The Early Times and the Romans
I have often stood at the top of Church Lane and on other occasions in the gardens of The Glebe House, West Trees or Mildenhall House, looking south towards the Savernake Forest on the opposite side of the river valley. On a summer evening, when the sun is low in the west and shadows are long and firm, I never cease to marvel at the great marks of history etched, for ever it seems, on the hillside. These are the clear outlines of the Upper Cunetio site, spilling out over the edge of the hill. These are the indelible marks of the great wall and ditch defences of an Early English camp, an Iron Age site, later to become the site of the earliest Roman settlement in the parish.
We may not know very much about the people who first roamed and settled in and around Minal, but there are traces that they did so. In five places within the parish, there are officially identified relics of ancient man. In the far north-east, against the old boundary with the adjoining parish of Ogbourne, on Poulton Down, there is a round barrow. North-east of Rabley Wood there is a bowl barrow. Immediately south of this, in the middle of an area of farm cultivation, were traces of an early crop site. There is a fourth barrow in the village of Minal itself just north of the church - this being another bowl barrow. Lastly, away in the south-east of the parish, within the trees of Savernake Forest itself there are earth-works near Puthall Farm.
Anthropologists have suggested that when the Celtic tribes began to spread westward into Britain, they sought the higher ground towards the centre of the country, above the wetlands of the river valleys. They may well have followed the existing valleys which led into the more inhabitable areas, and then set about defending themselves against enemies - both human and predatory. Thus they came to a place where a plateau would provide a suitable area to occupy and to make safe.
The plateau where Folly Farm now stands (formerly Forest Farm) was such a site and it is here that the tribal folk settled. They were almost certainly of the Belgae tribe. Aerial photographs show that there was considerable disturbance and activity in these early years. There was a wall and ditch defence ring which has made such a long-lasting mark on the immediate locality. There would have been a wooden palisade on the top of the wall. The dwellings were excavated in the ground with a shelter thatched with reeds supported on a central pole. The high ground with views over the valley made this a premium site.
There is an overlap at this point. When the Romans came to the Kennet valley they either defeated the tribes in battle or arrived to find that the ancients had fled, leaving the plateau site empty. In any case, the Romans did occupy the place and converted it to their own use. A well of Roman age was found and there is evidence of at least one house, with two rooms and a hypocaust - or under-¬floor heating.
The Romans arrived here in the Minal area in the Roman first century - about 50 AD. Although the Romans under Julius Caesar had arrived in Britain in 55 BC, it was about a hundred years later that a second force arrived. The main intention was/push the tribal people back towards the north-west, across the Severn and into Wales. To this end a large station was built at Cirencester (Corinium) and this needed to be linked by communication to the other points of the new Roman occupation. A road was constructed from Winchester (Diva) to provide such a link. At Minal, it crossed the other great road from London (Londinium) towards the west and Bath (Acqua Sulis). When one route crossed another there arose a meeting point, a resting place and a camp. This place was given the name of CUNETIO, a Latinised form of the name Kennet.
It was located to the south of the modern village, beyond the River Kennet, on Forest Hill, five hundred yards north-east of the Forest Farm plateau. A massive earthen bank and ditch enclosed an area of about 30acres with an entrance defended by outworks on the east-side. This complex dates to the late Iron Age, circa 200BC-43AD. At the time of the Roman conquest, Forest Hill was probably a major regional centre and would have attracted the attention of the Roman forces operating in the area. Finds of early Roman material and the pattern of the local Roman road network show that the focus of activity soon moved from the hilltop to the valley floor, concentrating on the area of modern Black Field, close to where the Roman road from Winchester to Cirencester crosses the River Kennet.
Exactly why there were two sites is not clear. Perhaps the river itself was considered a good defence and the nearness to good water was of paramount importance. The existence of a Roman occupation in both places is beyond doubt. At the upper site, in 1804 a Roman pavement was found. It measured 27 feet in length and some 72 feet in width. Unfortunately this valuable find was destroyed shortly afterwards and only scanty notes exist on the subject. If only someone had been more thoughtful some one hundred and eighty years ago, Minal might have had a Roman relic, like Littlecote.
Although nothing remains on the surface today, air photography, geophysical survey and limited excavation have provided a broad picture of the town known to the Romano-Britons as Cunetio. (See top of Page 6). The aerial photographs at the lower Cunetio site have shown, beyond doubt that no less than three separate settlements were constructed. The first, or lowest, was contemporary with the first arrival in 50 AD. The Roman engineers set out a standard town layout with a main street and side roads leading off at right-¬angles. This first settlement has not been investigated but a survey has proved its existence.
Traces of Roman occupation cover an area of 45acres and air photographs have revealed an irregular pattern of metalled streets, stone and timber buildings, and clusters of pits and ditches. In the centre of the site there stood a very large courtyard plan building with at least 24 rooms. The plan and shape of this building suggest that it was a mansio - an official guesthouse, stable and administrative centre. Although Cunetio never became one of the great cities of Roman Britain, it would been an important local market centre and was undoubtedly the distribution centre for the pottery vessels produced in the kilns located in nearby Savernake Forest.
