The Roman Town of Cunetio
The earliest major settlement in the vicinity of Mildenhall was located to the south of the modern village, beyond the River Kennet, on Forest Hill. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Department of Archaeology
University of Bristol.
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)