Kent Archaeological Review extract

Excavations at Dover 1975.
by Brian Philp.
(Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit.)

The 1975 series of excavations in the town-centre at Dover yielded a large amount of new evidence and new finds from a wide area. Several sites were selected ahead of destruction by the proposed town-centre scheme which, thanks to the economic situation, was postponed for a few months.

St Martins-le-Grand Church (Figure 1).

On one site the Unit was able to locate and excavate the west end and part of the north aisle of the great collegiate church of St.Martins-le-Grand following the excavation of the nave and south transept in 1974. The great church was built in Norman times of flint and rubble with the piers of the main arcade being dressed in finely carved Normandy caenstone imported for the purpose. The eastern arm of the church was destroyed by earlier developments and its site is now partly covered by the National-Westminster Bank in the adjacent Market Square. Now for the first time it can be seen that the great church must have been more than 200 feet in length and it clearly dominated the whole of the medieval Dover in much the same way as some cathedrals do today. Sadly, St Martins was to some extent superceded in the 12th century by another (smaller) St Martins Priory, built outside the town on the site of the much later Dover College, close to the Priory Station. Several fine chalk block tombs were found during the recent excavations including one with finely painted red crosses on its inside, now refered to locally as that of the 'laughing crusader'.

PHOTO: A massive corner pier of the great central tower of St Martins-le-Grand.

Figure 1. A massive corner pier of the great central tower of St Martins-le-Grand, showing the fine Normandy caenstone columns.

The Samian Bowl (Figure 2).

During the August 1975 Open-days hundreds of visitors saw this very fine decorated red Roman bowl, of samian ware, being carefully excavated by members of the team. It lay with a group of other domestic rubbish in the corner of an early Roman building which was later demolished. The bowl was carefully lifted in fragments and then reconstructed to show its complete form. The decoration can be seen to be a series of human and animal figures set in well defined panels ranging right around the vessel. A study of the bowl shows that it was an import having been made in Gaul (now France) in the second half of the first century AD. It was certainly one of many thousand broadly similar vessels that were traded right across the Roman Empire and far beyond. Indeed vessels from the same factory could also be found on archaeological sites as far apart as Sweden, Spain, Turkey and the Indian sub-continent.

PHOTO: The Decorated Samian Bowl.

Figure 2. The Decorated Samian Bowl. Drawn by W Williams .

The Painted House Scheme (Figure 3).

The re-opening of the famous Painted House at Dover in August 1975 to give the public a final chance to see the fine paintings, proved a most important exercise. Firstly, the charges for the guided tours covered the cost of the re-opening and secondly there was so much interest and concern from nearly 20,000 visitors that it was possible to launch a preservation scheme from the site. This proved so successful that an independant trust was soon formed, a scheme selected, an architect appointed, planning permission obtained and sufficient funds raised to start the actual construction work in April 1976. In order to save some 20,000 all the preliminary work was carried out by members of the Kent Unit and a team from the job-creation programme. In May they laid down more than 200 tons of concrete and by June they had moved more than 400 tons of concrete blocks and materials. The sub-contracting bricklayer began work on 7th June. Providing the remaining 21,000 can be raised (from the target of 90,000) then the scheme should be completed by the end of the year and the Painted House opened to the public in 1977.

PHOTO: laying the concrete foundations.

Figure 3. Members or the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit laying the concrete foundations of the Painted House cover building.

The Saxon Hut (Figure 4).

Throughout the six years of non-stop rescue excavation in Dover many traces of Anglo-Saxon settlement have come to light and slowly some idea of the post-Roman pattern is emerging. The fine Roman buildings were then in ruins and amid these the simple timber-framed huts of the first English appeared. Right at the end of 1975 another Saxon hut was discovered this time set deeply into the ground in the form of a semi-basement. This form of sunken dwelling (Grubenhaus) is known throughout much of northern Europe and at only four other Kent sites. The hut at Dover proved to be about 25 feet in length and it is thus one of the largest ever found in Britain. Its walls had been built of wooden planks set on end and its ridged roof rested on large wooden uprights. The whole hut had been swept by fire, probably in the 8th or 9th centuries AD, and much of the wood had become charcoal and thus survived. Of very special interest were long strings of baked-clay loomweights which had probably hung from the roof and collapsed onto the floor during the fire. These loomweights were carefully lifted and are now being treated and re-constructed for display. Loomweights were used in weaving to help keep the vertical threads taut as they hung from a wooden frame.

PHOTO: Detail of the floor of the Saxon hut.

Fig. 4. Detail of the floor of the Saxon hut showing the strings of loomweights and fragments of carbonised wood.

The Inscribed Bull (Figure 5).

Of the many small finds from the various sites one of the most interesting came from an area near New Street at the end of 1975. This was a large fragment of a hollow flue-tile from a Roman heating system (hypocaust) which was found redeposited in a Saxon rubble layer. Before the tile had been fired the tile-maker had scratched the outline of an odd animal on one side. The drawing is rather a caricature resembling a 20th century disneyland figure of an horse. However, above the outline is the latin word TAURI clearly scratched by the artist and this strongly suggests that the sketch was in fact meant to be of tauros the bull. This is in many ways a remarkable find for whilst the tile-maker was clearly no artist he was quite literate. Limited similar evidence from other Roman sites supports the view that craftsmen in Roman Britain had a good standard of literacy and this in turn reflects the standard of education. Just possibly the tilemaker in this case sketched the outline and added the name for the benefit of a child. If so there must be a slight prospect that others will be found at Dover.

DRAWING: Figure of a bull found inscribed on a Roman tile.

Figure 5. Figure of a bull found inscribed on a Roman tile. Wendy Williams.

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