The Dorchester Belt


Shown opposite are the finds discovered at Dorchester-on-Thames by workmen in 1874. Sadly, it is believed they also threw some ironwork into the River Thames - possibly the remains of the original owner’s sword! Regardless, the surviving belt parts provide a perfect opportunity to recreate a known 4th/5th century AD artefact, as shown opposite. Why recreate a specific belt/ grave finds? The advantage of recreating a specific grave find is that it is difficult to go wrong as regards authenticity. You know that these items were worn by one man, in one place, in a defined time period. It also allows you to build a picture of the person who wore them by looking at what the area was like, what was happening and, building on the known facts to try and tell his story. It’s the story of one of the very last men who would see themselves as part of the Roman Army in Britain. This is my attempt to recreate his story.

What was found? Firstly, was the grave of a man over six feet tall (described in the original account of the discovery as being “of enormous size”) - we’ll call him Magnus - buried in a coffin at a depth of four feet, oriented SSE-NNW, with knees bent. Within this grave were found the fittings of a late Roman military belt, a round disc of antler or bone, with circle and dot markings, and several pieces of iron, one of which being a knife 5 1/18 inches long. The belt buckle had been damaged and repaired in antiquity and the belt fittings show signs of heavy use. In addition, the grave of a woman was also unearthed containing a classic late Roman cruciform brooch, together with brooches and belt fittings indicating a north German origin - possibly Frisia. This has been assumed to be his wife.

Where were the graves found? The graves were found on the eastern side of the old British oppidum guarding the bend in the River Thames, which also served to protect its eastern flank, and with a Celtic hill fort opposite. The location provided perfect observation and was strategically well positioned with the ramparts and river forming a continuous defence. These still survive - in deteriorating condition - as the Dyke Hills south of modern Dorchester. The walled Roman town and fort of Dorchester was sited to the North. The old oppidum ramparts may well have deteriorated by the Roman’s arrival, but it would have made sense for them to be re-fortified in the later Roman period - an action paralleled in other towns. Another cemetery was in use before and after this time to the East of Dorchester, but as at Caistor St Edmunds, there seems to have been a separate cemetery for the Romano-Britons and their Germanic defenders.
By Caballo(Paul Brown)

Paul Browne’s reconstruction of the Dorchester-on-Thames belt.
al The actual finds from Dorchester-on-Thames, dating to the 4th/5th century AD, on museum display.

Dorchester Oppidum, viewed from the North. The arrow indicates the graves. (By kind permission of Dominic Andrews)

Putting it all together - the detective work. So how did the artefacts found fit together to form a belt - and what was the mysterious circular object with dots and circles? Usefully, similar finds in Batavia - one with the leather still on - revealed the basic belt construction. Yet, as the first attempted reconstruction drawing made by very eminent authors in 1952 demonstrates (opposite), we may still get our reconstructed interpretation very, very wrong!

Another important question centres on what may have been missing from the burial? A Batavian burial in Donderberg (bottom right) contained a very similar belt buried with a spear, a knife, a pointed shield boss (with a curved flange indicating a curved shield) and a “francisca” throwing axe. Other finds with a similar belt have been found in Milton, Kent; Tournai, Furfooz near Naumur, and Vieuxville (all Belgium); Vermand and Monceau-Le-Neuf, Aisne in France; and Mainz-Kastheim, Germany. Apart from the belt fittings, each grave contained items such as a sword, throwing axe, spear, knife, arrows, cross bow brooch, bone comb, scales, a silver spoon, whetstone, bronze neck ring, tweezers, bead toggle, coins, and pottery, bronze, and glass vessels. All of these artefacts give us some idea of the sort of items that could be used to recreate Magnus’ appearance.

Magnus’ grave was missing his cruciform brooch - his “badge of office” - in fact, no brooches at all were found. But in his “wife’s” grave, there it is. Let’s conjecture, that just as the wife of an RAF pilot may wear a brooch in the shape of her husband’s wings, Magnus’ wife may have kept the brooch as a reminder of him and his status.

Some items remain puzzling. The item marked 13 (see picture opposite) was clearly used to attach securely something that needed to be detached for use. One writer suggests a whistle. It could be a pouch, or a firesteel. Or something else. This remains to be made. Also, are artefacts 9 and 10 damaged attachment points? And what is number 2?

The off-white bone/ antler/ ivory circlet with dot and circle markings was initially thought to be a spindle whorl, but contemporary notes place it in Magnus’ grave as a toggle or early scabbard amulet. It has been re-created as a scabbard amulet, similar in shape to other examples from continental Europe. There is talk in some of the sagas and stories of these amulets being used to prevent sword wounds getting infected, or as a “peace binding” to prevent sudden drawing of the sword.

