Stunning mosaic found in Roman Villa near Boxford

The project.

Since 2015 Cotswold Archaeology has been involved in a three year community archaeology project “Revealing Boxford’s Ancient Heritage”. A joint project involving the BHP (Boxford History Project), the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group and CA, the project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and involved investigating three closely linked Roman sites near to the village of Boxford in West Berkshire.

Supported by our archaeologists, the local community groups and volunteers explored the function, status, chronology, extent and relationship of the three sites, which represented a significant focus of high-status Roman occupation in the Lambourn Valley. During the first year of the project such investigations uncovered a large villa and bath house, with a farmstead following in the second year. Following on from a successful two years, the final year of the project did not disappoint!

Roman Boxford Dig 2017.

Roman plunge pool
Roman plunge pool

This year kicked off to a great start, with finds recorded on the first day comprising a child’s bracelet and coins. Led by CA’s Matt Nichol, with the help of Agata, Alice, Keighley and Joe, the volunteers worked quickly to uncover the remains of the main villa, a probable barn, a gateway into the courtyard and other associated features. Finds also include Roman pottery and tile (one of which is complete and has an animal paw print), animal bone and much more. Although the villa was of modest size and of a common design, with a series of rooms adjoining a corridor running the full length of its front, it had evidently been subject to significant investment and upgrades over time. These included the addition of a bath suite with a small cold water plunge pool located in the corridor at the villa’s northern end. The most  spectacular addition, however, was a mosaic placed in a room at the southern end of the building.

Volunteers hard at work on the potential site of a Roman barn.
Volunteers hard at work on the potential site of a Roman barn.

The mosaic.

Our star find of the project was discovered during the initial stripping of the site, and measured over 6m in length. The mosaic comprised a highly decorated central panel surrounded by a plain border. Despite only one side of the mosaic being revealed within the trench, it is clear that the figurative mosaic is packed with mythical characters and beasts based on Greek legends.

Mosaic experts have visited the site and were explicit in their excitement and delight.  Anthony Beeson, one of the experts, said that:

 “This is without question the most exciting mosaic discovery made in Britain in the last fifty years and must take a premier place amongst those Romano-British works of art that have come down to modern Britons.”

Our own Roman expert, Neil Holbrook noted that:

“The mosaic is a truly important find. Not only is it a fantastic new piece of Roman art from Britain, but it also tells us about the lifestyle and social pretensions of the owner of the villa at Boxford. That person wanted to project an image of themselves as a cultivated person of taste – someone familiar with classical mythology and high Roman culture, despite the fact that their villa was of relatively modest size in a remote part of the Roman empire. While this person was most probably of British origin, they wanted to be regarded by their friends, neighbours and subservients as a proper Roman.”

Matt Nichol working on the mosaic
Matt Nichol working on the mosaic
Volunteers cleaning the mosaic
Volunteers cleaning the mosaic

Iconography.

For those interested in the iconography, Anthony Beeson suggests that the sideways scene may be interpreted as Bellerophon, a hero of Greek mythology, at the court of either Iobates or Proteus.

Bellerophon was sent to kill the chimera, a fire breathing monster with the head of a lion, the torso of a goat and a serpent’s tail.

The chimera illustrated on the mosaic at Boxford is one of only two known from Britain which turns back to attack in the traditional manner. The others all flee.

Other figures on the mosaic possibly include Hercules fighting a centaur, Cupid holding a wreath, and depictions of telamons in the corners, who appear to hold up the central panel.

Other examples of Romano-British Bellerophon mosaics are known from Frampton and Hinton St Mary in Dorset, Lullingstone in Kent and Croughton, near Brackley in Northamptonshire.

Left to Right: Potentially Hercules fighting the Centaur & Cupid with a wreath in his left hand
Left to Right: Potentially Hercules fighting the Centaur & Cupid with a wreath in his left hand

What now?

A site tour during the open day (Saturday 25th August)
A site tour during the open day (Saturday 25th August)

The Open Day last Saturday was attended by over 250 people who were able to view finds from the excavation, as well as the villa and mosaic. While the site has now been backfilled, it is hoped that future investigations will allow us to further our understanding of some of the features discovered, including the bath suite, and will reveal the mosaic in its entirety.

We have thoroughly enjoyed being involved in this project, and agree with the Chairman of the Boxford History Project who said: “Thanks to everyone who has contributed in any way to this amazing success. What a fantastic way to end this three-year project!

