Archaeologists find Iron Age gateway to the Cotswolds

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The Independent Online

A previously unknown Iron Age town has been discovered by archaeologists buried beneath modern Malmesbury in north Wiltshire. Covering up to 40 acres, the prehistoric town was surrounded by a circuit of 10ft-thick stone ramparts.

A previously unknown Iron Age town has been discovered by archaeologists buried beneath modern Malmesbury in north Wiltshire. Covering up to 40 acres, the prehistoric town was surrounded by a circuit of 10ft-thick stone ramparts.

Built some time between the fifth and second centuries BC, the strongly fortified settlement is believed to have been the main centre of a tribal group that eventually federated with its neighbours to form one of Celtic Britain's main states, the kingdom of the Dobunni.

Constructed on high ground within a loop of the river Avon, the town probably had a population of just a few hundred, sheltering behind a mile and a half of stone defences. The inhabitants would have lived in stone or timber thatched-roofed roundhouses and are likely to have worked in agricultural industries.

The town would have been a key economic centre - perhaps the most important in the whole south-east Cotswolds region. Examination of air photography data has shown that Iron Age Malmesbury was at the centre of a 30-square-mile cluster of farms and settlements.

The prehistoric town may also have been a religious centre. Within the newly discovered circuit of ramparts, previous archaeological excavations had unearthed evidence of a possible Roman temple directly underneath Malmesbury Abbey. Now that the Iron Age town has been found, archaeologists suspect the Roman structure was built on an Iron Age predecessor - probably a small Celtic temple dedicated to the worship of the local tribal deity. This raises the possibility that, although Malmesbury ceased to be a main centre of population from around 100BC to around AD800, it never stopped being an important religious centre.

The buried Iron Age town was discovered by archaeologists from Bristol and Region Archaeological Services, while English Heritage was restoring Malmesbury's 13th-century medieval town walls. It is one of the few cases in Western Europe in which a medieval town wall follows at least part of the course of its Iron Age predecessor.

Mark Corney of Bristol University, a leading expert on the British Iron Age, said: "This is a major discovery that adds considerably to our understanding of the way in which this strategically important area of Britain was organised economically and politically in the millennium before the Roman conquest."

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