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Understanding Winchester's Past

A new archaeological synthesis.

We have a great deal of archaeological information about Winchester. How accessible it is as whole, though, is another matter. Much has been published, but is to be found in a multitude of different places. A major new publication brings the evidence together to provide a fresh analysis of the significance of the city and its environs.

Black and white archive photgraph of 1930 excavations at WInchester Castle.
Winchester has a long history of archaeological investigations. Sidney Ward-Evans examined the remains of Winchester Castle in 1930. © Winchester City Council/Hampshire Cultural Trust

Like most of England’s great historic cities, Winchester has seen much antiquarian and archaeological investigation. The first recorded discovery was in 1693, when a Roman tessellated pavement was observed while a new palace was being built for King Charles II. Further chance finds and discoveries followed in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

Work to more modern standards began in the 1920s, when Christopher Hawkes (later one of Britain’s leading prehistorians) excavated the Iron Age hillfort on St Catharine’s Hill, overlooking the city. Between 1961 and 1971, Winchester saw the first major programme of urban archaeology in Britain, directed by Martin Biddle for the Winchester Excavations Committee. This campaign set new standards for rescue archaeology in Britain and abroad. Subsequently Winchester City Museums Service, various commercial archaeological contractors and an active local society have undertaken numerous fieldwork projects in the city.

Much of this work has been published, in a variety of places: for example, the Excavations Committee’s Winchester Studies volumes, two series sponsored by the Museums Service, and various other monographs and journal articles. Many investigations of the last 25 years or so have, however, only been reported in ‘grey literature’, produced as part of the local authority planning process, and a number of important excavations are still awaiting publication. Thus it has - until now - been difficult to get a comprehensive overview of Winchester’s very rich archaeology.

Map of study area for Winchester
The new book brings together the results from numerous excavations. © Historic England

The new publication

It was to meet this need that the newly-published monograph, Winchester, St Swithun’s ‘City of Happiness and Good Fortune’: an archaeological assessment, was produced. This volume has been funded by Historic England, with Winchester City Council leading the project, and is published by Oxbow Books on behalf of Historic England (for details, see Further reading). It builds on the Winchester Urban Archaeological Database (UAD), the creation of which was funded by English Heritage in the 1990s as part of a national programme of such databases. The UAD provides a comprehensive summary, with GIS (Geographical Information Systems) mapping, of all archaeological work in Winchester, and of the results of that work. The UAD now forms part of Winchester City Council’s Historic Environment Record.

The new book synthesises the archaeological information for Winchester, and sets it in a wider geographical and historical context. The first part explains the background to the project, the setting of Winchester, and the history of archaeological endeavour there. A ‘deposit model’ is also presented. The main body of the volume consists of a chronological account, extending from prehistory to the 21st century. For each period, the wider regional and national background is explained, the pattern of past work and the nature of the resultant archaeological evidence are considered, and the evidence is described and discussed. Its importance and potential are then assessed. A final section provides an overview of Winchester’s archaeology, including discussion of how best to manage it in the future. Appendices provide detailed gazetteers of past archaeological investigations in the city and of recorded monuments. The text is fully illustrated with maps, plans, drawings and photographs, many in colour.

A pottery vessel
This Middle Iron Age pottery vessel came from Oram’s Arbour, a major Iron Age defended enclosure which lies partly beneath the Roman and later walled city. © Winchester City Council/Hampshire Cultural Trust

Winchester’s long story

A picture emerges of Winchester as a place favoured for occupation for millennia. There was human activity in the area in the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods: the combination of the valley of the River Itchen and surrounding chalk hills clearly made this an attractive area for both hunter-gatherers and early farmers. There were significant settlements in the city’s hinterland in the Middle and Late Bronze Age. Activity intensified in the Iron Age with the construction of the hillfort on St Catharine’s Hill and a large enclosed settlement on Winnall Down. Subsequently, perhaps around 150 BC, a large defended enclosure, now known as Oram’s Arbour, was constructed on the western side of the Itchen valley.

In the late 1st century AD, following the Roman conquest of Britain, the tribal (or ‘civitas’) capital of the Belgae, Venta Belgarum, was established here, partly overlying Oram’s Arbour. The Itchen was canalised and the valley drained, a grid of streets laid out, and public buildings and defences were constructed. Remains of numerous houses, some of them with long histories of alteration and rebuilding, have also been found. The cemeteries of Roman Winchester have been investigated in great detail, notably the 4th century AD burial ground at Lankhills. Much light has been shed, too, on the economy, society and people of the Roman town.  

