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Category Archives: Roman Britain
An occasional series covering Hampshire archaeological digs, large and small.
Grateley South, 1910, 1916, 1998, 1999
‘Grateley South’ is one kilometre south east of the hillfort of Quarley Hill, and around six kilometres north west of Danebury Hillfort.
In 1895 Dr. J.P. Williams-Freeman, a Weyhill country doctor trained as a military surveyor, became a member of the Hampshire Field Club; he was a fine amateur field archaeologist and in the sixth volume of the society’s proceedings he published a short note concerning a supposed Roman villa at Grateley. Evidence, in the form of an 8 ft. by 4 ft. tessellated pavement, had been observed during the removal of the flint wall foundations to provide material for road mending. The foundations were recorded by Williams-Freeman, who used them as the basis of a scale plan of part of the villa. This discovery brought the total number of Romano-British buildings known within a six-mile radius of Andover up to ten, a concentration well covered in the Victoria County History, and on Williams-Freeman’s own map, which was to follow soon after.
During the summer of 1915 a further piece of pavement was discovered at the site. According to Williams-Freeman’s subsequent report, this was ‘carefully exposed under the direction of Mr. E. Rawlence, agent to the Marquis of Winchester, the present owner’. (Rawlence was a surveyor from Salisbury who, six years later, excavated the building at Houghton Down.) The small excavation at Grateley revealed a substantially complete mosaic floor in a square room at the centre of Williams-Freeman’s plan. A fine painting of the floor was made by Heywood Sumner and reproduced as a frontispiece of the Field Club’s journal. No hypocaust was revealed, although Williams-Freeman had heard that a ‘cellar’ (possibly a hypocaust) had been found a few years earlier.
Following Rawlence’s excavation the floor was carefully covered over. Sixty years later high-quality aerial photographs revealed that the building was part of a villa complex which had developed from an earlier Iron Age settlement with ditched enclosures. This made the site an attractive prospect for study as part of the Danebury Environs Roman Programme, led by Professor Barry Cunliffe. Its size and complexity meant that only a sample excavation was possible during two seasons in 1998 and 1999; the work focusing on the villa buildings.
The work revealed that there were two Roman phases, the earlier one (c. AD 50-300) including evidence of timber structures in the form of post alignments, a gravelled road, a well and a large corn-drying oven. The later phase (c.AD 300-400) comprised at least four masonry buildings. One of these was the villa house, previously reported by Williams-Freeman. Corridors ran along the back and front of this ‘strip house’. Cunliffe’s excavation included a trial trench across the building, but no surviving mosaics were found.
Four large corn-drying ovens were unearthed, however, and found to be in an exceptional state of preservation. They dated from the third and fourth centuries and the three earliest were all double ovens. They were similar in plan, with two ovens set side-by-side and served from a single stoking chamber. The evidence suggested that the right-hand chamber had been more intensively fired than the left. Analysis of the crop remains from the cooler flues produced remains of sprouted wheat, showing that they were used for parching malted grain. The right-hand chamber, run at a higher temperature, could have been used to dry the crop prior to storage. The later, single oven had continued in use until destroyed by fire, preserving its last load beneath the collapsed burnt roof of the building. The load included mainly spelt wheat, with other grains as contaminants.
A single burial, of a male aged 35-40 year, was found at the site, dumped into a pit too small to contain a prone body. The casual nature of the deposit differs from the usual inhumation practices of the time and it was suggested that the unfortunate individual had been held responsible for starting the calamitous fire, and made to suffer in consequence!
The environmental evidence from the corn-drying ovens provided significant information about the agrarian economy, an objective very different from those of the excavators of the Edwardian era, who originally uncovered the mosaic.
The Victoria County History of Hampshire , Vol 1 (1900) p 265ff.
A1998.45, A1999.40 Archives deposited with the Hampshire Cultural Trust
Cunliffe, B. 2000. The Danebury Environs Programme, Volume 1, Introduction.
