We all know what a Roman villa is – don’t we? They were one of the most distinctive elements of the Roman countryside – nice houses with some level of architectural pretension, often furnished with mosaic floors, painted walls, and private bath suites. But villas were actually always a rarity in Roman Britain: they are unlikely to have formed more than 1% of the total number of rural settlements in the province, and over large swathes of the country you don’t find them at all. So even a relatively humble villa (they came in all shapes and sizes) is noteworthy as the residence of the local moneyed classes. Excitement was high therefore when we found a previously unknown villa beneath a disused rugby pitch in Stoke Gifford, a northern suburb of Bristol, when working for Redrow Homes and CgMs Heritage in advance of a new housing development.
The villa house dates to the late Roman period, as is common in Gloucestershire (a villa hotspot on a national level). What particularly fascinates me about this site is that it represents an attempt by someone to express their wealth and prestige through building – a trend we still see today of course. The owners clearly wanted to be seen to be doing something that would be recognised by their peers as embracing a modern, up market, way of life, and one that perhaps signified their alignment with the perceived norms of Roman administration. The house was nice, but not spectacular. It had two rooms with under floor heating, and what seems to have been a rudimentary bath suite, but no mosaics.
But we shouldn’t envisage a fancy house set within its own private parkland. Associated buildings show that this was a place of production, a place where wealth was generated. While agriculture undoubtedly underpinned the economy of the house, other activities included metal-working and perhaps beer making. So the people who lived here were local entrepreneurs who managed to make a decent living, but never made it to the mega-wealthy heights seen in some other Gloucestershire villas. Nevertheless the owners had access to nice things, including a fantastic bronze oil lamp which seems to have been made in Egypt. How did that make its way to Gloucestershire?
Roman Britain has always been my favourite period of the past, and I’ve a particular affection for this site. It was just such great fun to work on. You can read more about the villa on this page.
Cannington Park Quarry Cave (also known as Boulder Cave or South Quarry Cave) was located in c. 1962 (some notes state 1959) when quarry blasting opened up a chamber. The cave was explored by various individuals, most notably in 1964 by Tony Locke, who recovered a number of bones.
These bones were recovered from a breccia layer around the cave, although they were from heavily disturbed contexts and were partly covered by blasting material. The bones were examined in 1984 (Powers and Currant 1985 in Rahtz et al. 2000) and found to represent at least seven human individuals, along with the bones of red deer, badger, horse and bovine.
This group of bones were initially believed to represent disturbed material from Cannington Cemetery, a Late Roman – post-Roman cemetery excavated in 1962-3 and published by Rahtz, Hirst and Wright (2000). This cemetery was sited above the quarry and had been considerably damaged by it, with a quantity of loose material disturbed by blasting in the south-east part of the cemetery area. While the proximity of the Roman/post-Roman cemetery allowed for the possibility that the bones were from the graves above, the bones were reported to be from a small area and may originally have been deliberate burials within the cave. Indeed, the report in the cemetery publication concluded:
“…it is at least possible that these were deliberate cave burials…….only radiocarbon determinations could resolve this problem”.
The close proximity of the Cannington Cemetery to Cotswold Archaeology’s excavations associated with the Cannington Bypass and Hinkley Point power station, where the respective discoveries of a Roman villa and a Post-Roman cemetery were made, meant that it was important to consider the potential relationships between these sites. As such, we wished to determine with greater certainty the date of the bones found in the cave; research grant funding from BABAO (British Association of Biological Anthropologists and Osteoarchaeologists) allowed for two radiocarbon dates on the material, which now resides at the Somerset Heritage Centre near Taunton, contained in two separate boxes.