What else do the artefacts tell us about the person who wore the belt? Dragon head buckles and related belt fittings are found either in Continental Europe or in south-east/ eastern England. Some of these may represent the presence of foreign troops in the east coast Saxon Shore defences.

Indeed, the find locations of dragon buckles have strong parallels with the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlements. Moreover, it has been suggested that such buckles are clearly imports rather than locally manufactured. The implication is that the corpse (‘Magnus’) either originated from or had strong links to the continent, and may have been connected to the Roman army before the Anglo-Saxon migration.

The belt stiffeners are seen as late 4th or 5th century AD - again helping date the individual. The strap end is of a 5th century type often associated with fixed plate dragon buckles. And the brooches found in the woman’s grave originate from Germany - again perhaps Frisia.

Recreating the Dorchester Belt. In recreating the belt I used the excellent reproductions made in bronze by Nodge Nolan for Adrian Wink (Peronis) at ‘Armamentaria’ . I also benefitted from and am extremely thankful for Adrian’s advice and help throughout. Cheaper versions of the stiffeners are available from Raymond’s Quiet Press, but they have neither the weight nor the accuracy. Nodge’s bronze work simply feels right…The stiffeners were riveted to vegetable tanned leather 95mm wide (it’s a very wide belt!). The leather was dyed black by soaking it in vinegar containing rusty nails - the chemical reaction with the open air and daylight produces the black colour. For best results, leave the leather in the vinegar and rust solution for a couple of days. Given the smell, and to preserve the best marital relations, do this by the shed at the end of the garden, well away from the house…

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, have recreated the belt with a quasi Sam Browne baldric as shown in the illustration (opposite) taken from Osprey’s ‘Germanic Warrior’ by Simon MacDowell. Given a separate baldric to take the weight of the sword, I have gone for the rosettes and suspension rings as being a series of holding points - rather like a modern police utility belt. I’ve also avoided the unsheathed knife depicted in Angus McBride’s Osprey illustration, which has always struck me as a little too close for comfort…

The Sword Amulet. I’ve seen several alternative descriptions of the sword amulet - variously saying that it is horn, ivory or bone. I decided on an ivory reconstruction - other sword beads/amulets tend to be made of rare or precious substances such as amber. As real ivory is (of course) not legally available, I used an alternative material from Ivory Alternatives:

The ‘ivory’ comes in a cylinder, which I sawed to shape and then sanded off the shiny exterior. The dot and circle design were then made using awls from Daegrad (sold via eBay). I attached the disc to the scabbard of the spatha using braided sinew, with horn toggles (in the unlikely event of any peace binding) made from an antler tine found in my ‘Bits Box’. For info, the sword hilt shown below left was made by David Hare of the Ermine Street Guard. For comparison, shown below right is a late 5th century Germanic sword found at Blucina recreated by Patrick Barta.

The Dorchester Grave Artefacts (From Hawkes, after Oxoniensa)

Contents of the Donderberg grave (after Nicolay, 'Armed Batavians')

Magnus and Late Roman Dorchester.

Our recreated hero, ‘Magnus’, was of Germanic origin - possibly a Batavian - based on the similarities with almost identical belt finds. It is reasonably safe to assume that Magnus had served in the Roman army before settling in Dorchester. The recovered belt from his grave is dateable to the 4th century AD, but was obviously well worn on burial and revealed signs of repair. The woman discovered in a nearby grave is assumed to share Magnus’ North German origin, possibly Frisia, as evidenced by the artefacts buried with her. It is possible to speculate that, perhaps having married a Germanic woman, Magnus chose to stay in Britannia on discharge to become part of, and possibly organise, a local Dorchester-based militia. He was clearly not buried in the Roman cemetery, but in the ramparts of the old oppidum. The original excavation notes from 1874 mention other burials, so there may well be more to find. In fact, the 1952 article by Kirk and Leeds recommends ‘a mine detector run over the tops of the banks might well reveal more burials’. While modern archaeologists, and English Heritage, might disagree with this tactic, why was Magnus buried in the oppidum’s rampart?

Perhaps he was not a Christian or, at least, an “acceptable” Christian - the ‘Arian heresy’ was strong in the Germanic peoples, for example. Yet, despite the strong state sponsorship of Christianity at this period, there were no Christian symbols in Magnus’ burial. More likely is that, as in other towns, it was simply a case of racial segregation in death between Romans and Germans. Such segregation may reflect a general distaste by the Romans towards the ‘barbarian’ Germans. Sidonius Appolinaris in 5th century AD Gaul, for example, wrote that the invading Germanic barbarians were ‘quarrelsome, drunken and disgusting creatures’. He even described one as a seven foot tall, long-haired eater of onions, who smeared his locks with rancid butter.