Cunliffe, B. and Poole, C. 2008. Grateley South, Grateley, Hants 1998 and 1999, The Danebury Environs Roman Programme.
Series by Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
An occasional series covering Hampshire archaeological digs, large and small
Houghton Down, Stockbridge; 1922, 1994, 1997.
Was this both a Roman villa and an Iron Age farm? A dig in 1922 by E A Rawlence, a Salisbury surveyor, found a substantial Roman aisled building containing a bath house. The excavated baths were covered by a shed until the 1930s. Rubbish accumulated, including a dead pig and barbed wire, and the hollows were eventually filled in. Later, aerial photographs showed circular buildings, storage pits, and fenced and ditched fields in the immediate vicinity.
Excavations by Professor Barry Cunliffe and his team in 1994 and 1997 for the Danebury Environs Project showed that, yes, it had been occupied, not quite continuously, between 700 BC and the 4th century AD. Generations of farmers extended the fields, pastures and ditches, dug wells, buried their dead, and built furnaces for metal-working and corn-drying ovens. The main activity took place in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, when there may have been more than one family in residence. By about the year 200, the main buildings were in masonry rather than timber, and included the aisled hall and a narrow building, also used for living and eating in. The farm had expanded from a modest to a prosperous state.
The aisled building, 27.2m long by 13.6m wide, had been carefully constructed and was a substantial structure that would have been visible for miles around. It had a chalk floor, full-height flint walls on greensand corner foundations, a central nave and light from a timbered clerestory. The roof, supported on 14 stone and timber piers, was made of hexagonal Purbeck stone tiles. In the south wall (and probably also in the north) there was a large door opening – over 2m wide.
By the late 3rd century the building had been subdivided by timber partitions. It had a large oven inside. It was evidently now the main working area of a moderately prosperous farm. It also had a large bath suite retrofitted into the northwest corner. A cold plunge pool was started outside the building, but abandoned after only a day’s work! Making a breach in the gable end wall had caused serious structural damage, and so the design was hastily changed and the plunge pool moved to the north side instead of the west – but still outside the main rooms!
A new strip building then enlarged the farm’s living accommodation. Beer was brewed from surplus corn. But there was still little in the way of fine, non-local pottery or decorative ornaments. By the end of its life, in the middle of the 4th century, the building housed a smithy and piles of building material for recycling.
The dig unearthed 13 burials. Two were Roman cremations, two were adults buried close together in the old western enclosure ditch, and nine were infants, buried, here as elsewhere in Roman Britain, under the floors of the Roman buildings.
Houghton Down archives A1994.35 & A1997.55 are in the care of Hampshire Cultural Trust
The Danebury Environs Programme: The Prehistory of a Wessex Landscape, Vol 2 Part 6: Houghton Down, Stockbridge, Hants, 1994, by Barry Cunliffe and Cynthia Poole. English Heritage and OUCA Mono 49, 2000.
And Vol 2 Part 1: Houghton Down, Longstock, Hants,1997, Mono 71, 2008.
Series by: Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
The best surviving and most upstanding Roman remains in the north of Hampshire are the walls surrounding Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), a civitas capital. Just outside them, at the northeast corner, stands the oval form of the town’s amphitheatre. It escaped examination a century ago, when much of the site was sampled as it did not lie within the Wellington Estate. It was only when it was taken into Guardianship in 1979 that a programme of seven years excavation took place, led by Mike Fulford of Reading University, at the request of the former Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments.
British amphitheatres tend to be smaller than those found on the Continent and generally have three characteristics in common: they are always outside town walls, are variable in orientation to street grids or defences and consist of local material that supports the cavea (seating) with no record of purely masonry support. The amphitheatre at Silchester displays all these characteristics.
The first timber phase at Silchester was constructed to a circular plan probably between about AD 55-75 on land that had been in prior use, as evidenced by two substantial ditches, which it truncated, and by a pottery-making site beneath the western seating bank from which coarse-ware wasters were found among pre-Flavian finds.
