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Hampshire excavations # 1

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.


The bath suite at the western end of the aisled building; the abandoned ‘cold plunge’ is at the top of the picture, the replacement to the right.

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.


Infant burial F295, discovered inside the aisled hall

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

Further Reading:

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



Digging deeper

The Hampshire Historic Environment Record (HER) is a fantastic tool. Under its alternative title of the Archaeology and Historic Buildings Record (AHBR) it can be accessed and interrogated on-line in all manner of ways. If you want to know whether your village, town or parish hides items of archaeological or historical interest it’s the place to start, and it can lead you on a trail towards obscure reports (we call them ‘grey literature’) as well as published evidence.

Using the database it’s easy to get hooked on searching for your favourite type of site – Roman villas, for instance (104 results) – and then while away an evening, sifting through the various leads, which might head you towards some splendid find displayed in a museum, or alternatively into a ditch terminal. As more and more illustrative material becomes digitally available and linked-in, the historic environment will be more and more at our fingertips and our appreciation of what has gone before will be much enhanced.

One large step along this route has been taken by the staff of the Hampshire County Council Historic Environment Section, with the release of the Atlas of Hampshire’s Archaeology. Using the 50,000 records at their disposal, David Hopkins (County Archaeologist) and Alan Whitney (Historic Data Manager) have produced a set of forty maps which span the periods from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) which began around 10,000 years ago, to the end of the Roman occupation (about 1600 years ago). The excellent base maps employ either topography (15 altitude bands) or landscape type (derived from a palette of 25 pastel shades) and this, together with the river systems, allows the current character of the country to be easily read.

Landscape studies: the enigmatically-named 'Soldier's Ring' is represented by the hedgeline and diagonal boundary; Bokerley Dyke is on the horizon.

Landscape studies: the enigmatically-named ‘Soldier’s Ring’, a Romano-British enclosure, is represented by the hedgeline and foreground diagonal boundary; Bokerley Dyke is on the near horizon.

When it comes to putting things on the map, there are at least forty different symbols employed, but these range from just three for our Middle Stone Age ancestors, to eleven on one of the Roman maps. This inevitably leads to a bit of congestion, especially when the symbol for a single find is essentially larger than an industrial estate, but care has been taken to make everything fit sympathetically.

A genuine sense of distribution can be obtained for all periods – and an appreciation of the physical relationship of communities with soil types and river systems. It highlights the enigma of the Neolithic in Hampshire – long barrows, yes, but why on earth no causewayed enclosures, cursus monuments or henges? It also shows how, by the following Bronze Age – to judge from the spread of round barrows – there were no ‘no go’ areas. In the Iron Age – a period blessed with 14 maps – grain and wool processing are among particular activities that can be teased out and ‘banjo enclosures’ also have their part to play; on the Roman maps, the layout of the road system brings communications well and truly to the fore.

The 'banjo enclosure' at Nettlebank Copse - investigated as part of the Danebury Environs project.

The Iron Age ‘banjo enclosure’ at Nettlebank Copse – investigated as part of the Danebury Environs project.

Roman roads are an interesting subject, and have a number of people committed to their study. The current maps don’t include the routes through the New Forest surveyed by Arthur Clarke (2003), the last Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey, which would enhance the western approaches. Other features that don’t fare well (in the Bronze Age) are the so-called ‘ranch boundaries’, sometimes termed ‘Wessex linears’, which are represented by a static symbol when their role, interpreted by some as the first tangible manifestation of territories (Cunliffe, 1993), would be better shown by a true representation.

The maps are accompanied by short essays summarising the character of each period, particularly with regard to the landscape. Indeed, the word ‘landscape’ wins out in any word count and is perhaps a little repetitive, especially when it is contrasting the  ‘farmed’ with the ‘wild’. True, the landscape is the canvas holding the scene together, but with such vivid and varied pictures being painted by the human activity, it could perhaps be allowed to slip into the background a little. Alternatively, simpler maps showing the advance of the ‘farmed’ at the expense of the ‘wild’ would make the point – but would take a lot more preparation!

George Willis and friends picking the fields around Basingstoke clean of worked flints - in the 1920s.

George Willis and friends in the 1920s – picking the fields around Basingstoke clean of worked flints.

The maps throw up a number of issues not explored in the text, issues that tend to dog distribution maps. The concentration of finds in certain areas will be the result of individual fieldwork (George Willis et al around Basingstoke, for example, or Malcolm Lyne (2012) in Binsted and environs) and the growth of certain towns (Basingstoke, Andover etc) will have provided many more opportunities for discovery than other locations. Aerial cover will also be uneven, although in time the increasing use of LIDAR will bring greater equality. As a result there will inevitably be some bias on display, but the maps do a brilliant job in presenting the current state of knowledge and providing food for thought.

And in so doing, they are the perfect spur and complement to further research. The national ‘Atlas of Hillforts’ , for example, is nearing completion and it will be interesting to see how much variety is proposed in the survey for the forty or so ‘hillforts’ on the Hampshire map. Also, the Roman layout is forever being reconsidered – including roads that deviate for unknown reasons – whither Vindomis? etc ; and the monumental ‘desert’ that is the Neolithic remains as intriguing as ever.

