3. Mid-March 2022 – Romans around Eynsham
Others in Eynsham will know more than me about the late Iron Age and Roman presence here nearly 2,000 years ago, but it was intriguing to read something about it in Oxfordshire County Council’s planning application for the A40 expansion.
In November 2021, on behalf of Balfour Beatty and the County Council, Cotswold Archaeology carried out an “archaeological evaluation of land alongside the A40 trunk road”. They surveyed separate “parcels of land” between Witney and the A34 flyover. Their work, which was by no means exhaustive, revealed “very low levels of past activity” except in two areas, Area 11 and Area 24.
These two areas both happen to be close to Eynsham village. Area 11 is south of A40 opposite Barnard Gate. Area 24 is north of the A40 opposite Spareacre Lane.
In Area 11, they found a focus of activity around a kiln or corn dryer which, despite limited investigation, “produced large quantities of ceramic building material”. It seems to have been “a working area”: “A number of small pits and postholes immediately surrounding the kiln/corn dryer suggest that other structures may have been present in the immediate vicinity.”
Area 24 “yielded a large quantity of Roman pottery, fired clay and ceramic building material, as well as animal bone”. It seems to be “contemporary with the features in Area 11” and, on the face of it, it sounds like both a “working” and a domestic environment. This makes sense, because the old Roman Salt Way runs right through it. When Grosvenor were surveying the Salt Cross Garden Village site, they too identified a possible Roman site in the same place as Area 24.
All this evidence strongly suggests there was significant Roman activity just north and north-west of the village. Eynsham parish may not conceal anything as spectacular as the Roman villa at North Leigh/East End, but I hope the County and District Councils will demand a thorough investigation and protect and preserve anything that is found.
You don’t think of the Romans as being particularly romantic or sensitive. They were practical people, constructing baths, drainage and central heating, building roads in straight lines, dominating other people and taming the natural world. They were not like the ancient Egyptians, for whom, according to one expert, “Humankind was not the final crowning achievement of creation, but was simply one of its elements, on a par with stones, plants and animals.”
However, like the ancient Greeks, the Romans did still have a spiritual connection to nature that we have largely lost. You can see this not only in their major gods and goddesses – of the sun, moon, sea, harvest, wine and thunder, for example – but also in the many minor deities that they respected or worshipped.
Among these were the nymphs, who were female spirits inhabiting natural phenomena such as mountains (Oreads), woodland (Dryads), and rivers, lakes and streams (Naiads). The Romans around Eynsham may have sensed a spirit in the Chil Brook – or in the stream that today runs from Church Hanborough, down through City Farm, to join the Evenlode at Eynsham Mill:
Sometimes she is speaking in the creaking willow
branches; more often she’s too modest to be noticed.
Normally she whispers like a solitary priest
at vespers, but after heavy rain can imitate
a mountain stream.
She likes to wind herself limpidly through the trees,
a looking-glass for heron, duck or kingfisher,
but hides herself in cloudiness when run-off
from the farms can desecrate her purity
and dull her gleam.
She guards the parish boundary and will choose to flood
the fields as warning to outsiders of their hubris,
then slips through crops to meet the Evenlode, by day
a spark of sudden gold beneath the sun, by night
a silver seam.
 In the ancient world, hubris was a particular kind of arrogance that deserved punishment by the gods.