Seating was not free-standing and was supported on material excavated from the site. The overall capacity is estimated to have been about 3600 to 3700 although if spectators stood on wide terraces more than 7000 may have been accommodated.
The second timber phase, difficult to date but perhaps of the mid -2nd century AD when masonry was the preferred building material, did not fundamentally change these arrangements. The original entrance layouts were retained and it seems very likely that there was no disturbance to the recesses on the east-west axis but efforts were focused on adapting the arena plan to give it an oval shape.
The arena wall of the second timber phase was replaced in the 3rd century by one of stone which consisted mostly of flint with some use of greensand and sarsen. Flint was also the preferred material used in the re-construction of the passage walls, while brown ironstone was used in the refurbishment of the arena surface. The dimensions of the arena were slightly increased to about 45.5 by 39.m with its oval shape unchanged. It has been found difficult to date the stone re-construction phase although a plausible suggestion is the time of arrival in Britain of Septimius Severus in 208 AD. Such an event may well have justified the considerable expenditure incurred – estimated to be comparable with the cost of the original construction.
About the time that the Silchester amphitheatre was being constructed, the monument at Pompeii on the Bay of Naples was being overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius. This froze in time an arena which had been built 150 years before, when the name given to them was ‘Spectacula’. The term amphitheatre (‘double theatre’) came later. The Pompeii seating could accommodate over 2000 in the best seats (separated by a deep moat from those behind!) and about 25000 overall, more than six times Silchester. There were also special boxes on the top tier for ladies – as Augustus thought it wrong for them be too near the action…and action there certainly was. Supporters at a gladiatorial show in AD 59 got out of hand and a riot took place between the Pompeiians and visiting Nucerians. This resulted in a 10-year ban for such shows at Pompeii, and exile for those who had staged it.
If Pompeii had not been buried in ash and lava, the amphitheatre would almost certainly have been improved, with the provision of an under-floor level, as at nearby Pozzuoli.
Positive evidence for the use of the Silchester amphitheatre is too sparse to draw any firm conclusions. Animal remains, predominantly horse, were retrieved from all three construction phases and it may be that there were equestrian displays, possibly animal hunts (venationes) or even beast fights. There is no evidence of gladiatorial contests and Nemesea, serving some religious purpose, seems to be the most acceptable explanation for the recesses on the east-west axis.
It is quite likely that the amphitheatre fell into disuse and eventual abandonment sometime in the mid – 4th century as evidenced by the finding of two coins of that period. It has also been suggested that the robbing-out of the stone wall could have occurred not much later, although the construction of the parish church of St. Mary 1125-1250 AD may be a more probable cause.
There is as yet no evidence that the amphitheatre may have been used in the post-Roman period until at least the 11th century when a single-aisled hall was built and a number of pits were dug within it. Pottery finds indicate a short period of occupation and the other contemporary structural changes do not preclude the use of the site as a castle during the ‘Anarchy’ of the reign of King Stephen (1135-54).
Thereafter from the 15th century until the 1970s the arena served as a yard for a nearby farm with late-17th to early 18th century pottery, glass and building material from the south entrance vicinity indicating the presence of a long-vanished cottage.
The amphitheatre has an evocative atmosphere and is well worth the short walk from the Church should you be visiting Silchester Roman Town.
Fulford, M (1989) The Silchester Amphitheatre, Excavations of 1979-85. Britannia Monograph Series No. 10.
Archive; A1980.65 held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
After looking at the walls of Winchester, Barry Cunliffe turned his attention to the much more upstanding (and precise) defences of Portchester Castle, a site in the guardianship of English Heritage. This Roman fort of the ‘Saxon Shore’, enclosed 3.6 ha, and subsequently had a Norman castle built in one corner and a church and cemetery established in another.