So do make use of the maps – and having taken in the broad sweep of thousands of years of human history, consult the Historic Environment Record, and dig a little deeper.

Dave Allen, Curator of Hampshire Archaeology, Hampshire Cultural Trust


Clarke, A (2003) The Roman road on the eastern fringe of the New Forest, Hampshire Studies, Vol 58, 33-58

Cunliffe, B W  (1993), Wessex to A D 1000. p129 ff

Lyne, M (2012), Archaeological Research in Binsted, Kingsley and Alice Holt Forest, BAR British Series 574

Buried in time – the Rockbourne Roman Villa hoard

The hoard today

The hoard today

The excavations at Rockbourne (1940s to 1970s) unearthed more than 700 coins scattered across the site, but ‘jackpot day’ came on Saturday, August 26th, 1967 when a hoard, of 7,714 bronze and silver-bronze antoninianii and three silver denarii, was found buried in a two-handled storage jar.  The coins mostly belonged to the period 250 to 290, but issues of Diocletian and Maximianus suggested a deposition date of around 305.

Quite a find! A press photo showing the site of the discovery.

Quite a find! A Press photo showing the site of the discovery.

The hoard caused great excitement at the time and the news even made some national papers, presumably resulting in a late-season rush of visitors to the villa.  After the coins had been counted they were carried off to the village shop to be weighed (collectively!).  As the scales were not up to the job, someone produced a set of bathroom scales and they provided a reading of 56lbs (25.4 kg).

Another picture for the papers!

Another picture for the papers!

A T Morley Hewitt, discoverer of the villa and owner of the site at the time, then set about having the coins cleaned and identified.  When it was clear there were numerous duplicates – 2,439 issues of Tetricus I, for example, and 1,474 of Victorinus – he rewarded each of his regular diggers with a small packet of coins at the annual dinner later in the year.

Out on display...with the total number and the dating yet to be finalised.

Out on display…with the total number and the dating yet to be finalised.

This dispersal of the hoard continued in other ways, as the decision was made to sell some of the duplicates in order to raise funds for the continuing excavation.  There was also some dispute about whether the ‘finder’ should have a significant share of the hoard.  At the end of the day (or more precisely in 1979, when Hampshire County Council acquired the site and finds) only 986 coins were present, and only half of these ended up in the site archive.  These 493 coins, along with the New Forest jar in which they were concealed, are part of the museum displays.

Three imperial close-ups, including Carausius, bottom right.

Three imperial close-ups, including Carausius, bottom right.

Debate continues about whether such hoards represent the hiding away of wealth, particularly in troubled times, or a religious offering to the gods.  The discovery of the huge ‘Frome hoard’ in 2010 (52,503 coins in a very large pot) supports the votive offering theory.  The excavator of the Frome find reported distinctive ‘organic matter’ around the pot, suggesting that this was packing to protect it.  Morley Hewitt also mentions an organic component to the Rockbourne find, but it’s not clear in what quantity.

In 1894, a hoard of 4,020 coins, of similar date, was found on the site of Roman farm buildings at Whipps Hill, less than a mile from Rockbourne.

Further reading:

Rockbourne Roman Villa; A Guide  £5 plus p&p, available from Hampshire Cultural Trust.

A1979.6   Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.

Buried in time – a Romano-British bathhouse at Braishfield

Some 45 years ago a dense scatter of Roman objects was found after ploughing at a previously undisturbed site to the north of Pucknall Farm, Braishfield. The discoveries led to three seasons of excavation, from 1975 onwards. A flint masonry bathhouse was revealed, dated to the late 3rd or very early 4th century AD. It had apparently been demolished within 50 years of its construction. Research in the adjacent area showed that it was part of a major villa complex.

Spy in the sky - an aerial view showing the rural location.

Spy in the sky – an aerial view showing the rural location.

The excavation identified a number of occupation phases beginning about 50 BC to 100 AD and represented by two loam-filled pits containing burnt flint. The proximity of a contemporary corn dryer suggests early-Roman agricultural activity, although no further settlement evidence was found in this area.

General view of the excavation - the scorching resulting from the underfloor heating is very evident.

General view of the excavation – the scorching resulting from the underfloor heating is very evident.

Another general view of work in progress

Another general view of work in progress

The second phase consisted of a simple square bathhouse of five rooms, two of which were served by a hypocaust under-floor heating.

Later, two further heated rooms and a small wing containing an ornate pool were added; the stokehole area was enclosed. The building was probably re-plastered and painted in this period and furnished with apses and opus signinum floors. Two of the seven rooms were laid out in similar fashion to those found at Sparsholt Roman villa, while a third seems to have been used as a smithy. The exact date of what turned out to be a thorough demolition is unknown.

The small, but ornate, plunge pool.

The small, but ornate, plunge pool, with drain in the foreground.

Finds were sparse and included two copper alloy brooches and a quantity of iron artefacts, including nails, which were possibly part of door fittings, or boot cleats. A small number of pottery finds were early 2nd century, among them being a piece of samian ware, while a much larger quantity was identified as being late 3rd, or early 4th century, and included examples of Oxford, New Forest and possibly Alice Holt wares.

