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Dartford & District Archaeological Group (DDAG)   -    Rediscovering Dartford - Page 10

  4. Romano-British Burial Ground East Hill
The Group has carried out a series of excavations on East Hill, Dartford. Knowledge of the Roman burial ground goes back to 1792, when Thomas Brandon, a grocer of Overy Street, who also owned land on East Hill, discovered the first of a number of stone coffins (sarcophagi). More recently, in 1965, a disciplined archaeological investigation was conducted by a team directed by Mr. J. Ritson, of Dartford Borough Museum. This revealed thirty five graves as well as evidence of an Iron Age settlement.
   The Group’s researches on East Hill started in 1973 when a further stone coffin was discovered, and in 1974 two training excavations in the grounds of East Hill Adult Education Centre revealed further evidence of early occupation. The largest of the excavations on the site, started in 1980 with the primary object of re-locating the ‘grids’ previously dug by Mr. Ritson and his team.
   (1) 1973 Excavation Workmen digging a trench for a feed pipe to the basement boiler room of East Hill House, hit a large stone object. It was noted that this seemed to be composed of Oolitic limestone which is not found naturally in this area. The Principal of the Adult Education Centre, Paul Coxon, readily gave permission for the Group to investigate and during the following weekend the stone object was carefully uncovered and photographed at each stage. When fully exposed, a child’s coffin was revealed and it soon became apparent that it had been moved from its original site during the last two hundred years.
   The stone lid of the coffin was missing, although the coffin rim plainly showed where the securing cramps had been. There was no sign of the skeleton of the child. In the bottom of the coffin were the remains of a gin trap set in a ‘set’ position. This was no doubt designed to catch the unwary archaeologists expected to uncover the coffin in future years! Fortunately, however, the spring mechanism had rusted away.
   The coffin itself may have been first discovered when the foundations for East Hill House were dug in the 18th century and was perhaps broken open by the builder’s workmen, who then moved it to the site where it was found.
   The coffin measured some 1 .22m (4ft) long, 0.66m (2ft) wide and 0.35m (l4ins) deep and weighed approximately half a ton. It had clearly been made for the body of a child of about five years of age. The Oolitic limestone could well have been imported from the continent. The presence of this coffin and the earlier discovery of large stone sarcophagi are clear indications that wealthy Romans dwelt in Dartford.
   (2) 1974 Excavations These two training digs were carried out as part of a series of evening classes for would-be archaeologists and were intended to produce trained supervisors. The excavations were carried out on the west side of the pre-fabricated classrooms, with further trial holes parallel to the western boundary and included two grids in the woods to the north of East Hill House.
   The main excavation revealed thirteen graves, all in a roughly east-west orientation, of which two appeared to have been wooden coffin burials, because large iron nails were found and the grain marks in the rust showed that the planks were about 7cm (21/2 ins) thick. Fragmentary skulls were found in three of the graves but these apart, very few bones had survived, due to the acidic nature of the gravel.

The three fragmentary skulls rested, or were 'pillowed', on large flints. The alignment and the lack of grave goods could indicate Christian burials. The graves in this area had been dug through a scatter of Iron Age domestic debris indicating a settlement of this culture had been sited nearby. Another major find was a flint hand axe of Acheulian date lying on the surface of the gravel.
   (3) 1980 Onwards The primary aim of this excavation was to relocate the area previously examined in 1965. The Group has carried out this work over the last six years with long absences made necessary by the need to deal with more immediate threats to sites in other areas of the town centre.
   A number of the earlier grids have been relocated but at present it has not been possible for the burial pattern to be tied in with any certainty to the 1965 site plans.
   Our excavations have yielded a considerable number of worked flints. ‘Pot boilers’ have also been recovered together with Iron Age pottery sherds and potin coins.
   A few of the Roman graves located by the Group have contained complete vessels and several produced coffin nails. The orientation of the graves varies considerably and their distribution is irregular. The Roman pottery so far discovered on this site indicates a date from the late 2nd century to 4th century.
   The secondary aim of our work is to locate the part of this obviously extensive cemetery that has produced the stone coffins mentioned earlier. A useful lead in this quest was obtained at the end of 1984 when a complete horse skeleton was discovered. This find tied in very closely to a reference by John Dunkin, to a horse burial made c1797. He mentions that whilst burying the horse, a stone coffin was discovered and removed. Further work on this area of the site may hopefully reveal previously unlocated coffins, which could supply vital information about some of Dartford’s wealthier Romano-British inhabitants.  Romano-British child’s stone coffin, East Hill House, 1973

                                      Lifting Roman Stone Coffin

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