A plan of the Roman Forum at Winchester
This outline plan of the Roman Forum has been pieced together from a number of small excavations and observations. © Historic England

Venta seems to have remained a major urban centre until the end of Roman rule in Britain, in around 410 AD. What happened thereafter is (as in most parts of England) not entirely clear: buildings seem to have fallen into disuse or been demolished, and deposits of ‘dark earth’ are often found overlying their sites. There are Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, and some evidence for settlement in the environs of Winchester in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, but only slight evidence for activity within the former Roman town. By the 670s AD, however, Winchester had become the seat of a bishop, and home to one of Anglo-Saxon England’s most important churches, Old Minster, whose history has been fully revealed in excavation. Secular occupation of the walled area may have been limited to high-status estates; there is important evidence of glass-making and gold-working from this period.

A reconstruction drawing of a Roman house from Winchester.
Reconstruction drawing of an early 4th-century AD house excavated at The Brooks in the 1980s. © Winchester City Council/Hampshire Cultural Trust

In the late 9th century, Winchester became part of the network of burhs, or defended centres, established by King Alfred for protection against the Vikings. The Roman walls were refurbished and a new grid of streets was laid out within the walls. Winchester served as the royal capital of the kingdom of Wessex and, as the kings of Wessex became in effect the kings of England, the city had a prominent role nationally and even internationally. The population grew rapidly and Winchester became an important centre of trade and manufacturing, as well as of royal and religious power. Old Minster, site of the burial of St Swithun (bishop of Winchester and patron saint of the city) after his death in 863, was now flanked by New Minster and the Nunnaminster (later St Mary’s Abbey). This great complex of religious institutions became a centre for the reformation of English monasticism in the late 10th century.

A Saxon pottery jug.
A pottery jug of Winchester Ware, a type of pottery which was being used in the city after about 950 AD. © Winchester City Council/Hampshire Cultural Trust

Winchester’s importance was sustained into the period after the Norman Conquest. An imposing castle was built, while the Anglo-Saxon Old Minster church was demolished and replaced by a new cathedral, in Norman architectural style and to a plan closely reflected in the building as it stands today.

Winchester cathedral transcept.
The Norman transept of Winchester Cathedral, built between 1079 and 1093 AD. © Winchester City Council

Another important building of the time was the Bishop of Winchester’s palace of Wolvesey, ruins of which are now in the care of English Heritage. There were many other religious establishments in medieval Winchester, including the great abbey of Hyde founded by Henry I. Archaeology has shown that the medieval town flourished and was well-populated, with commerce and manufacturing well-attested.

Ruins of a Medieval palace.
Ruins of the Bishops of Winchester’s Wolvesey Palace in Winchester, now in the care of English Heritage. © Winchester City Council

From about 1300 onwards, we have surviving domestic buildings to study, as well as abundant below-ground evidence.

After about 1200, Winchester’s political importance began to decline, but it remained significant within its region, especially in the religious and judicial spheres; archaeological study has thrown much light on the detail of the later medieval, post-medieval and modern city, even down to the recording of air-raid shelters from the Second World War.

Steet frontage of a timber framed building in Chesil Street, Winchester.
A mid-15th century building in Chesil Street, Winchester. For the medieval period, the evidence of buildings supplements that from excavations. © Patrick Ottaway

This short article tries to convey something of the historic importance and archaeological richness of Winchester. The ‘archaeological assessment’ volume on which it is based presents a much fuller picture, but is it itself only a summary of what is available. We hope that it will increase appreciation of Winchester’s rich archaeological heritage, and stimulate further research on it in the years ahead.

About the authors

Roger M Thomas

Roger M Thomas, FSA, MCIfA

Roger has recently left Historic England. He was Head of Urban Archaeology from 1997 to 2011, and led Historic England’s national urban archaeological strategies programme, of which the Winchester project formed part.

Patrick Ottaway

Patrick Ottaway, FSA, MCIfA

Manager and owner of PJO Archaeology

He was previously Head of Fieldwork at York Archaeological Trust, but began his professional career as Assistant City Archaeologist for the City of Winchester. He teaches on a part-time basis for York University. His principal research interests are Roman Britain, urban archaeology and ironwork.

Tracy Matthews

Tracy Matthews, PG Dip

Archaeological Officer with Winchester City Council

Tracy has worked for Winchester City Council since 2001, since 2008 as the Archaeological Officer. She advises the local planning authority and manages the Historic Environment Record which includes the Winchester Urban Archaeological database.  

Further reading

Ottaway, P 2017 Winchester, St Swithun’s ‘City of Happiness and Good Fortune’: an Archaeological Assessment. Oxford: Oxbow Books. ISBN: 9781785704499.

The Winchester volume is the latest in a series of such studies published by Historic England. Previous volumes cover Bath, Cirencester, Colchester, Greater London, Lincoln, Newcastle, St Albans and Shrewsbury. A further volume, on Bristol, is due to be published in 2018.

Cover of Winchester book
Cover image of volume. © Historic England
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