Steve Clark from the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group also commented “We’re very grateful for all the support provided by Neil Holbrook and Duncan Coe over the course of project and for the professionalism and patience of CA’s field staff in guiding us through the excavations. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have been led by somebody like Matt who has gone the extra mile to get the most out of our limited time on site each year”.

Our own Duncan Coe, who has been involved with the Boxford project for the last 6 years, stated that “this is one of the best examples of a project where a local community, local volunteer archaeologists and professional archaeologists have worked together to produce some truly inspiring results. We hope that the local community take away a greater understanding of the world around them and the time depth within the place they call home”.

For more information about the mosaic and dig go to:
The mosaic after cleaning, note the Victorian land drain in the corner, and the manner in which the building has been terraced into the slope
The mosaic after cleaning, note the Victorian land drain in the corner, and the manner in which the building has been terraced into the slope

Vinegar Hill battlefield, Co. Wexford

In August 2017 a small team from CA’s Andover office travelled to County Wexford in Ireland to undertake a licenced metal detector survey on the Irish Rebellion battlefield of Vinegar Hill (1798). The project was an international collaboration, funded by Wexford County Council and working with archaeologists from Rubicon Heritage, Earthsound Geophysics and IT Sligo to research this important and iconic Irish site. The research project is the largest and most comprehensive ever undertaken on an Irish battlefield, and a great privilege for CA to be a part of.

Surveying underway

The survey methodology involved the application of systematic metal detecting techniques that have been utilised to great success on many British and European battlefields. This enabled a consistent and comparable recovery of unstratified scatters of metal objects that had been fired, used or dropped during the battle across different parts of the site. As objects were recovered they were allocated unique finds numbers and plotted with a sub-cm GPS, enabling a complete digital plot of the artefacts to be built and the identification of trends and patterns within the assemblage.

Within five minutes on day one the first musket ball appeared! By the end of the week a large number had been found, some dropped during reloading in the middle of the battle and some heavily impacted from striking something solid after firing. Other recovered finds included a number of pieces of ‘weapon furniture’ – broken fittings from muskets and pistols perhaps suggestive of close combat, shrapnel from shells used to bombard the hill, and numerous buttons and coins which may have originated from the Irish camp on the hill in the weeks leading up to the battle.

A small selection of the recovered musket balls
A small selection of the recovered musket balls

By the end of the week, the team had covered a large part of the battlefield and by examining the relative concentrations of material across the surveyed area, it is tentatively possible to identify the location where one of the main British assaults advanced up the hill. A great deal of additional research is still to be done on the finds assemblage, in order to identify and isolate different calibre weapons and understand the scatter of material in greater detail. However, it is already clear how important the results are for Irish battlefield archaeology. By participating in the project, it has been possible to demonstrate the huge benefit of applying a systematic archaeological approach to the study of these sites in Ireland and the new information battlefield archaeology can reveal for even a well-studied site. As the first major project of its kind, it represents a huge leap forward for Irish battlefield archaeology, and is a site we hope to return to in the future.

Sam Wilson

A piece of anti-personnel grape shot
A piece of anti-personnel grape shot
A recovered musket 'hammer' compared to a modern display musket
A recovered musket ‘hammer’ compared to a modern display musket
Ramrod guide, probably from a British brown bess musket
Ramrod guide, probably from a British brown bess musket
Mortar bomb fragment with fuse hole
Mortar bomb fragment with fuse hole

Excavation at Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey Location planCotswold Archaeology has recently undertaken an excavation at Bath Abbey as part of Phase One of Bath Abbey’s Footprint Project, a major programme to repair the Abbey’s collapsing floor, install an eco-friendly heating system using energy from Bath’s hot springs, and create new spaces and facilities which will enable the Abbey to improve its worship, hospitality and service to the community, visitors and the city of Bath. As part of Phase 1 of the Footprint project, some initial excavation work took place earlier this year to shore up the foundations and to create some of the new underground spaces along the south side of the building, just outside the Abbey shop (known as the Jackson extension).

Rather than creating the underground spaces from scratch, the Abbey was able to use a small area of former cellars which date from the late 1750s. These became infilled when several buildings, known as the Kingston Buildings, were demolished around 1834 and the resultant rubble used to backfill the cellars. The first stage of work involved the monitoring, by Cotswold Archaeology, of the mechanical removal the cellar infill down to the old cellar floors. Following this, CA commenced removal, by hand excavation, of the deposits underlying the former cellar floors down to the construction level required for the new store rooms.

