Dorchester has the right to boast of its Roman past, but it very seldom does so. The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site and trumpeted from the rooftops as a place to visit, but the human mark on this beautiful county needs it's champions, to show that the human past can still be seen and experienced and can teach us something.
One such site is Maumbury Rings, which sits just outside the old Roman walled town, now nearly swallowed up in the 'burbs.
This remarkable site has three phases of construction, originally being created as a Late Neolithic Henge, c.2500 BC and 85m dia. with an entrance to the north east. As usual with henges it had an internal ditch, but in this case made up of a series of shafts so close together as to seem continuous (shades of Causewayed Enclosures). These shafts were 10m deep! Although only 8 were excavated it is estimated that 45 were dug at the time of construction. In some of the fills were human and deer skulls, with one shaft having a very nice carved chalk phallus.
|Obviously carved by a man!|
Apart from all the theories linked with maths and astronomy, sex has always been a subject that has dominated human culture for millennia and I am sure that most of our surviving monuments are linked to it by some means or other, in a physical and spiritual way.
In the Roman period the site was turned into an amphitheatre with the entrance retained (the Neolithic bank would have been quite visible) and the ground surface lowered so as to use the material to build up the bank. An inner enclosed area in the south west corner was possibly used by performers or soldiers to change into costume. I say soldiers because this space was probably used as a ludus or training ground rather than as a place for gladiators to kill each other. Dorchester was an army town initially, as it was usual for them to do all the building work before the town was turned over to the civil authorities. They would have had a temporary fort here, but it has never been found.
During the Civil War the site was again re-modelled as a fortified artillery platform guarding the southern approach to the town, with a ramp cut through the bank opposite the original entrance.
Into the 17th and 18th centuries the Ring became a place of execution, with 80 Monmouth rebels being condemned to hang here by Judge Jeffreys in 1685. In 1705 Mary Channing, who was only 19, was found guilty of poisoning her husband and was executed by strangulation and burning, which Thomas Hardy put into his poem The Mock Wife.
I was taking some students around the town last year and we went to the Ring, which was, co-incidentally, being used that day for a Gay Pride festival. So we were able to see a space that was set out 4,500 years ago and still being used, only in a more positive way not seen since it was first constructed.