Skanska digs up Roman burial ground

Skanska has uncovered Roman burials during groundworks on construction of a £250m Ministry of Defence college at Worthy Down near Winchester.

Skanska contacted a team from Oxford Archaeology, whose investigations revealed a cluster of at least 11 burials within the area. Artefacts found with the skeletons included a coin of the Roman emperor Valens, who reigned between 364 and 378AD. This indicated that they were likely to date from the 3rd or 4th Century AD, which was the late Roman period in Britain.

The site is being redeveloped as part of Project Wellesley, which involves the relocation of much of the Defence College of Logistics, Policing & Administration to Worthy Down.

Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) project manager Stuart Adamson said: “We’re taking every care to ensure that the archaeology is properly excavated, investigated and recorded while also making sure that Project Wellesley is not delayed as a result of this interesting discovery.”

Winchester City Council archaeology officer Tracy Matthews said: “This is a really exciting discovery and has given us the first extensive remains of the Roman period in this area. Analysis of the finds will provide a fascinating insight into the lives and deaths of some of the area’s early inhabitants.”

The archaeologists have noted a range of burial practices at the site. One of the bodies had been decapitated, with its head placed between the legs. Two more of the skeletons excavated were found with the bodies and legs fully extended, but lying on their side, an unusual practice of unknown significance. A third burial was on its side, but in a crouched position, a rite more commonly associated with pre-Roman burials in Britain.

Seven of the bodies excavated at Worthy Down also seem to have been buried wearing hobnailed shoes or boots, a regular feature of Roman burials. One of the Worthy Down burials is aligned east to west – the most common grave alignment found in late Roman cemeteries. In contrast the other burials in this group are aligned north west to south east. The choice of location suggests that the burials represent a rural community whose cultural identity was more rooted in local tribal tradition than Roman culture.

A further phase of excavation will take place in the next few weeks to record and recover burials exposed in the adjacent areas.

Skanska is expected to complete its work in summer 2018. The new college will offer courses focusing on military support services such as catering, transport and military human resources and provide living accommodation for up to 2,000 students and staff.