The excavation uncovered a compacted gravel and stone construction deposit which had been laid down in a single event, although it had been compacted into several layers during its deposition. This deposit may have formed a rafted foundation for construction of the Norman Abbey; a wall footing relating to the Norman Abbey was recorded overlying this deposit in the edge of the trench. However, similar deposits were uncovered during earlier works at the adjacent Roman Baths, where they were believed to be the base of a Roman podium associated with the Roman Baths and Temple complex. The southern edge of the deposit had been cut away by a trench whose location suggested it had been excavated to rob stones from a wall associated with the deposit.

Gravel and stone construction deposit with probable Norman Abbey wall in upper right hand corner of photo
Gravel and stone construction deposit with probable Norman Abbey wall in upper right hand corner of photo

The base of a wooden coffin, which had been heavily disturbed by the construction of the later cellar in the late 1750s, lay to the south of the robber trench. Any skeletal remains were probably removed and re-buried at that time, as only three small fragments of bone were found within the remains of the coffin. Several coffin nails, and a possible coffin plate, were associated with the remains of the coffin – a large piece of which was recovered intact. The coffin is likely to be of 17th-century date or earlier. Another probable burial lay adjacent though was not excavated as it lay beyond the required limits of the excavation.

Recovery of the largest surviving piece of the coffin
Recovery of the largest surviving piece of the coffin

A mortar surface, identified in the deepest part of the trench, was likely associated with a cellar of the Abbey House, which was constructed in the 17th century to accommodate visitors to Bath. At some stage this cellar was infilled with a large amount of residual Roman material, and around 1750 new cellars were constructed when several houses, depicted on 18th-century mapping as the ‘Kingston Buildings’ abutting the south-west corner of the Abbey, were constructed. These cellars featured several light wells and at least two fireplaces. They were infilled in the early 1830s when the Kingston Buildings were demolished prior to construction of the moat around the Abbey.


A 1st Century Funerary Enclosure at Barnwood, Gloucestershire

Cotswold Archaeology has just completed a full report on the findings from a site excavated in 2014 at Barnwood, ahead of redevelopment, funded by Barnwood Construction Ltd. The excavations produced evidence for quarrying associated with the initial construction of Roman Ermin Street in the mid 1st-century AD, along with a funerary enclosure containing the remains of a cremated individual, possibly an adult male, perhaps a soldier or veteran of the Roman army. Amongst the many finds recovered during the excavation is an internationally important assemblage of samian pottery.

Sherds from a decorated samian vessel from one of the quarry pits
Sherds from a decorated samian vessel from one of the quarry pits
A Roman military harness pendant recovered from one of the quarry pits
A Roman military harness pendant recovered from one of the quarry pits

The site is located immediately to the north of Barnwood Road, which follows the alignment of Roman Ermin Street. This road ran from the early Roman legionary fortresses at Kingsholm and Gloucester (later the colonia of Glevum) south-eastwards to Cirencester (Roman Corinium).  The earliest features recorded were a series of roadside quarry pits, probably dug to extract gravel used in the construction of the road. These pits were dated by samian pottery to between AD 40 and 70, indicating that Ermin Street was constructed as a metalled road within three decades of the Roman Conquest of AD 43. One of these pits contained a remarkable assemblage of finds, including hundreds of sherds of decorated samian, amphorae, vessel glass and metal objects. These include military harness fittings and a possible situla or ‘camp kettle’. Notably, the samian pottery is unused, as many of the base sherds retain the grits used to prevent vessels from fusing together in the kiln. This suggests that the assemblage is dominated by discarded stock, rather than being evidence for domestic occupation. Potters’ stamps on the samian provide a Neronian date range for the deposit, probably during the AD 60s.

After the construction of Ermin Street, a series of ditches with a central alignment of postholes was established, running at right-angles to the road. These were perhaps plot boundaries for a market garden. These features were within a large rectangular ditched enclosure, although it is somewhat unclear whether this enclosure was contemporary with the plot boundaries or slightly later. The garden plots were short-lived, as in the south-east corner of the large enclosure they were cut by a small (approximately 10m x 10m) square ditched enclosure; this contained a series of postholes indicating a square internal timber-built structure. Within the centre of this structure there was a number of pits, one of which contained a lead urn (an ossuarium) that held the cremated human remains of a possible adult male aged between 36 and 45. Another pit contained nails and hobnails, along with the remains of burnt broad beans and peas, perhaps part of a ritual food offering associated with funerary activity. The burial rite and use of a lead ossuarium strongly suggest that the individual had military connections and was perhaps a soldier or veteran of the Roman army.

lead urn (ossuarium) which contained the cremated remains of a possible Roman soldier
lead urn (ossuarium) which contained the cremated remains of a possible Roman soldier

While precise dating evidence for the cremation burial was scarce, an unstratified partially melted glass vessel, of a type commonly used as pyre goods during the 1st-century AD, is likely to relate to the funerary activity.

