The remains of one of the UK's most important Roman towns are at risk of being lost because of a threat from the farmer's plough, archaeologists have warned.
Verulamium, a settlement near St Albans, Hertfordshire, was the only British town the Romans regarded as a municipality, wrote the historian Tacitus, suggesting a site of great size and potential splendour.
The scale of the town has been indicated by archaeological digs revealing a theatre, now open to the public, and a number of mosaics. A further investigation is likely to unearth streets and several buildings, private and public.
About 100 acres of unexcavated remains lie on farmland on the estate of the Earl of Verulam, John Grimston, protected by a voluntary moratorium on ploughing that has prevented further damage to the site for several years.
But talks between the estate and the Government have failed to conclude a permanent deal about the land and archaeologists are concerned the landowner might exercise his right to resume ploughing.
Harvey Sheldon, of Rescue – The British Archaeological Trust, said: "It's absolutely vital for a proper understanding of Roman Britain that we get a thorough excavation. There is an awful lot to learn, particularly from sites that haven't been ravaged by urban development."
Hugh Reeves, of Strutt and Parker, the estate's managing agents, said they were reluctant to resume ploughing as they were very proud of their heritage. But they had been in talks with English Heritage and the Department for Culture for 15 years without an agreement. "We are certainly not out to make a profit but we don't see why the estate should bear the whole cost," Mr Reeves said. "It is expensive to change from one system of husbandry to another and if this is going to be a permanent pasture, we need to have the costs offset."
The site is "scheduled" – given protection – under the 1979 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. But the same act gives an exemption that permits the continued ploughing of land that has already been farmed, as long as no further damage is caused.
The department could take the radical step of withdrawing permission to plough. But that would be the first time in the history of the act and the decision would probably entail compensation to the landowner and tenant farmers affected.
A department spokesman said negotiations were continuing with the estate to reach an arrangement that satisfied everyone. "We are considering all options, such as withdrawing the right to plough, but would have to consult out of fairness to everybody," he said.
Mr Sheldon said that until a large proportion of a site had been excavated, there was a risk of drawing inaccurate conclusions about Roman life. Even if ploughing were prevented, money would still have to be raised to cover the costs of a full excavation.
Tony Robinson, presenter of Channel 4's Time Team programme, which investigates ancient sites, visited Verulamium yesterday with Mr Sheldon.
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