The pattern of human settlement in and around Lyme Regis has been shaped by rising sea levels and unstable cliffs. The coastline would once have been much further out, so the earliest settlements may have been lost to the sea. Bronze Age burial mounds (barrows) at Shapwick Common, Hardown Hill and Charmouth are the only early prehistoric remains in the area.
Even in Iron Age and Roman times little is known of the area apart from Holcombe in Uplyme, where a late Iron Age settlement was discovered beneath a Roman villa. Certainly land around Lyme would have been used for farming from long before Roman times. There are four small Iron Age hillforts only 5-6 miles (8-10 kms) from Lyme – Lamberts and Coney’s Castle to the north-east in Dorset, and Musbury Castle and Hawkesdown to the west.
The hillforts were built because of wars between the various Iron Age tribes. Some were re-fortified against the Roman invasion of AD 43. The Romans transformed the country, constructing towns like Dorchester and Exeter and a network of roads. An early Roman fort has been discovered at Woodbury, south of Axminster, close to the junction of two Roman roads. It was built around AD 60 and developed into a small town in the third century.
On the right is a map showing early sites near Lyme Regis.
The Holcombe settlement was founded late in the Iron Age, probably towards the end of the first century BC, and continued to be inhabited up to the Roman invasion of AD 43. After a gap in time, when the site seems to have been deserted, the first Roman building dates from the end of the 1st century AD. The site was finally abandoned at the end of the fourth century AD.
The Iron Age Settlement
The Iron Age settlement at Holcombe probably originally consisted of only a few huts. The people who lived here were farmers, keeping sheep and cattle and growing corn. A bronze mirror was their finest possession; a replica is displayed in the showcase. Later, the settlement was enclosed by a ditch and bank. These defences are very much smaller than those of the hillforts, and were probably more to keep animals out of the houses than for defence. The sockets for the upright posts in the walls of four circular huts were excavated each about 7.5 metres (25 feet) across. More timbers formed the roofs, which were thatched and conical.
The Roman Villa
The earliest Roman building was of timber like the Iron Age huts, but it was rectangular, and much larger. This was replaced by buildings with stone footings from the late second century. The villa gradually grew much larger, until the middle of the fourth century when it reached its full extent. A corridor ran down one side of the building, linking to an elaborate bath block which had a central plunge bath. At least one of the rooms had a mosaic pavement, and several ovens at the north end show where the kitchen was.
The villa seems to have been abandoned at the end of the fourth century. Barbarian raids were causing problems all over the Roman Empire. Holcombe was now deserted and the buildings were left to decay. People must have lived and farmed elsewhere.
Holcombe is one of the most westerly villas in the country. In comparison with most villas, Holcombe is small and simple, apart from its bath block. The villa itself would have been the centre of an agricultural estate with the mansion used by the owner, but it has been suggested that bath blocks like these were too large for one family, and may have been used by people from the area around.
To the right is a plan of the Holcombe settlement. The black ditches and grey circles of post-holes are Iron Age. The Roman villa is the red outline.
The discovery and excavation of the Villa
The area where the Roman villa had been was littered with flints and other rubble, and was long thought to be the site of an old church. Two days’ excavation in 1850 revealed a mosaic pavement and an octagonal bath. The site was left open, and the public were allowed to view it if they paid 6 d (2.5 pence) to the farmer. More of the elaborate bath block was exposed in 1870. In 1967 another mosaic was hit by a plough and excavations took place over the next three years. Sadly, ploughing had worn away much of the site: the octagonal bath, over a metre deep in the 1850s, had been reduced to less than a quarter of that.
Tessarae from the Holcombe Villa are shown the right.
The Anglo-Saxon Period
Very little is known about the British in this area after Roman rule ended soon after AD 400. From about 200 years later West Saxon rulers gradually took over but evidence for their progress in Dorset is very scarce. Displayed in the showcase are finds from Hardown Hill, Morecombelake, made by Dr Wyatt Wingrave (a former curator of this museum). He discovered eight spear-heads, two axes, a shield boss and a knife, all of iron, along with a bronze brooch. They probably came from burials. As the date is earlier than the Saxon presence in Dorset, they may be the remains of those killed in a battle against the native British.
The settlement at Lyme
The first mention of Lyme comes in a charter of AD 774, when land on the west bank of the River Lim was granted to Sherborne Abbey. The name Lyme or Lim means stream in the Celtic language, and is thus a link with the earlier inhabitants. The land granted was to be used for salt makers who supplied Sherborne Abbey with salt – the settlement was probably then very small. Lyme was one of many villages founded in the seventh or eighth century, when the current pattern of settlement was established in Dorset. The Saxon towns and villages are in different positions from the Roman settlements. This Saxon pattern of villages and parishes has survived right up to today.