Subsequent activity at the site included a probable drainage ditch following the alignment of Ermin Street, which had been dug through the quarry pits in the late 1st or 2nd-century; the creation of probable roadside plots during the medieval period; and further quarrying during the medieval and post-medieval periods.

Together, the Roman-period evidence from Barnwood is highly indicative of a Roman military presence, yet the site is located approximately 3km away from both the legionary fortress at Kingsholm and its slightly later replacement at Gloucester. This raises the possibility that the activity was associated with an unknown military base in the Barnwood area, perhaps an auxiliary fort. If this were the case, could the unused samian stock and other finds deposited in the quarry pits be associated with clearance during the abandonment of such a fort, perhaps deliberately broken to prevent reuse or resale? There are, of course, multiple other potential explanations; maybe the group represents stock damaged in transit along Ermin Street and disposed of in a convenient open quarry pit, along with other waste from a nearby military establishment? Or perhaps the finds relate to a roadside funerary ritual involving the placement of broken up pottery in pits near the funerary enclosure? We can never be certain of the true reason the material was deposited as it was, yet the construction of various interpretative possibilities represents one of the joys of doing archaeology.

Roman vessel glass from one of the quarry pits
Roman vessel glass from one of the quarry pits
Part of a Roman amphora being excavated from one of the quarry pits
Part of a Roman amphora being excavated from one of the quarry pits
The copper-alloy ‘camp kettle’ after conservation
The copper-alloy ‘camp kettle’ after conservation

Excavation at Sizewell

Between December 2015 and February 2017 Cotswold Archaeology and Suffolk Archaeology jointly undertook a series of archaeological evaluations for EDF Energy Nuclear New Build at proposed development sites at Sizewell C on the Suffolk coast.

The first area to be investigated was Pillbox Field located just 350m west of the village of Sizewell. Sizewell had a burgeoning 13th-century settlement and was granted a market in 1237. Evidence from the medieval period was apparent within the trenches with a trackway and flanking ditches producing pottery dating from the 12th to 14th centuries. The remains of more recent activity can still be seen today, with an extant World War II pillbox located within field. During excavations a possible World War II command trench leading to the pillbox was also uncovered.

Photo of the Pillbox
Pillbox
Working shot of the kiln at Wickham
Working shot of the kiln at Wickham

After a short break, investigations turned to a site at Wickham Market, close to the previously known Roman settlement of Lower Hacheston. Excavations in the 1960s and early 1970s during construction of the A12 road uncovered a substantial Roman settlement, which appeared to be a continuation of an existing Iron Age site. These 20th-century excavations revealed that the settlement was occupied throughout the Roman period and was particularly associated with pottery production, with at least eight kilns excavated at the site. Our evaluation revealed Roman activity on the northern fringes of Lower Hacheston comprising domestic and industrial features, including another kiln (see left). The kiln had a domed clay-and-stone superstructure with two opposing flue arches and an internal pedestal. The use of the kiln appears to have been for the production of sand-tempered greyware vessels and was similar in design to those uncovered in the previous excavations. We also found a spread of dark material, which was probably a midden, or rubbish dump, for the settlement. A large number of finds came from this midden, including a coin from the reign of the Emperor Nero (AD 54 to-68) (see below, left) and a metal instrument that was probably used to get cosmetics out of bottles (see below, right). To the north of the Roman settlement, the evaluation revealed a wealth of archaeological evidence, including prehistoric cremations, Roman field systems and a trackway, and medieval enclosures.

Nero's as
Neronian as
Toilet scoop
Toilet scoop
Sunken Featured Building during excavation
Sunken-featured-building during excavation

Our next site was located on the eastern edge of the town of Leiston, where we found archaeological remains ranging from a prehistoric trackway with flanking ditches to more medieval enclosures. We were surprised to discover two Anglo-Saxon sunken-featured buildings (SFBs) in what was anticipated to be an area with little archaeology at the north end of the site (see left). SFBs were rectangular wooden structures, the majority of which seem to have had floors suspended over broad but shallow pits. They were prevalent in northern Europe from the 5th century AD and started to appear in Britain with the immigration of Germanic peoples in the later 5th and 6th centuries. Further evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement came from the remains of a rectangular post-built structure to the west of the SFBs. A series of later rectilinear enclosures dating to the medieval period were found on the northern and eastern boundaries of the site and may have been domestic plots fronting onto Valley Road and Lovers Lane respectively.

