Martin Papworth

11th September 2012

The Search for the Durotriges:

Dorset and the West Country

in the Late Iron Age

The Durotriges were the Iron Age people who lived in Dorset at the time of the Roman Invasion. Or were they? Martin Papworth, who has been an archaeologist with the National Trust in Dorset for twenty six years, has been trying to establish some of the reality that lies behind accounts of these shadowy people.

The inhabitants of Britain at the time of the Roman occupation in AD 43 were not a united people but bore allegiance to local leaders who adopted different stances towards the Romans ranging from cautiously welcoming to downright hostile.The traditional map of Britain at this time shows the Durotriges occupying Dorset and some of Somerset, and bordered by the Dobunni to the north the Dumnonii to the west and the Atrebates to the east (Weston lies towards the southern edge of Dobunnic territory). The names are attributed to the different administrative civitates into which the Romans divided Britain. But this simple categorisation takes no account of the many centuries of changing allegiances and power struggles prior to the invasion nor to the question of changes following in its wake.

The historical evidence for the Durotriges is very limited. There is a reference by the Roman geographer Ptolemy of the second century AD who says "west and south of these (the Belgae) are the Durotriges amongst whom is the polis of Dunium". The location of Dunium is still in dispute.

There are also two inscribed stones from Hadrian's Wall that contain the name Durotrigi and are taken to mean either that a part of the Wall was built by workmen from the area of the Durotriges or that taxes were raised there to pay for it. There are also what seem to be references to towns in the area: Durnovaria (Dorchester), Lindinis (Ilchester) Vindocladia and Ibernio (possibly Badbury Rings and Hod Hill respectively.) "And that", says Martin "is all there is."

Looking at the archaeological record some interpretations have endeavoured to show that there is a typical assemblage of finds that speak of a particular Durotrigan culture. These include features such as pottery (Poole Harbour Ware), coins ("South West uninscribed"), and a distinctive form of burial. Evidence of conflict in the form of ballista bolts and mass burials have been taken to suggest a heroic resistance to the occupying Romans, though others see them as signs of internal warfare. But in reality many of these features are either more widespread than the "Durotrigan" area or were adopted at different rates within the area suggesting that there was not a unified culture.

Having carried out a detailed survey of Badbury Rings (near Kingston Lacey) and its environs, Martin chose to investigate a number of other locations throughout Dorset and South Somerset with the aim of describing in detail the known archaeology with a view to making a critical comparison. Seven areas were chosen and each was defined within a rectangular box measuring l0km by 8km. The areas chosen were: l; Purbeck and Poole harbour (centred on Norden near Corfe Castle), 2; South Dorset (cantered on Maiden Castle), 3; West Dorset (centred on Pilsdon Pen), 4; Northwest Dorset and South Somerset (centred on South Cadbury), 5; Central Dorset (centred on Hod Hill), 6; South Wiltshire and Cranborne Chase (centred on Cranbome Chase), and 7; East Dorset (centred on Badbury Rings).

Martin then proceeded to take us on a tour of these areas but in detail too extensive to record adequately here, though he demonstrated clearly that the cultural and settlement patterns did indeed vary, suggesting differences in origins and the way people live. For us Somerset folk it was interesting to learn that the South Cadbury area produces evidence of two dramatic change of Fortunes.

The first of these, which occurred towards the end of the. late Iron Age, involved the pottery and decorative styles, which had hitherto suggested an affinity with that of the Dobunni to the north, Over a very short period of time the pottery used changed quite abruptly to the Poole Harbour Ware favoured in the Durotrigan South. This was also the period when coinage was being introduced and far more Durotriean examples have been found there than Dobunnic. All this suggesting a possible change of allegiance (or conquest by more powerful neighbours shortly before the arrival of the Romans).

The second event was evidenced by the finding of many scattered bones near the main entrance to South Cadbury. This suggested a brutal assault with a deliberate lack of respect shown to the defeated defenders. The same pattern was observed at nearby Ham Hill, though nowhere in the territory further south (the noted cemetery at Maiden Castle containing very few examples of bodies injured in battle). So the suggestion is that the inhabitants so recently and reluctantly associated with the Durotrigan name had revolted probably joining the Dobunnic peoples in a revolt against the Romans, in all likelihood at the time when Boudicca went on the rampage.

Martin's conclusions were that the late Iron Age saw peoples of different communities co-existing in close proximity, though it was difficult to see them as a unified tribal group. Despite common features such as the use of Poole Harbour Pottery there were significant cultural differences like different burial traditions. In the years leading up to the Roman invasion there was certainly use of a common coinage, but this did not necessarily imply a single political authority anymore than one exists in the Euro zone today. What was probably happening was a growth in most economies driven in part by increased trading with the Continent through the major coastal centres of Hengistbury Head and Poole Harbour. There may or may not have been people who thought of themselves as Durotriges, though there was clearly a group of vibrant communities in pre-Roman Dorset.

To find out more Martin's recent book is highly recommended:

Papworth, M, 2011, 'The Search for the Durotriges, Dorset and the West Country in the Late Iron Age', Stroud: The History Press.

Peter Johnson

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