Tiles with 'signatures' or tally marks.

Tiles with ‘signatures’ or tally marks.

GetAttachment1 GetAttachment2

Of the building itself, the fragments of painted plaster were insufficient to reveal an overall pattern and the ceramic building material was of the standard variety,   although there were some intriguing ‘signatures’ and other marks.


Animal bone evidence provided the typical mix to be expected from a Roman rural site and the identifiable fragments were mostly of cattle and sheep or goat

Further reading:

Rogers & Walker, 1984, A Detached Bathouse at Braishfield, Hants Field Club Proceedings Vol 41, p 69-80

A1984.18 Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.

Buried in time – the Sparsholt Cup

A short while back we looked at the Selborne Cup, a multi-coloured enamelled beaker, a rare form of receptacle which would have been at home in the hand of some wealthy Roman Briton.  From the Sparsholt Roman villa excavations, which began 50 years ago this summer, came a hemispherical glass vessel with pinched-out decoration, representing what is now considered to be the commonest form of drinking vessel of the mid-3rd century.

The Sparsholt cup

The Sparsholt cup – the ‘grozed’ rim is very clear.

The cup was made of good quality, thin-walled glass, with only a few bubbles and blowing swirls within the metal. The rim flares outwards and would originally have been fire-rounded and thickened. During its lifetime, however, it was chipped quite evenly around its full circumference and this seems to have been a deliberate process (grozing) probably to hide an accidental crack or blemish.

The cup in (rather garish) colour

The cup in (rather garish) colour

Beneath the rim are faint, horizontal, wheel-incised lines and the body of the cup was decorated, while the glass was still warm and pliable, with 12 short vertical ribs, formed by running a reamer up and down the glass.  These alternate with vertical pairs of nipples or horns, pinched out using a pair of pucellas. The slightly flattened base has a central pontil mark. This surface treatment, whilst decorative, would also provide a contoured surface which would presumably improve handling.

Sparsholt radiate coin (named after the type of crown) of the Tetrici (c 270).

Sparsholt radiate coin (named after the type of crown) of the Tetrici (c 270).

The cup was found in the primary silts of Pit XX, in a fragmentary condition, with some pieces missing. The excavators thought that it had probably been swept up and disposed of in the pit, with some of the shards being missed in the process. Dating evidence was provided by a ‘barbarous radiate’ coin of AD 270-95.

Cups of this type have been looked at in detail by Dr Hilary Cool. Parts of four similar cups were found among the grave goods at a cemetery at Brougham, Cumbria, dated to AD 220-70, and one of them is very like the Sparsholt vessel. Other parallels have been found at Dorchester, South Shields and Verulamium.

Sparsholt villa - excavations in progress.

Sparsholt villa – excavations in progress.

An increasing number of finds, mostly of small fragments, suggests that these colourless hemispherical cups with pinched out decoration represent the main style of drinking vessel in the mid-3rd century. They superseded the cylindrical cups of the later 2nd century, before in turn being replaced by conical beakers and cups with cracked off rims in the 4th. The near completeness of the Sparsholt cup makes it a classic example of the type.

Further reading

Based on the glass report by Denise Allen in

Sparsholt Roman Villa, Excavations by David Johnston (Johnston & Dicks), Hants Field Club Monograph 11 (2014)

Cool H E M, 1990, The problem of 3rd century drinking vessels in Britain, Annales de 11e Congres de l’Association Internationale pour Histoire du Verre (Basel 1988).

Sparsholt finds are on display in the Winchester City Museum

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.

Rockbourne Roman Villa

It’s time for another tour and on today’s agenda is Rockbourne Roman Villa.



Video kindly made by Stacie Elliot

Seeing the light of day – Sparsholt Roman Villa


The Roman villa at Sparsholt, just to the north west of Winchester, was excavated in the 1960s, with follow-up work in the early 1980s, by the late David Johnston.  He had begun work on the publication and, following his death in 2011, this was taken forward and brought to fruition by the the Hampshire Field Club, with additonal authorship by Dr Jonathan Dicks.

SPAR D54 spar.B.7

An Iron Age enclosure existed on the site but the Sparsholt villa began as a single rectangular aisled building of the mid to late 2nd century.  This evolved into a courtyard villa with a defining wall enclosing a main house, barn, and the aisled building.  There was also an adjacent ‘hall’.  The villa was abandoned in the late 4th century.

A mosaic floor during excavation - it is now in the Winchester City Museum.

A mosaic floor during excavation – it is now in the Winchester City Museum.

Among the finds were two fine mosaics, one of which is the central feature in the Roman display at Winchester City Museum.  The site  also produced large quantities of painted wall plaster and an array of pottery, animal bone, glass, stone and metalwork.

Excavation reveals a finely turned stone column.

Excavation reveals a finely turned stone column.

The report is published as Hampshire Field Club Monograph 11 – Sparsholt Roman Villa, Hampshire; Excavations by David E Johnston.  Details of how to obtain a copy can be found on the Hampshire Field Club & Archaeological Society website.