Archaeologists find lost Roman road and prehistoric farming system in the South Downs

By Culture24 Reporter Published: 18 July 2016

Large-scale prehistoric farming in Sussex had more in common with Greek, Roman and Egyptian field systems than English ones say archaeologists

A photo of a laser overhead scan of a roman road in chichester, sussex
Laser scanning has revealed the extent of prehistoric farming on the South Downs before the Romans arrived© SDNPA
Almost 2,000 years ago, the Romans began creating a huge network of roads around southern England.

Archaeologists have spent decades speculating about one of the routes they built, in Chichester. By using overhead planes which beam down lasers – and what archaeologist Buzz Buzby calls some “clever mathematics” to work out the difference in height between the tree canopies and the ground – the South Downs National Park Authority has now traced the path of the highways, as well as extensive prehistoric farming systems in the area.

“There isn’t any actual evidence for a Roman road, or at least there wasn’t,” says James Kenny, the Archaeology Officer at Chichester District Council.

“It has long been thought that there ought to be a Roman road between what was at Chichester and what was at Arundel during the Roman period. When you go out to try to find this road it’s not there.

“LiDaR technology has picked up, running through forests just to the west of Arundel, a very straight section of trackway with a bank and ditch on the side of it. This is almost certainly this lost, if you like, Roman road.”

The transport infrastructure makes sense, but the field systems are highly unusual. “It’s exciting to see such extensive field-systems so well preserved which have probably lain untouched since the Romans left 1,600 years ago,” says Kenny.

“But evidence suggests that they go back much further to before the Roman settled here. Who was growing these crops and who was eating all of this food? We haven’t found signs of settlement so where were they living?

“The scale is so large that it must have been managed, suggesting that this part of the country was being organised as a farming collective on a very large scale.

“The degree of civilisation this implies is completely unexpected in this part of the world at this time – something closer to the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians than current views of prehistoric Britain.”

The roads lead to more potential new theories. “We’re beginning to wonder, having seen all the field systems in the Downs, whether they continue down onto the coastal plain.

“And if they do – and there’s no reason to think that they didn’t – I think it raises the bar for the sophistication of society within this part of the world in the late prehistoric and Roman periods.”

Three places to find Roman artefacts

Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Merthyr Tydfil
This 19th century castle contains a "museum of a museum" - including curiosities from around the world, ancient Egyptian grave goods, Greek and Roman artefacts and Far Eastern decorative arts.

Binchester Roman Fort, Bishop Auckland
Binchester Fort was built during the 1st century AD to protect the point where Dere Street (an important road that ran from York to Scotland) crossed the River Wear. There were as many as 1,000 soldiers here at a time.

, Chester
The current exhibition, In Good Humour: Disease, Doctors and Dying in the Roman World, takes a closer look at the Roman world's treatment of illness and death. Until November 6 2016.