Physical examination of the bones confirmed that they were those described in the Cannington Cemetery Publication. It was noted in the report that a ‘considerable calcareous deposit’ was removed from some of the fragments. These calcareous deposits remained in places and the bones were notably well-preserved. These deposits are usually found on material which has lain on a cave floor for a long period of time, and the light colour of the bone, together with a lack of surface erosion, did not fit with the expected appearance of bone that had spent considerable time in the earth. Aside from this, the dental attrition on one maxilla was not the expected pattern for normal dental wear, but more in keeping with the use of the teeth as a tool. The use of teeth in such a way is much more commonly seen in prehistoric than later human remains. Together, these observations indicated that the bones were more likely to have come from a prehistoric cave burial than from the Roman cemetery.
To investigate this, two bones were selected, one from each box, from different individuals (one adult, the other immature), and samples were sent for radiocarbon dating. The results were very surprising. Both samples returned dates of over 9000 years BP. When calibrated this provides date ranges of 8545-8328 cal BC and 8237-7976 cal BC (both at 95.4% probability). This places both of the bones very clearly in the early Mesolithic.
These are very exciting dates and are comparable with those for the human remains known as ‘Cheddar Man’, recovered from Gough’s cave, nearby in the Mendip Hills, which were dated to 8540-7990 and 8470-8230 cal BC. Mesolithic human remains are extremely rare discoveries in England, with just 20 firmly dated sites known (Meiklejohn, Chamberlain and Schulting 2011).
Sadly the cave was completely destroyed by quarrying during the 1990s and the boxes of bones, sketches and notes are the only surviving evidence for what now appears to have been a rare Mesolithic burial site. Fortunately, we now know the site existed. This demonstrates the archaeological potential of material residing in old archives in museum stores, and the value that can be gained by returning to re-examine it. The findings will be fully reported on and published in the coming months.
Cotswold Archaeology are grateful to BABAO, Graham Mullan (UBSS) and Rick Schulting.
The human and animal remains belong to the Somerset County Council museum collection, cared for and managed by the South West Heritage Trust.
Meiklejohn, C., Chamberlain, A.T. and Schulting, R.J. 2011 ‘Radiocarbon dating of Mesolithic human remains in Great Britain’Mesolithic Miscellany Vol 21: 2, 20-57
Rahtz, P., Hirst, S. and Wright, S. 2000. Cannington cemetery: Excavations 1962-3 of prehistoric, Roman, post-Roman, and later features at Cannington Park Quarry, near Bridgwater, Somerset. Britannia Monograph Series 17. Society for the promotion of Roman studies, London
Some archaeological sites are instantly striking and live long in the memory. An excavation near Andover in advance of new housing for Persimmon Homes certainly falls into this category. On stripping the topsoil, the surface of the underlying natural white chalk was exposed, and clearly visible in this were the contrasting dark backfills of the ring ditches defining a group of Bronze Age ritual monuments which dated to approximately 2200-1800 BC.
It is too easy to forget just how superstitious past populations were, but as archaeologists we are aware of the massive effort expended in the construction of monuments which outwardly appear to have been of little functional use in the day to day business of prehistoric farming societies. People obviously believed that the collective building of large circular barrows within which the remains of important people were buried was both necessary and worthwhile.
These remains speak to us of the power and influence that some people exerted over others, and the need for small social groups to demonstrate their place in the landscape –this doesn’t seem to have been a very egalitarian society. This cemetery remained an important focus until the Roman period, when large quantities of pottery were deposited in barrow ditches.
The work involved in constructing some of the barrows was considerable – in two cases, the ditches were 5m wide. The high mounds of freshly-excavated white chalk from the ditch, located on a prominent ridge, were designed to be visible in the landscape and provide a significant backdrop to the everyday lives of local communities. For me, however, the discovery that remains freshest in my mind was an incomplete circle of fifty stake-holes, arranged around a central cremation burial. These tiny features formed by pointed stakes being driven into the ground were wonderfully well- preserved in the surface of the chalk – they could almost have been made yesterday.
