THE discovery of what look to be two Roman settlements has boosted 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 new 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 Yarborough.

The archaeological work was undertaken in March funded by Page (Parishes Against Gravel Extraction), representing eight parishes.

The group was reformed 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.

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

Mr Keevill said: “Our initial work looked at some sample geophysical assessments of fields. Our eyes lit up when we saw the results from these two sites.

“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.”

Steve Thompson, from Page, said: “We all recognise the need for sand and gravel, but that has to be weighed against the damage it causes to the heritage of our country.”

Henley MP John Howell said: “This is extremely exciting news and a major contribution to archaeology both locally and nationally.

“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.”

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

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

Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet recently called for the county’s gravel extraction target to be cut to 1.58 million. An officers’ report said 2.1m tonnes a year was “unnecessary and unacceptable.”

A spokesman for the Department of Communities and Local Government said it was too soon to say whether the new Government would adjust targets put forward by the previous administration.