What was 4th/ 5th century Dorchester like? Firstly, Dorchester was a small walled town, as evidenced by the size of its cemetery - some have estimated its population to be only about 600. Assuming a normal demographic spread, this would result in a maximum of 150-200 of males who could bear arms. A fulltime militia was likely to be small - perhaps only a few individuals - calling on local civilians to take up arms when needed. Despite this, it seems to have become a localised power centre, but perhaps being a vicus of about 14 acres rather than a civitas-type capital.

Dorchester was built in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, but the state of repair of its walls by the late 4th century is unknown. It occupied a strategically important location controlling the River Thames where it entered the old Catuvellaunian territory and where it crossed the Icknield Way as it led North to the Chilterns. To quote Laycock: “a perfect spot for the Catuvellauni to defend with some extra muscle hired from abroad”. Unlike elsewhere, Dorchester was remarkably successful in preserving its Roman heritage, with two storey timber buildings on stone foundations still being built in the late 4th and early 5th century AD and its lime kilns still operating. Moreover, based on radio carbon dating, the Roman cemetery was still being used until at least the 6th century AD. Hoards of late Roman period coins (e.g. Dating to the reign of Emperor Theodosius) have been found to a far greater degree than in other areas. Yet, some decay and the abandoning of buildings in the town are observable from AD 450 onwards while the cemetery continued to be used. So slow decline, perhaps, rather than sudden, violent fall.



The Arian Heresy. During the 4th-6th centuries AD, a Christian ‘civil war’ was fought between the followers of Arius, a theorizing presbyter in Alexandria, and Catholicism. Now all but forgotten, this conflict was nonetheless violent and of decisive consequence.

The riddle at the heart of early Christianity was, on the one hand, how could a ‘redeeming sacrifice’ - if less than a god - ‘atone for all of humanity's sins?’ While on the other hand, if Jesus was really a god, could he then really have suffered and died on the cross?...For scholars such as Arius trained in Greek philosophy and rationality, it was quite reasonable to proceed from the concept of a single, universal creator god to the proposition that whatever else Christ may have been, he was less than the supreme god, a subordinate deity somewhere between man and the Almighty. Arius’ view was a simple theology, one that had rationality and also the merit that it could be readily understood.

Arian theology was opposed, however, by Athanasius, a fellow Alexandrian, who had devoted himself to memorising scripture and ‘the true science of the profound mysteries’. For Athanasius squaring monotheism with Christ’s ‘divinity’ required a peculiarly illogical (‘mysterious’?) formula, but theological speculation was not his strong suit. Rather, Athanasius stood by belief and experience of ‘Divine Mystery’, as interpreted in ‘the traditions of the Church’. He had no need for the logic of Greek philosophers and clung tenaciously to the doctrine that Jesus Christ was God.

Regardless, when Roman captives, gold or troops passed beyond the Empire’s northern frontier, Arian Christianity went with them. By the AD 370s, Arianism had been adopted by the Goths and spread from them to nearly all the German tribes. During the migrations and invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries AD, the kingdoms which rose on the fallen western Empire were almost all of Arian persuasion. Arianism served each in the same fashion it had served Constantinople under the Arian emperors: as a 'national' religion, in embryonic form potentially a 'department' of a 'national administration,' with bishops chosen by kings. The very notion was anathema to those of the 'universal', or catholic, persuasion whose grand design was for ecclesiastic not secular power, under the international authority of a papal monarch in Rome.

Catholicism ultimately triumphed. Sadly, Arianism's undoing was the same as paganism's before: it tolerated other religious beliefs.


The walled Roman town of Dorchester (by kind permission of Dominic Andrews)

Nearly two hundred years later, in AD 634, Catholic bishops were sent on missions to convert British ‘pagans’. St. Birinus, for instance, was given Dorchester as a bishopric, which on the face of it was an odd choice unless there remained a ready made congregation for him. Further evidence from place names, such as Wallingford to the South (the ford of the ‘Wealh’, i.e. Welsh), indicate that an indigenous British presence continued to exist. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle for AD 571 records that nearby Benson and Eynsham were still in (Romano-) British hands until eventually falling to the Saxons:

"Her Cuþwulf feaht wiþ Bretwalas æt Bedcan forda. tunas genom, Lygeanburg. ægelesburg. Benningtun Egonesham. þy ilcan geare he gefor"

‘AD 571. This year Cuthulf fought with the Britons at Bedford, and took four towns, Lenbury, Aylesbury, Benson, and Eynsham. And this same year he died.’