At least two phases of defence are known. The first, dated to the 2nd century AD, was of earth and timber, enclosed and area of 15 acres and had been demolished by the end of the 3rd century. Some time after AD360 a massive stone wall, over 16 feet wide at its base, was built. This had projecting towers and a south gate flanked by massive, monumental towers and enclosed an area of 18 acres. Such a massive construction strongly suggests that the late Roman administration had selected Cunetio to be a local military and administrative centre, only a very few of which are known in Roman Britain.
Later in the Roman occupation, it was necessary to build a defensive position on the same site. This stands out very clearly on photographs, as the two sites are misaligned by some ten degrees. The defensive works may have been necessary because of re¬newed activity of the tribal people in the vicinity.
Excavation on the site has been very limited but casual finds show that the site continued to be occupied until the very end of Roman rule in the 5th century AD. After the collapse of the Roman infrastructure the site declined in importance and by the 8th century had been eclipsed by the Anglo-Saxon centre at nearby Ramsbury. During the medieval period the great Roman wall will probably have been used as a convenient quarry and gradually been destroyed as the stone was robbed for re-use.
In the third or fourth century, the Roman emperor Theodosius chose to build a vast fortress in the same place. This was duly constructed of Bath stone. Previous explorations had defined the layout of the walls of Cunetio but it was not until 1957 that the Wiltshire Archaeological Society mounted an annual series of excavations across the line of the main walls. These were proved to be eighteen feet thick at ground level. Bastions had been included in the original planning and these were also found. There are two main gateways - the west and south - and it discovered that the great west gate was in the form of a very fine barrel-vaulted arch. In this gateway, post holes were found, suggesting either a form of pedestrian control or that a portcullis type of gate was installed with the pointed ends of the apparatus fitting into holes set in the stone pavement. All this was revealed at the time of the excavations.
The surveys suggested that the fortress of Cunetio was some 310 metres long and 280 metres wide, enclosing an area of about 212 acres (18 hectares). This makes it, in the words of the Director of the Roman Research Trust - “a most significant discovery - unique in Britain."
Some of the former Roman roads leading to and from Cunetio are well defined to this day. The road from Cirencester comes in a straight line from the north (much of it now the A345 road from Stratton St Margaret) and seeming to end in Minal at the telephone box at the foot of Greenways. Roman materials were found recently, just south of this point.
Then came the River Kennet, which the Roman engineers would have had to ford. No trace of a bridge has been found. From the south bank of the river, the Roman road climbed up into the forest and there divided into the roads to Winchester and to Sarum.
The road from Londinium, through Silchester and on to Cunetio is not easy to trace today. There have always been winter and sunnier tracks along the river valley-side. In Minal itself, Chopping Knife would be most likely course. If the line of this lane is projected westward it follows a straight line along the London Road, George Lane in Marlborough, behind the College site, past Preshute Church, through Manton and on to Silbury Hill.
Within the parish there are other Roman traces which may answer the question "If the Romans settled in Cunetio, why did the village become sited on the north bank of the river, 400 yards away?" A large scale map will show that there is another Roman road which has been proved running from near to Church Farm (formerly Low Farm) south-east across Cock-a Troop Lane and climbing the valley side to Hill Barn where it resumes an easterly route (also to be found in Hens Wood). The alignment of this track is still discernible as a shallow valley at its upper end.
I am tempted to deduce that, in the early days of a Roman occupation, the road coming in from Corinium (the present Greenway) would have turned south-west to lower itself gently down to Church Farm. This track is still in existence and from an early Ordnance Survey map of 1801 is shown as a much more definite road than now. Then, fording the river at the farm - this being the narrowest part of the river valley bottom - the Romans would have taken another not-so-gentle climb to the top of the escarpment. Where a river is crossed, a meeting place and a settlement are likely to occur. The land here was a few feet higher than the wet valley bottom and the flood plain and, for the early Britons, the quarter mile separating them from the Romans at Cunetio would have been most welcome. Later, when the fourth century fortress was established, the Romans re-laid the local roads to meet the great gates in the walls.
A well, dating from the first Roman century was opened and explored in detail in 1957. It contained a filling of Roman materials indicating that the well was filled in when the stone walls were built in the fourth century. Sherds and other items dating to 50-100 AD were unearthed, making it quite certain that the well was filled at that time. These pottery sherds are to be seen at the Devizes Museum. This seems to prove two of the three Roman occupations of Cunetio.
So the Romans came and went. Now we can only imagine them moving along the straight roads in pursuance of their duties, crossing the Kennet and busying themselves in and around the great Theodosian fort. One thing is certain. The Romans and Cunetio did exist, firstly around Forest Farm and at Black Field. This is no myth. Very soon, we may see a complete archaeological exploration of the site and nearly two thousand years of history will be revealed.
The original stones above ground were robbed, perhaps for barns and dwellings. The site is now an arable field.
Black Field - Cunetio - view from the east showing streets, buildings and fourth century defenses. Note the minor streets in the foreground, laid out at right angles to the road approaching from the direction of Silchester.
(Copyright National Monuments Record - NMR 4526/42 SU 2169, July, 1989)