Cunliffe’s investigations involved a programme of excavations, from 1961 to 1972 (the decade of work costing a dizzying £9,950). They resulted in an impressive series of reports, published by the Society of Antiquaries. These describe the use of the site from the Roman period (plus a dusting of prehistoric flintwork) right up to the early 19th century.
As the north-west quarter of the site is occupied by the Norman castle, the north-east quarter by a cricket pitch, and the south-east corner by the priory and graveyard, the south-west area was chosen for large-scale excavation. This work showed how fugitive the Roman levels are, having been variously ploughed over or built on throughout history, so that buildings of the Roman period are represented only by the impressions made by their basal timbers.
The enclosing defensive walls, with their forward projecting bastions and opposed gates, appear to have survived well, but have actually seen considerable change. The gates have been blocked or modified, and although the distinctive pitched flints and tile courses on the outer surfaces are wonderful reminders of Roman work, the Norman masons took large quantities of flint from inside the ‘shell’ and remodelled its contours when they were constructing the castle.
The key questions surrounding Roman Portchester are – when was it built – and who occupied it? Barry Cunliffe’s conclusion was that the fort was established by Carausius around the year 285, in his role as naval commander charged with clearing the Channel of pirates. It was abandoned soon afterwards, when the initial work was done, and may not have figured much in the Britannic Empire, the brief imperial careers of Carausius and Allectus (286-296). It may have come back into use under the new central government, when the community included both women and children.
Further changes took place in the mid-4th century and occupation appears to have continued on into the 5th without a major break. Just who made up the population, with increasing evidence of a Germanic element to the finds, and whether or not Portchester is the Portus Adurni of the Notitia Dignitatum, are questions that remain unanswered.
More recent work has involved geophysical surveys, which have added considerably to the subterranean picture, and these are incorporated in the excellent (and sometimes delightfully quirky) exhibition at the site.
Cunliffe, B (1975) Excavations at Portchester Castle, Vol 1: Roman, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Vol XXXII.
Series by – Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.
On the shortest day of the year it seems appropriate to think of sources of light. We have the ability to turn night into day but it wasn’t so for our early ancestors. For the Romans, artificial light came in the form of oil-lamps or candles, or occasionally lanterns. In Britain oil-lamps were rare, because of the expense of shipping in olive oil from Gaul, Spain or Africa. It’s therefore good to be able to report that a complete example, found at the Dunkirt Barn Roman villa site, had a narrow escape. Peter Stone takes up the story.
Some years ago I was working as a volunteer on Barry Cunliffe’s excavation at Dunkirt Barn. Along with two or three others I found myself assigned to an area close to the site of the winged corridor villa, where we were instructed to trowel off what appeared to be infill from the 19th century excavations. Wearying of this task my near neighbour decided to take a mattock into his hands and vigorously attack his area. At about the third or fourth stroke an object suddenly flew into the air and landed several metres away. On investigation it proved to be a complete Roman lamp. The down-stroke of the mattock must have been just a few centimetres from completely destroying it but it survived intact and is one of the best finds from the site.
The lamp would have been made in the second century AD or later, and is a copy of a ‘factory lamp’ (firmalampe), so called because the originals were mass-produced, bearing a stamp identifying a particular manufacturer. This lamp has no such mark on its base and although many were made in Gaul and the German provinces, some were made in Britain, notably the Verulamium area. Such lamps would have been fuelled by olive oil imported from the Mediterranean.
Not every excavated find has such a fortuitous life [confesses Peter]. I went on to volunteer for Dave Allen at Basing House and was delighted to find a complete clay tobacco pipe. A few years later, however, I was working in the Chilcomb stores when, during a sorting task, the same pipe came to light. Overwhelmed at being reunited with it I raised my hand to take it from a fellow worker only to knock it from her hand with the result that it is no longer a complete pipe. Sic transit gloria mundi.
(We stuck it back together – Dave).
Further reading: Cunliffe & Poole (2008) The Danebury Environs Roman Programme, Vol 2, Part 7, Dunkirt Barn.
