2,000 Years at Home: Forest Green’s Roman Villa

Members of the Kemble fieldwork team are currently investigating an area to the south of Junction 13 of the M5 motorway, proposed as the site of a number of new full-size training pitches for Forest Green Rovers FC.

FGR team

The site occupies a south-west facing slope which gently descends into the floodplain of the nearby River Frome, as well as part of the higher plateau at the top of the slope. It is on the edge of this plateau, immediately adjacent to our site, that the remains of the ‘Whitminster’ Roman villa were first recorded in the 1920s. The villa was subject to small-scale excavation in the 1960s and 70’s and this work, together with recent geophysical survey and trial trenching (conducted by CA in 2015), identified evidence for structural remains, including mosaic and opus signinum floors, the remains of a T-shaped corn dryer or malting kiln, and coins, pottery, roof tiles, flue tiles, and tesserae.  

Exhumation burials

Stripping of the site is currently ongoing but so far we’ve identified ditches associated with historic field boundaries and enclosures, pits, postholes, a possible stone structure, and a number of human burials. We’ve also uncovered gravel extraction pits of various shape and size, numerous furrows associated with at least two phases of medieval ridge and furrow cultivation, and a stretch of the Stroudwater Navigation – a canal opened in 1779 and backfilled in the late 1960s/early 1970s during construction of the adjacent motorway. Most of the archaeological features relate to the Roman occupation of the site, with finds including significant quantities of pottery dating to throughout the Roman period, animal bone, ceramic tile, and metal objects.

Metal detectorist showing a Roman coin

Our very enthusiastic metal detectorist friend, Lee, has visited regularly and he has unearthed lots of interesting artefacts – approximately 40 Roman coins, including a silver denarius; a cleaver; a copper alloy ‘dolphin’ brooch; a lead spindle whorl; and numerous lumps of waste lead and copper alloy, all evidently of Roman date. The metal waste intimates that there was some type of metalworking industry associated with the site during the Roman period. In addition, Lee has found lead musket balls, a silver medieval halfpenny, a Tudor half groat, and an as yet unidentified silver coin – likely to be a foreign import.

Although the human burials were mostly dispersed, a group of six were found in close proximity, seemingly intentionally interred right at the edge of the floodplain. One individual was buried with a knife at the hip, one with a twisted copper alloy bracelet, and one appears to have had their skull placed between their legs after death. Despite the extensive Roman activity on the site, a knife being present in one grave may suggest that these people actually lived and died in the Anglo-Saxon period, rather than the Roman, as knives as grave goods are not usually seen in Roman burials. The possible stone structure nearby also relates to the Anglo-Saxon period – it repurposes a few fragments of tegula roof tile, probably from the villa, which is likely to be where its stone came from too.    

Dale Vince on site

We are currently stripping tantalisingly close to the villa and all have our fingers crossed that the structural remains extend into our site. The archaeological works and the discovery of human burials, together with general interest in the overall proposed Eco Park development, (including a new timber-built stadium for Forest Green Rovers), has generated much press interest, from local to national level. On one day alone we were visited by TV crews from the BBC, ITV, Sky Sports News, and the local press! Dale Vince, the chairman of Forest Green Rovers and owner of Ecotricity, our client, has also been a regular visitor.

Mark Brett                                                      

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