roman bone intaglio

Roman Bone Intaglio

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'Roman Milestones' near Streatley ?

by Edward Golton

Whilst researching for the previous article about the Roman road from Silchester to Dorchester, I came across early references to Roman milestones between Streatley and Aldworth which aroused my curiosity. There have been numerous recordings of Roman finds in the area of course, including the Temple site at Lowbury Hill, and many coins and pottery at Streatley, whose name may well derive from Roman times. The Victoria County History for Berkshire, p214 under Streatley gives a valuable set of references, although some were hard to trace.

The earliest tale is by Thomas Hearn of Oxford(1), a famous antiquarian of the time, in 1716. It was printed in 'Hearn's edition of Roper's Life of More' (Sir Thomas), p247, as 'Occasional Remarks' at the beginning of an article about painted glass in Fairford Church. I found the volume in the Stenton Reference Library at Reading University. I can do no better than reproduce his words. Following a description of the 'Giants' in Aldworth church and speculating on Aldworth's former importance, he says:

'For it was then so publick that a Branch of the Ikenild way passed through it, and it was therefore one of the resting Places of the Roman Souldiers in their passage from one Garrison to another. It came from Goring by a bridge over the Water at Stretely; and from Stretely, so called from this Way, to Aldworth, as I have plainly discovered by two of the Mercuriall or Mile Stones, fix'd a great many Yards in the Ground, that are now to be seen between Stretely and Aldworth, one of which lyes a Mile from Stretely. These Stones are much admir'd by the country people, who think that they could be fix'd there by none but such Heroical Persons (which they call Gyants) as lye in Aldworth Church.'

The next useful commentary was by Hewett whose 'History and Antiquities of the Hundred of Compton' was published in 1844. An Addendum on p 152 reads:

'With respect to the milliaria between Aldworth and Streatley, I have lately been informed that one of these stones of gigantic size was formerly to be seen in the middle of a field near Kiddington, about a mile west of Streatley. The occupier of the farm removed this immense stone, with a team of eight horses, to a more convenient spot about a quarter of a mile distant, where to this day it still remains. The story that it was thrown hither by one of the giants is still told, and as implicitly believed by the common people; who say, further, that the print of the giant's hand, made when he grasped the stone. may yet be distinctly seen! A very ancient road (the Icnield Street) extending near this milestone, directly from Westridge to Streatley, was destroyed at the time of the inclosure.'

On 15th July 2002 the author went on a field walk with John and Margaret Westwood and lan Clarke in search of any huge stones. John Westwood had told us the story of how he rescued a huge sarsen stone when the access to the Swan hotel by Streatley bridge was being realigned in 1987. It was moved from near the river bank and the highway men intended to demolish it, but fortunately John persuaded them to put it aside, where he made a detailed sketch (see Fig. 1), Later, it was moved and now only shows its head above ground in the flower bed to the right of the drive. In fact, the stone is about, 7 feet tall. Surely, this must have been one of the 'milestones'? There are of course a number of sarsens in the area, large by ordinary standards, such as the one at Streatley cross roads on the corner of Elm Lodge, and the one in the corner of the bend in the lane outside Streatley Church, but we were looking for something much bigger.

We then went along Rectory Road to near Thurle Grange. Here, hidden in nettles on the wide verge nearly opposite the garden gate is another large sarsen stone. I had spotted it earlier on a walk when there was not so much vegetation. We probed down several feet with an iron rod without finding its bottom. So could this be the one Hewett says was moved ? The site is about a mile from Streatley and a point a quarter of a mile away would certainly place it in the fields around what was Kiddington Farm, now called Cottage. On separate walks in the area no trace of any other very large stones has been found. Just past the nearby stables and farm, a footpath branches off at right angles to the road, then directs past Kiddington Cottage and on uphill eventually to Westridge. Possibly this is the route mentioned by Hewett ? Certainly its line, extended the other way, would carry on under the ridge towards the golf course buildings and Streatley. Perhaps that was the line that vanished with inclosure?

Sarsen by the Swan

Fig.1 - 7ft Sarsen by The Swan, rescued and drawn by John Westwood

Thus we have two candidate sarsen stones, but were they really Roman milestones? A recent article in Independent Archaeology, Newsletter 44, shows a cylindrical cut Roman milestone found recently in north Yorkshire (also described in Current Archaeology Issue 182 p49, 'The Ackworth Milestone' by Eric Houlder), which has abbreviated inscriptions for emperor and distance. Apparently that was something of a standard design, of which some 116 have come to light to date. They were placed at intervals of 1620 yds, the Roman.mile. Our stones, being so huge, are unlikely to have been moved any distance by the Romans. Since glacial times, huge slab-shaped sarsen stones have lain flat on the Downs, as we still see a large group of them (known locally as the 'wethers' after their resemblance to a flock of sheep) so strikingly in a field near Ashdown House above Lamboum. Possibly our sarsens were just set upright by the Romans, or in even earlier times, to become convenient markers in the landscape. Our early writers, on expeditions to the remote countryside may have let their imaginations run free, but we must surely be grateful for all they recorded for us (2) .

Footnotes:

This article was first published in SOAG Bulletin No.57 (2002). The SOAG Bulletin is published yearly and is free to members.