Roman Settlements

The earliest Roman period activity in the Hawkesbury area was probably the construction of the first phase of a potential shrine, below the spring line at Wortley, to the north of the parish.

Wortley, the deep room

Wortley, the deep room

The Wortley excavation, 1979-1993, just north of Hillesley, revealed a very large site, with what appeared to have been a ritual ‘deep room’, which may have been a shrine. Dating from pottery finds indicated an initial foundation in the first century, with peak occupation from about 240 to 400, continuing sporadically after 400 AD, with gradual deterioration, remodelling and subdivision of the larger rooms. There is evidence of smithing and farm related activities in many of the rooms after domestic activity ceased.30

In 2000, the parchmark of a possible Roman building was noticed on an air-photograph of Lovett’s Wood Farm, Hillesley. Field walking of adjacent plough land produced fragments of Roman tile, brick, and micaceous slag. A stream nearby produced black burnished ware, iron pyrite nodules and a fragment of box flue. The site was investigated with resistance survey, which produced an image of an area of high-resistance material in the area relating to the parchmark, suggesting a rubble scatter. No dating material was found.31

Part of the damaged Lower Woods mosaic

Part of the damaged Lower Woods mosaic, showing post holes and beam slots in the border, indicating later re-use of the site (painting by Steve Cosh)

An extensive Roman site on low lying land at Horton has shown indications of longevity; a building of some status suffered a roof collapse in the fourth century (dated by a coin of Constantine I, 310-316AD, which was left in situ), suggesting a lack of either interest, or skill, to repair it. A wall was later constructed to the east of the building, and the ground surface of the yard exterior to the collapse was resurfaced and continued in use.32 The complete site extends over several fields and the landowner has noted crop mark evidence for tracks and enclosures. The whole area is overlain by small irregular fields of medieval and later assarting, indicating a period of lengthy disuse and woodland regrowth, followed by reclamation.

At Lower Woods nature reserve an ongoing investigation, involving geophysical, botanical and landscape survey, together with limited excavation, over the period 1996 to present, has found traces of a building complex around an open space. The total width of the buildings is about eighty metres, the length of the longer surviving wing being 48 metres. The wings appear to be of different widths. Excavation during 2002 revealed part of a range of outbuildings along the northern boundary of the field, dated from pottery finds to the second century AD. Finds of glass fragments and a small quantity of tesserae indicated the likelihood of a higher status building within the complex.

Lower Woods Inscription

White tesserae in the purple pennant stone border of the Lower Woods mosaic spell out the letters R E G I (? ?) S, possibly being the name of the villa owner.

Excavation in 2003-06 concentrated on the southern wing of the villa, and revealed part of a large room, originally with a mosaic floor and painted plaster walls, damaged by later reuse for metalworking. Stylistically the main body of the mosaic appeared to date from the second century (S.Cosh, pers. comm.) which agreed with finds from excavation on the northern wing. However, the mosaic was surrounded by a deep pennant sandstone border, more typical of later mosaics, in which there was what appeared to be a single word of inscription partly destroyed by the insertion of a later smithing hearth33,34. There have been few finds. Pottery has included black burnished wares, Oxford colour coated ware, and local micaceous greywares. Two coin finds were made, dating to the house of Valetinian (375-392AD). Iron working debris was recovered from the hearth area, together with a large iron pin. One large piece of badly burned Oxford ware was found sealed within the hearth deposits, indicating re-use of the building as a workshop within the later Roman period. The remains of two small bracelets and a spoon handle of probable fourth century date were also found in unstratified contexts, disturbed by stone robbers. A small amount of burned grain was found, and identified as spelt wheat. The shortage of finds suggests that the rooms were cleared out before abandonment.

Roman metal finds from Lower Woods.

Roman metal finds from Lower Woods.

Fieldwork in 2001 at the head of a valley south of Hawkesbury produced large quantities of tile, red sandstone roof tile, tesserae, sherds of Severn valley ware, and a fragment of Oxford red slipped ware, suggesting possible domestic occupation in the period from the second to fourth centuries AD. Small amounts of iron working debris were present nearby.

