The land of the Dobunni
Authors: Darvill, T.
Editors: Ecclestone, M., Gardner, K., Holbrook, N. and Smith, A.
Publisher: Heritage Marketing and Publications
Place of Publication: King's Lynn
The problem of the Dobunni, if we can call it that, is not about the past; rather it is about the present. It is an archaeological problem that revolves around how diverse strands of data relating to later prehistoric communities living in the mid west of what is now England should be tied together and interpreted. In many respects it all started in the rooms of the Society of Antiquaries of London on the 4th April 1940 when the distinguished numismatist Derek Allen read a paper entitled “The Belgic dynasties of Britain and their coins”. His paper was subsequently published and had a profound effect on the interpretation of pre-Roman society in Britain. Borrowing and combining ideas from a number of earlier sources, Allen used distribution maps of pre-Roman coins to elaborate three points. First, by projecting backwards in time the names of tribal groupings relating to Romano-British administration he suggested the possibility of recognizing a pre-Roman social pattern. Scholars of the classics had known these names since at least the days of William Camden, but their origins remained a matter of speculation even though the ancient Sicilian historian Diodorus Siculus tells us that Britain was inhabited by indigenous tribes who preserved in their way of life their ancient customs. Second, he sought to link these political / administrative groupings with physically distinctive and discretely distributed sets of pre-Roman coins. Third, following the ideas of Gordon Childe, he sought to map these projected distributions as cultural territories whose development and relationships could be explored and set out as a kind of quasi-history. It was all heady stuff in the early post-war years, and his use of maps as an analytical tool was quite innovatory.
Allen mapped the territory of the Dobuni (sic) as having frontiers marked on the south by the Kennet or the Brue and the Avon, on the east the Thames and the Cherwell, and on the west by the Wye. The plentiful gold and silver coinage, at first uninscriped but later carrying the names of supposed rulers known to 1940 was bolstered in 1954-56 as a result of Elsie Clifford’s excavations at Bagendon to the northwest of Cirencester, right in the heart of Allen’s Dobunic territory. The 35 coins brought to light by the excavations, along with evidence of coin moulds and metalworking suggestive of the presence of a mint, led Derek Allen to re-analyze the Dobunnic coinage. In parallel, Christopher Hawkes provided a detailed and wide-ranging account of the Dobunni (sic). Based initially on the numismatic evidence, he also wove in archaeological and historical evidence to produce a marvellously detailed and vivid narrative of invasions, conflicts, divisions, subjugations, and inter-tribal coalitions. It is a story that has been drawn upon and repeated several times, but also challenged and modified in its detail. However, the critical question in Hawkes’ account was, quite simply, “whether or not the name Dobunni existed already earlier than the coins ... who were the Dobunni?”. The second part of this question forms one of the enduring strands running through all the papers in this symposium. In setting the background, however, I would like to look briefly at some of the broader issues prompted by Hawkes’ work, focusing on three themes: some physical aspects of the land of the Dobunni and the way they are perceived; theoretical considerations relevant to the construction of prehistoric territories and boundaries; and finally the evolution of societies in the Cotswolds and surrounding areas and their material culture.
Preferred by: Timothy Darvill