THE discovery of what look to be two Roman settlements have helped the campaign to stop increased gravel extraction in South Oxfordshire.

Campaigners have warned large areas of countryside would be threatened if big increases in gravel and sand extraction go ahead.

But the two settlement discoveries could force a major rethink about extracting thousands of tonnes of gravel from an area even richer in Roman remains than previously thought.

The larger of the two settlements is near a small hamlet south east of Dorchester, with archaeological surveys and aerial photography showing a dense group of buildings at the junction of two roads.

The other smaller settlement is to the west of Warborough, and is visible in previously unseen crop marks.

The archaeological work was undertaken in March, and is funded by PAGE (Parishes Against Gravel Extraction), representing eight parishes. The group was re-formed this spring, following news of Government proposals to increase Oxfordshire’s gravel and sand target to 2.1m tonnes a year, a rise of almost 20 per cent.

Graham Keevill Consultancy and Abingdon Archaeological Geophysics were employed to investigate archaeology of some of the areas under threat.

Mr Keevill said: “It is very rare for archaeologists to come across such major new settlements. The smaller settlement is probably of Roman origin. We have confirmed the existence of structures.

“The other is a major new piece of evidence in the story of Dorchester, and shows a previously unknown suburb outside the limits of the Roman town.

“We are already in discussion with the landowner about how we can further investigate these new discoveries. I look forward to working with other agencies to assess and hopefully protect these areas.”

The exact locations are not yet being made public.

PAGE spokesman, Steve Thompson, said “It has been well known for many years that the stretch of the River Thames from Dorchester to Benson is of prime historical value.

“We have scheduled monuments in abundance, including the first Scheduled Ancient Monument, the Dyke Hills, at Dorchester.

“Our community-funded research continues to prove that this area is inappropriate for minerals extraction, and we hope that Oxfordshire County Council and the aggregates companies finally realise that the historical value of this area is Indisputable and must be preserved.

“We all recognise the need for sand and gravel, but that has to be weighted against the damage it causes to the heritage of our country.”

A technique known as magnetometry was used to scan fields.

Dr John Howell, the Conservative MP for Henley, said: “We have always said that PAGE was not a NIMBY campaign.

“Sand and gravel are practically ubiquitous throughout the Thames Valley, but this sort of archaeology is not.

“This area is unique.

“It would be madness to lose to gravel extraction this opportunity to see how an area was occupied over millennia."”

Dorchester councillor Lorraine Lindsay-Gale said: “This unique area has already lost internationally significant archaeology with the destruction of the Dorchester Big Rings, a henge monument of similar importance to Stonehenge or Avebury, dug up by gravel extraction in the 1960s.

“These significant new discoveries reinforce that the Dorchester–Shillingford– Warborough area of the River Thames floodplain is of national archaeological importance, and must be preserved.”

George Lambrick, President of the Oxfordshire Architectural & Historical Society and former Director of the Council for British Archaeology, said: “These are spectacular new discoveries of sites that are clearly important.

He added: “They illustrate that there is still an awful lot more to be known about the archaeology of the Thames gravels.”