10th August 2020:
OA East recently completed a six-month excavation of a densely populated Late Romano-British industrial landscape in Northamptonshire, with the potential to illuminate often overlooked aspects of rural life during the Roman period in Britain.
The industrial complex dates to between the late third to middle of the fourth century AD and is set within a Roman villa estate at Priors Hall Park, Corby. The date range is at the peak of the villa building tradition. The site gives a detailed picture of the people who lived and worked here during the final century of the Roman occupation, a time of economic and social turmoil within the empire.
Roman villas are usually believed to be at the heart of large farming estates, including the country house where the owner lived (perhaps seasonally) but also the living and working quarters for the multitude of servants and slaves. Over 2000 villas are known from Roman Britain and over forty are known in Northamptonshire alone. Although a large proportion of villas have been excavated, the focus tends to be on the principal domestic complex. Far less is known about the sourcing and manufacturing of materials to construct them and how they operated, and less still is known about the people who built and maintained them.
The excavation at Priors Hall Park revealed two large tile kilns (converted from an earlier structure), a large lime kiln for the production of mortar and five pottery kilns of varying sizes alongside large-scale stone and clay quarrying as well as post-built structures, possibly for the storage of equipment. These were linked by a metalled surface across the site to facilitate the movement of materials required to construct and operate a large Roman villa approximately 300m to the east. There was also evidence of re-purposing a brick and stone building associated with an earlier phase of the villa, or from another villa located 2km to the south.
The organisation and finance required to build a villa would have been considerable. The archaeology at Priors Hall shows evidence for numerous specialist tradespeople such as carpenters and builders, tile makers and mortar producers, perhaps being hired from nearby towns to make the pots, tiles, mortar and stone. This is in addition to the back-breaking work of quarrying the stone, chopping the wood and mixing the mortar and then transporting it to where it was needed.
A decorated complete buckle made of copper-alloy and depicting two flanking dolphins representing links with the gods of the sea, Neptune and Oceanus, displays the fashion and taste of the time. The rest of the finds include coins, animal bone, pottery and metal items, including jewellery and tools which give a rare insight into the lives of the estate workers as opposed to the villa owner. A large proportion of the coins have been ‘clipped’, where a piece is removed in order to then make more coins or recycle the metal, a common activity during the later Roman period in Britain and highlights the economic problems during this turbulent time. A particular highlight is a coin of the rebel emperor Allectus, who reigned a small breakaway empire based in Britain in AD 293 – 96. The coin has been pierced with a single hole so it may be worn as a fashion item suggesting its value was beyond just monetary. A large quantity of ceramic tiles were found, many of which had fingerprint impressions from the people who made them (as well as by animals, including dogs, deer and lots of cats who would have been nearby as the tiles were shaped and fired from clay). A tile fragment included the partial inscription of the name of the maker, likely to be a name of one of the tilers themselves immortalised in clay.
The site was excavated ahead of the next phase of development at Priors Hall Park, Corby. Urban&Civic, as the master developer, funded the work, while also adapting their programme to facilitate the archaeological work. Priors Hall is one of the UK’s largest home building projects, set within 965 acres of parkland in Northamptonshire.
The excavation was regularly monitored by Archaeological Advisors from Northamptonshire County Council, who provided additional expert advice, while ensuring the work met a high standard.
In order to accurately record the complex and interesting archaeology at Priors Hall Park, innovative techniques were used. Oxford Archaeology used sophisticated computer programmes to integrate accurate survey measurements with photographs to produce 3D models of the Roman structures. These models to provide a highly detailed record of each structure, which will allow for further study of them in the future.
Oxford Archaeology East is now washing and cataloguing finds recovered from the site, ready to be sent for specialist analysis. A report on the findings will be deposited with the Historic Environment Record for Northamptonshire and added to Oxford Archaeology’s online library for public access.
Finds and records from the excavation will eventually be deposited with the brand-new Northamptonshire Archaeological Resource Centre at Chester Farm Heritage Park, Irchester which is due to open in 2021. Once completed, the centre will hold over 15,000 boxes as the primary publicly accessible repository for archives from archaeological fieldwork taking place within Northamptonshire. The county’s rich archaeological heritage will be accessible to researchers and to museums and other heritage organisations will be able to loan material for temporary and long-term exhibitions.
Nick Gilmour, Senior Project Manager at Oxford Archaeology said “The great results of the excavation were only possible due to the hard work of all those involved, along with a great deal of collaboration between them. The field team from Oxford Archaeology continued with tough, and sometimes delicate, work through a cold and wet winter.”
Nigel Wakefield, Development Director at Urban&Civic said “With two villas previously excavated on Priors Hall Park in the 1950s, we always knew that we had a rich Roman history on this site. What we didn’t realise is quite how fascinating these new discoveries are, not only in terms of the buildings that were previously here, but also in learning how they were constructed and understanding the materials and skills required to build them. As master developers, it is important for us to uncover and preserve this history and we’re delighted with the role that Oxford Archaeology have played in this process. With the Heritage Management Plan in place, we can ensure that the history is not only preserved locally, but also communicated to our residents and they can feel proud to be part of the next community living on this site.”
Lesley-Ann Mather, County Archaeological Advisor at Northamptonshire County Council said “This current phase of work is part of an ongoing scheme of archaeological resource management within the Priors Hall development area as a whole. Northamptonshire County Council in their role as archaeological advisors to both Corby Borough Council and East Northamptonshire District Council have provided advice in relation to the impact of the proposed development on the known archaeological resource over a number of years. This has resulted in the production of a Heritage Management Strategy and Plan which covers the East Northamptonshire part of the Priors Hall Development area. The previous archaeological evaluations within this area had identified that archaeological activity was present. However, the discovery of a Late Romano British industrial complex was entirely unexpected. The Roman villa complex that the industrial complex serviced is to be preserved in situ and left as grassland. It will be covered by a Heritage Management Plan which will protect and manage it in the long term. This also includes provision for public engagement. Urban and Civic are to be commended for fully supporting Oxford Archaeology East in what turned out to be a major excavation.”