Revealing Roman lives through environmental remains at Dings Crusaders villa

Every single day, sometimes without even thinking about it, we use plants or their by-products to live, and for the people of the past things were no different. We use them for cooking, heating, and making clothes, or sometimes we just leave them in a pot on their own for decoration and forget to water them for six months… Although the coins and pottery from the site were beautiful, the archaeological remains of plants can tell us just as much about life at the Late Roman villa we found underneath the Dings Crusaders rugby pitch.

Dings Roman Villa under excavation

How do we know what plants people in the past were using? Very good question! Plant remains can end up in the archaeological record in several ways, but the most common route is through charring by fire. This leaves a carbon fossil of the harder parts of the plant — such as seeds, grains, chaff, or wood in the case of charcoal. Although very small, these remains can stay preserved in the soil for centuries, waiting for a CA archaeologist to come along with a sample tub and a shovel, to scoop them up and bring them back to one of our offices to be studied.

The charred plant remains recovered from samples taken from the Late Roman phase (AD 350 – 410) at Dings Villa reveal not just the everyday activities of the site’s inhabitants but also where on the site those activities took place. The locations of possible activities, and where the samples were taken, are marked A, B, and C on the site plan.

Plan of the site, showing Roman archaeology highlighted in green
Plan of the Late Roman archaeology

Food preparation (A) appears to have taken place in a room on the north wing of the Villa. Samples from a hearth there contained a lot of charred cereal grains (such as spelt wheat and barley) and hazelnut shells. Given that the remains in these samples tend to represent plants that were commonly consumed as food, and the fact they were recovered from a hearth in a small room, it is likely that they are the charred remains of food that may have been prepared on that hearth.

Charred hazelnut under the microscope
Charred hazelnut under the microscope

Crop processing (B) appears to have occurred both in the vicinity of the aisled barn on the south side of the villa and just beyond the north wing of the villa. Samples from those locations sported an abundance of chaff — the unwanted byproduct of threshing and winnowing that is not consumed by humans or animals. Given that these are the waste byproduct of crop processing, it is quite possible that they were discarded close to where the activity occurred for conveniences sake.

Last, but by no means least, we also recovered evidence of how the Late Romans at this site heated their villa (C). Samples taken from the furnace adjacent to the south wing contained a lot of charred buds. Whilst the charred buds are difficult to identify to species, their presence, along with some cereal grains and arable weed seeds, suggests the heating fuel was a mix of younger trees and waste plant material, the latter gained from other activities that took place around the villa. 

Carbonised cereal grains
Carbonised cereal grains

In some cases, archaeological evidence of everyday activities is clearly supported by the information gained from plant remains. For instance, the hearth in the room on the north wing of the villa indicated food preparation took place there, but the archaeological plant remains confirmed it and also demonstrated what types of food were being prepared. Sometimes, as was the case with the charred crop-processing waste recovered from a ditch on the north side of the villa, plant remains can also reveal everyday activities may have taken place at a location where we don’t have much additional contextual information to show that they did.

From cooking to crop processing, to simply how they kept the place cosy on those cold British mornings, the archaeological plant remains from this site revealed more about the everyday life at the Dings Crusaders Villa in the Late Roman period. Remember that plants don’t just brighten your dinner plate or enhance your sitting room, they can also add colour to our distant past.

Charlotte Lucy Molloy
Assistant Environmental Officer

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