WWI button
WWI button

Our final site from this phase of fieldwork was located adjacent to the existing nuclear power station and produced features ranging from prehistoric ditches to the modern day use of the site. Medieval activity within the site appears to have occured at discrete points within the landscape, perhaps in connection to the establishment of the second Augustinian Abbey at Leiston during the 14th century. Sub-rectangular enclosures were identified, which often had a buried soil layer preserved within them, possibly suggesting that these were small farmsteads within Abbey land. Near these enclosures two large pits encompassing possible clay-built ovens or kilns were observed. Evidence for military use of the site in the 20th century was represented by a concrete post pad and a World War I uniform button (see above, right). This button is a general service button that was worn by soldiers of all regiments during the war.


Glassfields, Bristol

The Cirencester team has recently concluded an excavation undertaken in advance of development at Glassfields, Bristol. This site is located just to the east of the historic core of Bristol, close to the River Avon and Temple Meads railway station. It takes its name from its close proximity to a former Glassworks, located on the southern side of Avon Street (formerly Cheese Lane).

Excavating the domestic and industrial buildings
Excavating the domestic and industrial buildings

The excavations revealed a wide range of structures relating to both domestic and industrial occupation from the latter half of the 17th century through to the present day. These included cellars, wells, cess pits and walls relating to the Bristol Distillery, a producer of whisky up until the 1940s. Some very well preserved kilns, used for producing clay tobacco pipes in the 19th century, were also uncovered.

The heavily disturbed remains of an unusual circular structure
The heavily disturbed remains of an unusual circular structure

Prior to the 17th century, the site was open pasture land on the edge of the Avon. Before the development of this area a large amount of the underlying floodplain clay had been extracted via large pits, most likely to supply the brick kilns that were in operation nearby in the 17th century. These pits were then infilled with both domestic and industrial waste and the ground level raised to provide a dry area for occupation. Terraced domestic buildings were constructed fronting onto both Bread Street (now Old Bread Street) and Cheese Lane. In addition to the domestic dwellings an unusual stone circular structure was built within a larger, stone-founded, building with a slightly curved southern end and mortar floors. The original function of this building is unknown as unfortunately most of the stone was robbed at a later date, and subsequent buildings built across it. All that remains is a small triangular segment of stonework and the rubble filled circular shadow of the original structure, along with the parts of the mortar floor and outer walls of the building. One possibility is that the circular stone structure was the base for a large vat or ‘pug mill’ used for mixing clay and water to make the clay suitable for brick or pottery manufacture, or for mixing mortar. Within the vat would have been a pair of wheels or blades connected to a shaft that may have been turned by a horse or labourers walking on the mortar floors surrounding the perimeter of the circular structure.

Towards the middle part of the 17th century a warehouse was built over this structure, and this long narrow new building extended between Bread Street and Cheese Lane. It was acquired by The Bristol Distillery Company in 1782 and was used to store full whisky barrels prior to delivery. A large number of short, sturdy ‘sleeper walls’, used to support the floors can be clearly seen, especially to the west of this structure. Contemporary reports suggest that the whisky produced by the company was both ‘bland and tasteless’ and also ‘highly suspect’. Some of the immature whisky blends – which still contained some toxic elements – were ‘boosted with meths and creosote’ to give it the smoky taste of Scotch! The distillery building was destroyed in December 1940 during an enemy bombing raid. After this the entire site was cleared and for the latter part of the 20th century was used for commercial activity.

To the north of Bread Street three kilns were uncovered. Two of these formed a pair, brick-built and set within a semi-cellared room, behind a cobbled courtyard leading from Bread Street. The discovery of clay tobacco-pipe bowls with the stamp ‘JW’, coupled with documentary evidence, prove that these kilns were constructed by James Winchester at some time after 1837, and were operational until 1866. The kilns were used to fire clay tobacco pipes, popular at that time.

A third, smaller, stone-built kiln was also recorded close by. This kiln was set between two earlier property boundary walls and may also have been used for clay pipe manufacture – possibly James Winchester’s first kiln at the property in the 1830s.