In the last few decades those areas that have experienced the most new building have also seen the most archaeological exploration. Sometimes, however, we end up in places that have seen comparatively little previous investigation, and this provides us with a chance to write the first systematic archaeological story of an area. This was just the case at Hinkley Point in West Somerset, where EDF Energy is currently building a new nuclear reactor. This major development provided us with an opportunity to examine a large tract of land bordering the Bristol Channel. From the reactor site itself there are fine views out across the water to the South Wales coast, but the area is exposed and susceptible to strong wind – we regularly saw the rain clouds being blown apace towards us. So you might have thought that this was an unlikely spot to find much archaeology, yet quite the opposite proved to be true.
Our work revealed fascinating evidence for past activity in this remote spot stretching back until around 3000 BC. Virtually all periods of the past were represented, including Iron Age and Roman settlements and a fascinating post-Roman cemetery dating from the 5th to 7th centuries AD. We also examined the site of a farm which was only abandoned in the 1960s, and amazingly showed that this site has also been occupied in the Iron Age, Roman and medieval periods. What was it about this spot that drew people back to it throughout history?
We sometimes think of the Roman invasion of AD 43 as a great watershed, but in many ways a lot of the developments which we think of as Roman were actually a continuation of processes that begun in the Late Iron Age (from about 100 BC onwards). One of the trends we can detect in some (but not all) parts of Britain was a desire – or need – to grow more food and make more efficient use of the countryside. Our excavation in 2016 at Brixworth, Northamptonshire, for Barratt Homes provides a good example of this process in action.
From around 400 BC onwards a series of trapezoidal and sub-circular enclosures were constructed, associated with a large number of pits which were likely used for the storage of grain and other agricultural products. A lovely beehive quern demonstrates that grain was being turned into flour on the site. This activity continued seemingly unaffected by the Roman invasion and the site developed into a farm made up of a complex series of enclosures that were used either as places to live or for a variety of agricultural purposes, including crop processing. The construction of a large drying oven suggests an expansion of crop-processing activities in the later Roman period (roughly AD 200-400) and perhaps even brewing (the oven might have been used in the malting process).
The people who lived in Brixworth must have devoted much of their waking hours to agriculture on an almost industrial scale. Let’s hope they enjoyed their local beer when the day’s toil was over. You can see some of the finds from Brixworth following the links below.
Since September 2018, Cotswold Archaeology has been carrying out archaeological investigations in Wickham, Hampshire. Working with developer Croudace Homes and Winchester City Archaeology, the investigations are being undertaken prior to the construction of a new residential development of 82 homes.
This is not the first time archaeologists have visited this site however, with work beginning in the late 1960s. These early investigations revealed evidence of Roman activity, including both domestic and industrial debris. Investigations in the early 21st century recorded late prehistoric pottery, and our investigations expand upon two previous phases of trial excavations undertaken in 2014 and 2018.
Since September our archaeologists have revealed the extent of Roman roadside settlement activity which is currently thought to have had its heyday within the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, perhaps as a kind of Roman ‘service-station’. We have uncovered evidence of post-built structures, multiple enclosure ditches and several large waste pits, from which we have found a wealth of pottery and other kiln debris. Amidst the Roman archaeology, Bronze Age cremations and worked-flint were also discovered, suggesting the presence of human activity in this area as early as the Mesolithic period.
As an educational charity, CA are dedicated to delivering outreach and community engagement programmes within the local area, using both on and off-site approaches and digital technology, to help widen access for engagement and participation. As part of our investigations at Wickham, an Open Day was due to be held on Saturday 24th November. Whilst our archaeologists are prepared for all weathers, in this instance severe wet weather compromised site safety and we unfortunately had to put a halt to the open day. We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused and to all those planning to come along.
The past five months have revealed a fascinating insight into the history of this area. As we were unable to welcome you to the site in November, our Andover fieldwork team have made a fantastic on-site video to show you what we have been up to.
Information panels produced for the Open Day are available to download below.
Our investigations were initially due to be completed in December 2018 but, due to bad weather, we have been delayed. We will continue working on site into January 2019. Once we have finished, our specialists will analyse and record the information collected. We will then be able to build up a picture of the site, which we hope to share at another event in Wickham in 2019. Further details about this event will be available to view here soon.