Intaglios found by the Duchess of Beaufort

Intaglios found by the Duchess of Beaufort (JAA, 1846,90).

Further round the Hawkesbury parish boundary, on the high ground of the escarpment, a Badminton ‘villa’ was investigated in 1845-6 by the Duchess of Beaufort and Lord Albert Conyngham.35 The dig produced pottery, coins ‘of the lower empire’ i.e. the later Roman period in England, a bronze statuette and three intaglios, ‘of late workmanship’.

Continuing field walking in the area has, however, indicated that the villa was one of possibly three sites, apparently sequential, following a spring line across the park.

Fragment of late Roman belt buckle from Badminton

Fragment of late Roman belt buckle from Badminton (4.5cm long). Courtesy of Donald Watts.

Geophysical survey of a site at Badminton revealed the outline of a large winged house (c60m long) within a ditched enclosure, with traces of outlying buildings. A test pit at the northern end of the building immediately revealed a tessellated pavement. Further excavation uncovered an apsidal room, the outline of which can be traced on the resistance plot. When cleared, the room was found to have a largely intact mosaic floor, dated typologically to c360AD (D. Neal, pers. comm.).

The Badminton Mosaic

Continuing work in 2004 investigated the main block, and a test pit was dug on the outer side of the apse, to find the original ground surface. A badly burned horizon, a result of the destruction of the building by fire, continued across the whole of the excavated area. Finds from the main block indicated late occupation, with one coin of Magnentius (350-353AD). Finds from a test pit outside the building included two coins of the house of Theodosius, sealed in a context consisting of large quantities of loose tesserae and mortar, apparently builder’s spoil and the remains of another tessellated pavement, indicating continuing improvements and modification to the house after 379AD.

The Badminton mosaic

The geometrically patterned mosaic, rather ‘naively’ executed, used local materials such as purple pennant sandstone, blue Lias, and white Oolitic limestones with red brick or tile highlights. The linear section on the right was an adjacent passageway.

Fragments of painted wall plaster

Fragments of painted wall plaster from the excavation at Badminton Park.

Around the building, in a large area across the Park and onto the adjacent airstrip, the considerably damaged remains of a series of ‘Celtic’ fields have been recorded.36 Survey of these fields in 2003 indicated a surviving network of pre-medieval fields of about 2 ha, roughly orientated on another, earlier, Roman period site in the centre of the Park, which has been tentatively dated to the earlier part of the Roman period, probably flourishing in the second and third centuries. The orientation of the building to the field boundaries suggests an association between the two, either of the fields developing around the villa, or, given the evidence for earlier cultivation, the villa building being fitted into the system of fields. It can therefore be inferred that the system was in use at least at this time in the Roman period.37

Scan of the Badminton villa complex

Soil resistivity survey by Saga-scan of the Badminton villa complex. The yellow outline indicates the excavated mosaic floor shown on the previous page. A large tree stump (shown as a white block) prevented scanning of an area close to the mosaic floor.

Coin finds of Antoninus Pius (138-161AD) and the report of a second, unidentified, Roman coin, have come from Little Badminton. Earthwork remains, generally thought to be medieval village remains, have been recorded across much of Little Badminton, particularly in Pigeon House Close in the centre of the village, in which nothing now remains except the eponymous pigeon cote. Further earthworks are present in the churchyard itself, and may indicate building remains.

Little Badminton churchyard

Little Badminton churchyard (St Michael & All Angels).

The earthworks in the churchyard are slight, and obscured by later grave digging, however they appear, from a baseline and offset survey, to represent a rectangular feature, possibly a building, with the church raised on a mound along the southern edge. The present church dates to the early thirteenth century.38 Other earthworks in the churchyard are ascribed to the extension of the churchyard in 1785.39 The graves within the area of the earthwork are of eighteenth and nineteenth century date, and no finds have been recorded from them.