A2005.50, archive held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone
This late Roman gold finger-ring was found at Tangley, north of Andover, two years ago, by Ashley Duke. It qualified as ‘treasure’ under the definition of the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme oversaw its recording, valuation and publication (2014 T12).
It was acquired by the Hampshire Cultural Trust and the opportunity to display it coincided with the publication of the ring, firstly in an academic article in the journal Britannia, and secondly in a wide range of media outlets, as the beautifully cut intaglio, depicting a rather languid and impious looking Cupid, caught the imagination.
The nicolo intaglio (onyx with a blue surface and a dark heart) shows a winged, naked Cupid, leaning on a short spiral column. He holds aloft a flaming torch, which he will later use to burn Psyche in her guise as a butterfly.
Parallels for the ring are noted in the National Museum in Vienna, and closer to home, in one of the rings in the Silchester hoard, featured here just a few weeks ago.
The Trust invited Ashley Duke to be present at the ‘unveiling’ of his find at Andover Museum, and the Andover Advertiser was there to record the scene.
It has to be said that the valuation of such finds is not an easy task, is in the hands of an independent committee (museums are not directly involved) and is open to appeal. At the end of the day the addition of the Tangley ring to the Andover displays will ensure that it will be viewed and enjoyed by many.
Sally Worrell and John Pearce (2015). II. Finds Reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Britannia, 46, pp 355-381
Photos: Katie Hinds, Portable Antiquities Scheme; Dave Allen
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.
Just to the southwest of the walled Roman town of Silchester is a late Iron Age earthwork. In 1985, for the first time in many years, the adjacent area was ploughed. Searching by a metal detectorist unearthed an elaborate and flamboyant gold finger-ring with strands of beaded gold wire forming a filigree hoop and a large engraved gem (intaglio). Such rings generally date to the last few decades of the Roman period in Britain and were widespread throughout the Roman Empire. The intaglio consists of onyx engraved with a satyr and a small cupid. Four late Roman silver coins were found nearby.
During the winter of 1986-7 further finds were detected nearby and coin finds reached 55 in total. Although the exact locations were not reported, a visit to the site by an archaeologist revealed a limited area of disturbance and it is thought likely that both sets of discoveries derive from a single hoard. A subsequent small excavation exposed no further late Roman material and no associated features. This suggests that the collection was lost or hidden and is most likely to have been a ‘flight’ hoard.
Of the 55 coins, all but three were heavily corroded, broken silver examples of the late 4th century AD. At least 13 of them had been ‘clipped’, a practice dated to the reign of Constantine II (407-11 AD). Four additional rings were found, two complete gold examples and two fragmentary, one of which was silver. Because of potential plough damage it is impossible to tell whether the incomplete and broken rings were part of a jeweller’s hoard or were damaged after their concealment.
One of the complete gold rings has a raised bezel set with a glass gem in imitation of onyx, cast with the device of a satyr carrying a hare. This ring is large and heavy; the other complete but distorted gold ring is much slighter, set with a re-used glass bead. Only very fragmentary and mineralised remains of the silver ring survived. This had also been set with an imitation onyx cast glass gem, decorated with the image of a seated bearded man reading from a scroll, interpreted as a philosopher.
Some of the items mentioned here are on display at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke. The Silchester hoard, though smaller in size, can be compared through its composition to the late Romano-British Thetford Hoard, discovered in 1979 in Norfolk. Two rings from Thetford are similar to the Silchester gold ring with the glass bead; a satyr appears on a gold buckle-plate from Thetford.
N1997.20 – archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
M.G. Fulford, M. Henig and C. Johns, A Late Roman Gold Finger-Ring from Silchester, Hampshire, Britannia Vol. XVIII, 1987, pp.279-281.
M.G. Fulford, A.Burnett, and C. Johns, A Hoard of Late Roman Rings and Silver Coins from Silchester, Hampshire, Britannia Vol. XX, 1989, pp.219-228.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
Object photographs by Claire Woodhead.