Elsewhere in the 6th century AD, Gildas describes the destruction in other towns:

‘So that all the columns were levelled with the ground by the frequent strokes of the battering-ram, all the husbandmen routed, together with their bishops, priests, and people, whilst the sword gleamed, and the flames crackled around them on every side. Lamentable to behold, in the midst of the streets lay the tops of lofty towers, tumbled to the ground, stones of high walls, holy altars, fragments of human bodies, covered with livid clots of coagulated blood, looking as if they had been squeezed together in a press; and with no chance of being buried, save in the ruins of the houses, or in the ravening bellies of wild beasts and birds”.

Dorchester Late Roman cemetery, East of the town (by kind permission of Dominic Andrews)

So why did Dorchester survive when other settlements fell? We will probably never know the answer, but its strategically defensible position would be a good bet:

Defending the River Thames crossing for the Icknield Way made Dorchester important and worth re-enforcing.

Saxons sailing up the River Thames would have had to attack a walled town defended on all sides, perhaps pre-warned by a watcher on the hill fort, or sail on to find an easier target. Moreover, Dorchester was set back from the Thames on the old Roman road thus providing greater defence from river-borne attack.

If the old oppidum was given to the Germanic guards and their families in classic foederati fashion, perhaps led by our ‘Magnus’, then it is just possible that the leadership and organisation of Dorchester and its defences was simply better executed. Good leaders do make a difference, and the oppidum might even have served as a sanctuary had the main town been seriously under threat.

Time-line. The following time-line combines fact with conjecture in an attempt to bring ’Magnus’ and late Roman Dorchester to life:




Britannia & Roman Empire

374 AD

394 AD

Born in Germania

Joins Roman army Aged 20 : now over six foot tall, is given name of Magnus. Brings with him a bone sword amulet for luck.


399 AD

Posted to Britannia with field army led by General appointed by Stilicho to restore order. Aged 25

The young emperor Flavius Honorius orders the closing of all remaining gladiatorial schools ; the Telemachus incident will lead to their permanent banning in five years.

401 A.D


Visigoths penetrate the northern defenses of Italy and begin to ravage the countryside

402 A.D



The Battle of Pollentia April 6 ends in victory for the Roman legions of Stilicho who frustrate

Alaric's Visigoths in their efforts to move south.

404 A.D



An infuriated Roman mob tears the Christian monk Telemachus to pieces for trying to stop a

gladiators' fight in the public arena on January 1

405 AD

Irish raiding activity in the south (attributed to Niall of the Nine Hostages)


406 A.D

Soldiers’ revolt in Britain, raising Marcus to the purple.

Barbarian forces led into Italy by Radagaisus meet defeat at Florence August 23 as Roman legions under the command of Stilicho break up the invading army.

Hordes of Vandals cross the frozen Rhine on December 31st under their new king Gunderic, who will reign until 428. Allied with the Alans and the Sciri, they follow the Moselle and the Aisne and proceed to sack Reims, Amiens, Arras, and Tournai before turning south into Aquitaine.

407 A.D


British soldiers kill Marcus and appointed Gratian as their leader. He is described by Orosius as “municeps”, some sort of civic official, perhaps a town councilor and member of the aristocracy. He is assassinated four months later.

The usurper Constantine III takes the last Roman troops (c. 6,000) from Britain in 407 but many Roman soldiers remain, having married local women. Their central pay is cut off.

Age 33, now married to a local woman of German, Magnus is offered the role of being part of the Dorcic (Dorchester) defence force, nominally part of the Roman army, and settles in Dorcic, a small walled Roman town on the Thames of about 600 people. The Germanic soldiers are given land in the old oppidum by the river.

408 A.D

Constantine III takes power in Britannia, Gaul and Spain.

Saxon and Pict invasions in Britain. Zosimus writes:“the barbarians from beyond the Rhine overran everything at will and reduced the inhabitants of the British Island and some of the peoples in Gaul to the necessity of rebelling from the Roman Empire and of living by themselves, no longer obeying the Romans’ laws. The Britons, therefore, taking up arms and fighting on their own behalf, freed the cities from the barbarians who were pressing upon them; and the whole of Armorica and other provinces of Gaul, imitating the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, expelling the Roman officials and establishing a sovereign constitution on their own authority. And the rebellion of Britain and of the peoples in Gaul took place during the time of Constantine’s usurpation.”