Fieldwork has covered the area between the Sodbury Hillfort and the south western boundary of the park, where air photographs indicated the site of a small ‘cottage’ villa visible on air photographs of 1982. Small quantities of early Roman period pottery, including Savernake and black burnished wares, were recovered during field walking, along with fragments of abraded ceramic building material, the finds being scattered across an area of about 1000m2 in the area indicated by the air photograph, running north west along the line of ploughing.

Further early pottery, similar in date range to the finds from Grickstone, characterise an area of low status domestic occupation and building debris between Badminton and Sodbury Camp.25

The sheep dip at Whitewell

The sheep dip at Whitewell.

In the Saddlewood area, a patch of building debris was reported in 1977. The likely site covered an area of about three acres and finds included a bronze plaque, a possible iron shield boss, coins (unidentified) and a second century dolphin brooch. The position of the springs and the presence of the plaque have been taken to indicate a possible shrine site.40 Fieldwork in 2001 found a surround of fine dressed limestone around a sheep dip at Whitewell, possibly reused opus quadratum (rectangular stone block structure).

Geophysical survey and a small exploratory trench opened during 2005 found that the main site had the characteristics of a Roman period farmstead.41 In conjunction with finds of Samian pottery, there were two brooches, both of early date42,43 which may indicate early occupation of the site, although with so small a sample of dateable finds this cannot be said with certainty; it is also likely that they are residual – the result of curation during antiquity.

Scatters of tile and pottery have been found at Starveall, Hawkesbury Upton, and in the centre of Didmarton village, where Samian, black burnished ware, and coins of Carausius and Constans were found, suggesting occupation into the fourth century. Fourth century coins have also been reported by grave diggers in the churchyard of St Arild, Oldbury-on-the-Hill, half a mile to the north of Didmarton, although these have not been clearly identified.

Roman brooches found in the Saddlewood area

Two types of Roman brooches found in the Saddlewood area. Left: plain Dolphin type. Right: with inlaid coloured enamel.

The evidence for the area around Hawkesbury seems to indicate an early establishment of a Romanised economy and lifestyle, and a continuation of that way of life for a considerable period beyond the end of the ‘official’ occupation. The distribution of later sites shows larger establishments thriving, while smaller ones peter out. This runs contrary to the usual trend of the later centuries, where smaller villas are seen to predominate.44 It appears that the Badminton building was the last surviving house maintaining a ‘Roman’ lifestyle after the point at which other local establishments had deteriorated and become subject to secondary use. The extent of cultivation of the fields on the estate around it is unknown.

Archaeological work at the Lower Woods site and at Badminton

Archaeological work at the Lower Woods site (top) and at Badminton (below).

The scant Post Roman occupation signs attest to a period between ‘Roman’ and ‘Saxon’ when the local population clung on to the notions of civilisation that had predominated for four hundred years. The tension is reflected in apparent ritual or superstitious re-use of almost all of the investigated long barrows in the area. At Luckington a total of 571 small sherds of coarseware, apparently deliberately broken up, were found at the Giant’s Graves barrow. The material, although weathered, suggested a late third to fourth century date, as did associated coin finds. The pieces of broken pottery appear to have been collected and deliberately ‘killed’ before burial. Similarly ‘black Roman pottery’ was also found at nearby Lugbury where Thurnam45 remarked that they must have been deposited ‘by those who have resorted to them for superstitious or funeral purposes’.

The end of Romanised life in Hawkesbury seems to have come quietly, with the gradual deterioration of the fine buildings at Lower Woods, Horton and Wortley and their reuse as industrial and farm sheds, with occasional superstitious visits to the old barrows46 and with, apparently, a continuation of the Christianity that was introduced in the fourth century.

Roman buildings and building evidence

Roman buildings and building evidence in and around the Hawkesbury area.

A typical collection of surface finds

A typical collection of surface finds from a Roman site in the Hawkesbury area.


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