistoric roots of urban life in Britain

Excavation lays bare the home of pre-Roman sophisticates in Oxfordshire
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The buried remains of a long-lost prehistoric walled town have been discovered by archaeologists seven miles south of Oxford.

Founded around 2,600 years ago, the town, on the site of present-day Abingdon, was extensively redeveloped along a grid street pattern in the early years of the first century AD - before the Roman invasion - and defended by two miles of 40ft-wide moats.

The discovery is likely to cause intense interest among academics as it is only the third site of its kind and size - around 80 acres - ever found in this country. The find is casting new light on the very beginnings of urban dwelling in Britain.

Excavations directed by Tim Allen of the Oxford Archaeological Unit have so far revealed that, unlike most prehistoric settlements, the town was well planned, and was laid out in a grid pattern.

This suggests influence from Roman-occupied Europe, des-pite the fact that the town was built around 30 years before the Roman conquest of southern Britain. The discoveries make Abingdon the oldest-known continuously inhabited town in Britain. Evidence unearthed so far suggests that it was founded in the sixth or seventh century BC, but underwent a massive reorganisation in the early first century AD.

At that stage the traditional higgledy-piggledy layout was replaced by a grid system, with rows of house compounds and intersecting lanes, and the whole town was enclosed within a massive triple-moat and earthen rampart - almost certainly topped by a wooden town wall. Archaeologists estimate that it had a population of around 1, 500.

When southern Britain was conquered by the Romans in 43AD, Abingdon became a major centre of native prosperity. For the first 40 years of Roman rule, Abingdon appears to have had, for an ungarrisoned native town, unusually high access to imported Roman luxury goods - notably high-quality Roman glazed pottery from France and Roman amphorae, which were brought, full of wine, from Spain.

Culturally - and even politically - the town appears to have been linked to the pro-Roman Hampshire tribes of the Atrebatii and the Regni. Pottery finds in Abingdon have even revealed that craftsmen in the Regnian capital, Noviomagus Regnensium (Chichester), set up a ceramic manufacturing base in Abingdon. However, it is quite possible that the town - the original name of which remains a mystery - was the main centre of a previously unknown independent tribal kingdom that sold goods made south of the Thames or on the Continent to tribes north of the Thames.

The discoveries not only show that a British town has at least 2,600 years of continuous history, but also hints at even greater influence from Roman Gaul, a generation before the conquest, than had hitherto been suspected.