CURRENT ARCHAEOLOGY 120
Sir Mortimer Wheeler's excava tions at Verulamium (St Albans)
from 1930-1933 were among the first and are perhaps still the most impressive single assault on a town in Roman Britain. They had an immense impact; Collingwood was writing his Oxford History of Roman Britain at the time, and he adopted many of Wheeler's ideas for his general account of town life in Roman Britain.
Wheeler published his report within 3 years - the dig was finished in 1933, and published in 1936. But this celeritas Wheeleriana as his successor Sheppard Frere called it, had its drawbacks: the pottery was unexamined, and the earlier structures were not reported. But the information was recorded, and is still available in the cellars at Verulamium museum. In many ways this was the first modern archive; by the time he came to dig at Verulamium, Wheeler (or his wife Tessa) had learnt the importance of recruiting excellent assistants, and they produced an excellent archive, even if Wheeler himself tended to ignore the details. Rosalind Niblett has been examining this archive, and in doing so has begun to re-write some of Wheeler's conclusions.
Rosalind Niblett will be well known to the earlier readers of CA as Rosalind Dunnett, a Cardiff graduate - one of the notorious Taffia - who excavated at Colchester where she first located the legionary fortress. Since then she has married and moved to St Albans, where she has been bringing up two sons. Her work on Verulamium began as a part-time researcher when she began work in the basement of the Verulamium museum, and discovered the Wheeler archive.
Wheeler's excavations revealed a large number of stone-built town houses which he dated to the
second century when he argued that the forum and basilica were also built. The re-dating process began with Sheppard Frere and his classic excavations of 1955 to 61. He produced a longer and more complex sequence beginning with timber phases, the earliest burnt down by Boudica. Most of the stone structures were not erected till the third century.
But how extensive was the city at the time of Boudica? In 1955 Frere located an inner earthwork defence, known as the 1955 ditch. Frere dated this to the mid first century and suggested that it marked the extent of the town burnt in 61 AD by Boudica. Frere used the occurrence of Claudian coins from buildings excavated by Wheeler as supporting evidence for pre-Boudican occupation in the area within the line of the 1955 ditch. The Wheeler archive however shows that these coins were all survivals in later levels, and cannot be used to indicate pre-Flavian occupation.
The course of Watling Street cutting obliquely across the street grid in the south part of Verulamium has long been something of a problem. Within the line of the 1955 ditch it runs through three insulae at an angle. In 1933 Wheeler excavated a length of ditch, 8 metres away from the western edge of Watling Street but running parallel to it and overlain in the Flavian period by the triangular temple. On the other side of the road Wheeler recorded a number of "sunken dwellings", associated with pre-Flavian pottery. However when plotted on the plan, all the sunken dwellings were in a straight line; could it be therefore that they were really another ditch, so that there were two ditches one on either side of the road, making a strip 28 m wide as it approached the city? A trench by Chris Saunders confirmed this; it would appear there
fore that up to the end of the first century this part of the city was still open countryside, with the road running through it with widely spaced ditches, quite unsuited for an urban street.
This would imply that the the pre-Boudican city only covered some 50 acres, which is rather small if it was already, as Tacitus' ambiguous phrase implies, a municipium. Tacitus, writing around AD 100 and describing the Boudican revolt in AD 61, says that Colchester was a colonia, London was not a colonia, but describes Verulamium as a municipium. Possibly he was using the term loosely; but the current explanation is that it was only made a municipium in the Flavian period, perhaps when the Basilica was dedicated in AD 79, so that even if it was not a municipium at the time of the revolt, it was one when Tacitus was writing.
The next question was whether the Watling Street continued its oblique course right up to the basilica across insula XIII. For this purpose, a team from Cardiff University was summoned under Professor William Manning to excavate in the corner of insula 13. The excavations soon demonstrated that there was no trace of an early road: clearly the Roman town had already spread as far as Insula XIII in the mid 1st century, and the Watling street at this point had always made a dog leg around the insula.
However the excavations revealed a very interesting building which was excavated over the course of three successive summers in a joint campaign by Verulamium Museum and Cardiff University. This large building, 14 by 22 metres, with more than 20 rooms, appears to have been a mini enterprise zone given over to a variety of "small businesses". Everywhere