The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch once wrote that the study of early Greek history “sets a special challenge to the disciplined mind. It is a game with very few pieces, where the skill of the player lies in complicating the rules.” The same could be said of the study of Britain’s Roman period, a long, often overlooked span lasting nearly 300 years. Every year, archaeological discoveries are made that complicate the rules of the game. Sometimes, these are so significant and surprising that they completely overthrow what everyone thought they knew – as when, in 1960, a workman cutting a water main trench at Fishbourne, near Chichester, stumbled across remains that the archaeologist Prof Sir Barry Cunliffe would later establish were those of a stupendously luxurious Roman villa, confounding notions that the province of Britannia was, essentially, a bleak and grim imperial outpost entirely lacking in Mediterranean creature comforts.
The past 12 months have been a good period for Romano-British archaeological finds – more drips of exciting new information that intriguingly mess with the rules of the historical game. Last week, archaeologists working on the site of a demolished medieval church near Stoke Mandeville in Buckinghamshire announced their discovery of remarkable sculptures of a man, a woman and a child, probably made in Britain, the woman’s hair in an elaborate braided style. As the site’s lead archaeologist, Dr Rachel Wood, said, it “leads us to wonder what else might be buried beneath England’s medieval village churches” – it being no secret that many Norman churches were built atop Roman buildings, from York Minster right down to the parish church of Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, under whose graveyard lies a vast mosaic of Orpheus surrounded by animals and trees.
An excavation is currently under way at the Roman amphitheatre in Richborough, Kent, the spot Claudius’s troops may have chosen as their invasion point in AD43. Fragments of painted plaster have already been found, perhaps once part of panels decorated with figurative designs. Last December, a mosaic at Chedworth, in the Cotswolds, was uncovered. It has been dated to after AD424 – which means it was made after the official end of Roman rule, usually accepted to be the year when the emperor Honorius wrote to the British instructing them to see to their own defences. That evidence adds fascinatingly to an already complicated-seeming picture for Britain at the end of its Roman period. Some parts of the country, especially in the west, seem to have to pursued a Roman way of life long after official ties were cut, whereas in the south-east, burials – in Colchester, for example – suggest that Germanic peoples were established in the region well before the end of the Roman period.
At any rate, knowledge of this fascinating period, in which Britain became an imperial possession, is always advancing, sometimes slowly, sometimes in great leaps. The only way to “know” about Roman Britain is to hold hypotheses and theories lightly and gently, ready for them to be revised in the face of new ideas and facts: not a bad approach, in fact, to knowledge in many other fields.