The eastern emperor Arcadius dies in his palace at Constantinople May 1 at age 31 after a weak 13-year reign in which his eunuch general Eutropius has not only been unable to thwart barbarian invasions but has had honest rich men accused of treason so he could seize their money and estates, sold high offices and provincial governorships to the highest bidders, and harnessed royal mules to his own carriage. Arcadius is succeeded by his 7-year-old son, who will reign until his death in 450 as Theodosius II under the domination of his devout Christian sister Pulcheria, now 9, who takes a vow of chastity to keep from being forced into marriage and will remain a virgin until her death in 453 (see 414 A.D.). Visigoths march into the Roman heartland under the command of their chieftain Alaric, growing in strength as freed slaves join their ranks, and lay siege to Rome; Stilicho is beheaded August 22 on orders from the emperor Flavius Honorius, who has the families of his barbarian mercenaries massacred. The mercenaries desert to join Alaric's forces.


410 A.D.:

Message received from Rome: Emperor Honorius tells the cities (“civitates”) of Britain to attend to their own affairs. Zosmius reports Roman officials expelled and native governments establish "independence".

Aged 36, Magnus now is a senior local figure organising the defences of Dorcic / Dorchester and a local mercenary militia of Germanic troops formerly in the Roman army. He continues to draw pay locally from the Dorchester authorities.

Alaric's Visigoths sack Rome August 24 after a third siege. It is the first time in 800 years that the city has fallen to a non-Roman conqueror, and although Alaric remains for only 3 days his followers carry off Aelia Galla Placidia, 40, a sister of the emperor Flavius Honorius. Alaric dies of fever soon afterward in southern Italy at age 40 (approximate) and his body is buried along with his treasure in the bed of the Busento River, whose course has temporarily been diverted, and the slaves who dug his grave are killed to keep the location secret. He has given the Goths the beginning of a homeland. He is succeeded as chieftain by his brother-in-law Atawulf (or Ataulf), who will marry Aeilia Galla Placidia in 414.

Invading Huns ravage the Roman Empire and extort tribute.

411 A.D.

Oppidum defences re-made to provide safe stronghold if the Roman town is attacked.

Unlike elsewhere, stone houses continue to be built in Dorcic /Dorchester, and lime kilns continue to function.

The self-proclaimed emperor Constantine III (Flavius Claudius Constantinus) is defeated near Arles by the Roman general Constantius in the service of the emperor Honorius. Constantine is taken prisoner and put to death at Ravenna

412 A.D.

Magnus' belt buckle, given to him when he joined the army is damaged in a skirmish. As it can't be replaced and is a symbol of his authority and Romanitas, he has it repaired locally.

Visigoth forces move from Italy into southern Gaul under the leadership of Atawulf (Ataulf), brother-in-law of the late Alaric

414 A.D.


The Visigoth chieftain Atawulf (Ataulf) is married January 1 at Narbonne to Aelia Galla Placidia, sister of the Roman emperor Honorius, who was captured at Rome in 410.

The weak-minded eastern emperor Theodosius II yields power to his sister Pulcheria, now 15, who reigns as regent and has herself proclaimed empress. She has Theodosius remove all pagans from the civil service. He and his pagan wife, Aelia Eudocia, will become devout Christians through her influence, and she will soon persuade him to exile Constantinople's Jews and destroy their synagogues

415 A.D.


Visigoths invade the Iberian Peninsula early in the year and begin to conquer territory taken previously by the Vandals; the Visigoths have been driven out of Gaul, and their chieftain Atawulf (Ataulf) is assassinated at Barcelona.

429 AD


After receiving reports of the corruption of the British churches by the Pelagian bishop Agricola, Pope Celestine sends Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, as his representative, and having rejected the heretics, “directs the British to the catholic faith”. Bishop Germanus combines Romano-British forces and wins the “Alleluia” victory against a combined army of Saxons and Picts.

435 AD


Aged 60, Magnus dies in Dorcic /Dorchester. He is buried by the ramparts of the oppidum he has defended together with the scabbard amulet that he originally brought from Batavia and wearing his military belt- symbol of his authority.

438 AD


Magnus’ wife dies: she has taken to wearing his old cruciform brooch and it is buried with her as she is laid to rest near Magnus in what becomes the Saxon’s cemetery.

446 AD

The "Groans of the Britons"

is sent as a last-ditch plea for assistance to Aëtius, military leader of the Western Roman Empire who spent most of the 440s fighting insurgents in Gaul and Hispania.

The plea, recorded by Gildas reads:"To Agitius, thrice consul, the groans of the Britons... the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians, between these two means of death we are either killed or drowned." "Agitio ter consuli gemitus Britannorum,,.repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur".

No help is sent.

©RMRS 2010