Orams Arbour (Venta Belgarum), Hampshire
Text by John Collis.
The ‘hill-slope’ defended site commonly referred to as ‘Oram’s Arbour’ lies on the eastern end of a chalk ridge running down to a major crossing point of the River Itchen, with the chalk bluff of St. Giles’ Hill facing it. About half the site lies within the area enclosed by the Roman, Saxon and Medieval towns. Nowhere are the defences visible (the lynchet on Oram’s Arbour is much later and overlies the ditch) and only a filled-in ditch marks the line of the ramparts. The ditch is up to 10m across and 4m deep and encloses an area of at least 18-20ha, and so is comparable with other major Wessex defended sites such as Hod Hill and Maiden Castle. The construction is not well dated, but the ditch was filling up by the mid-1st century BC, with Middle – Late Iron Age occupation under the Assize Courts associated with Dressel 1b amphora (Biddle 1975:99).
Oram’s Arbour represents the western limit, including an entrance (Biddle 1968). The southern ditch lies under the Assize Courts, and there is the suggestion of another entrance between here and Southgate Street. The northern ditch has been traced from Oram’s Arbour to just south of the railway station and as far as Sussex Street after which it seems to be heading for another entrance on the site of the Roman and Medieval Northgate, and there are hints of the ditch a bit further east of this. The eastern defences have not been located, but may lie on the line of Parchment Street where the alluvial valley deposits start; there is certainly Middle Iron Age occupation between St. Peter’s Street and Parchment Street, under the NatWest bank.
Occupation is extensive within the enclosure (and also outside the putative northern gate) including shallow ditched enclosures, round houses, some storage pits and square ‘granaries’ e.g. Tower Street (Biddle 1965). The associated pottery is in the ‘St. Catharine’s Hill’ saucepan pot style, though there is a small amount of Late Bonze Age – Early Iron Age activity. The latest ‘Late Iron Age’ pottery noted by Qualmann et al. (2004) in their monograph on the site represents the tail-end of this tradition with decorated handmade ‘pigeon breasted’ bowls, but associated with the earliest wheel-turned vessels, comparable with feature F400 at Owslebury with an associated with Dressel (1a?) amphora, so late second to early first century BC. There is also a fragment of a ‘coin mould’ from Saxon levels on the Cathedral Green site.
Finds comparable with the later Late Iron Age horizons at Owslebury are notably rare at Winchester, suggesting the site had been virtually abandoned except perhaps for small areas on Oram’s Arbour and under the Assize Courts, perhaps outside the defences. Certainly there is nothing comparable to finds from oppida such as Silchester, and there is a gap of about 100 years between Oram’s Arbour and the earliest pre-Flavian occupation in the Roman town. There is however one enigmatic feature, a mound or terrace at the junction of St. George’s Street and Jewry Street, up to 3m high and incorporating a layer of burnt flint and charcoal up to 1m thick; it overlies the Middle Iron Age occupation and is overlain by pre-Flavian timber buildings (Cunliffe 1964). The few sherds from it suggest a late first century BC date.
In 2006 Oxford Archaeology conducted excavations adjacent to the public library, a record of which can be found here.
OS map reference: SU 482 293. Nearest town/village: Winchester.
Biddle M. 1965. Excavations at Winchester 1964: third interim report. Antiquaries Journal 45:230–264.
Biddle M. 1968. Excavations at Winchester 1967: sixth interim report. Antiquaries Journal 48:250–284.
Biddle M. 1975. Excavations at Winchester 1971: tenth interim report. Antiquaries Journal 55:96–126, 295–337.
Collis, J.R. 1978. Winchester Excavations 1949–1960. Vol. 2: excavations in the suburbs and western parts of the town. Winchester, Winchester City Museum.
Collis, J.R. forthcoming. Excavations in Winchester, 1949–1960. Vol. 3: excavations in the High Street and St. George’s Street.
Cunliffe, B.W. 1964. Winchester Excavations 1949–1960. Vol. 1. Winchester, Winchester City Museum.
Qualmann, K.E., Rees, H., Scobie, G.D. and Whinney, R. 2004. Oram’s Arbour: the Iron Age enclosure at Winchester, Vol. 1: investigations 1950–1999. Winchester, Winchester Museums Service and English Heritage.