Objects in my garden: Little fragments of willow pattern china – what are the stories?

Willow Pattern sherds found in a Churton garden

I defy any gardener, even in a modern home, to do any digging without finding a few pieces of willow pattern china.  It is so common that one barely notices it, whether it is found as garden fragments, encountered in antique shops or viewed as eBay listings.  It comes in all forms – plates, jugs, bowls, cups, saucers, tureens in all sorts of shapes and sizes, varying in quality from fine early examples to increasingly poor imitations as well as a few modern reinventions on fine china.  Early examples were hand-painted on porcelain, but as it became popular, transfers (described below) were used to cheaply replicate their finer predecessors.

Pieces of willow pattern found in a garden in Darland

The examples shown in the photo at above left were all found in my garden, and could date to any time between the 19th Century to relatively recent times.  None of them are fine porcelain, all stoneware, which means that they were built to be durable.  This does not mean that they were any less valued by their owners than finer bone china pieces, which are almost translucent, but either that their purchasers were unable to afford finer pieces, or that these were intended for everyday use.  In either case the sheer volume of china that we have dug out of the garden argues that if finer pieces were purchased, they were kept safely on display or only used for special occasions, because so far we have only found two finer pieces of translucent china.  It is a similar story with china dug out of a Darland garden by my parents (shown right).  In that early Georgian garden, belonging to a large house built by a prosperous land-owner, the pottery was all fairly coarse, although there is no reason to suppose that the owners did not purchase finer wares that were better cared for.

1930s willow pattern in red on white

In America, willow pattern is known as “blue willow,” but although the vast majority produced was in cobalt blue on white, there are also examples of red or brown, and even green on white, and there are some much later examples that were painted with multiple colours (and look both exceedingly odd and rather unpleasant).  Today willow pattern has fallen out of fashion, presumably because it is so formulaic and so commonplace, in spite of  attempts by some modern producers to reinvent it, but the history of willow pattern is an interesting one, even if the design itself has become rather tedious to the modern eye.

There are two strands to the invention of willow pattern, three stories to tell.  The first is how and when willow pattern developed, what influenced it, and why it became so ubiquitous.  The second story concerns the tale told by the pattern itself, which narrates a forbidden romance, a dictatorial father and an unwanted, ultimately vengeful suitor.

At the end I have a look at why the tale embedded into the willow pattern is fundamentally in opposition to Chinese morality, using two examples from Chinese literature.

A random sample of the smaller objects found in the garden

I have already used the terms “china” and “porcelain,” and will go on to mention stoneware, so here are some quick and dirty definitions:

  • Ceramics:  all items made by clay and hardened by heat.  A generic term used interchangeably with pottery.
  • China:  another generic term, referring to ceramics that have a pure white fabric, of the sort first seen in Europe on items imported from China
  • Porcelain:  from the Italian “porcellana.”  Porcelain is made of fine-grained clay which is then fired at very high temperatures that causes a transformation of the material called vitrification.  It is very thin, and semi-translucent.
  • Pottery:  objects made of fired clay
  • Stoneware:  fired at much lower temperatures than porcelain using inferior clays, and made into much thicker fabrics without any translucence.  Similar to earthenware, which is also made with coarse clays but fired at a higher temperature than earthenware and is superior in quality.
  • Transfers (discussed in more detail below):  Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.

The development and spread of the willow pattern design

This or a similar type of Nanking ware scene could have been the prototype for English willow pattern. Source: The Culture Concept Circle

I had always assumed that the willow pattern design was invented in China for the European export market in the late 18th Century, but this is not true.  It is certainly true that decorated china had been finding its way into Europe and America for two centuries before willow pattern was invented.  The East India Company began to purchase Chinese blue and white ceramics for the British market in the 16th Century when it was a luxury item.  It swiftly became very popular and continued to be in high demand even after the East India Company was deprived of its right to trade in 1833.  Private ships that began to import Chinese tea, still a high value import during the 19th Century, also brought back ceramics that were increasingly standardized and mass-produced for the European market.  Chinese producers had swiftly developed a sense of what themes, colours and designs Europeans and Americans liked, and they began to make them in great quantities.  Willow pattern was inspired by a type of blue and white porcelain called Nanking or Nankin Pattern.  It was made at Ching-te-chen / Jingdezhen and then sailed down the river Yangtze to the coastal port of Nanking from where it was shipped to Canton.  Canton was the main port at which foreign ships were allowed to trade, (the sole trading port until 1842) and here it was loaded on to European and American ships for the export market.  

An early design similar to the willow pattern on a creamware teapot.  Attributed to John Warburton, Staffordshire, England, c. 1800. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Although influenced by Nanking,  willow pattern was not imported from China; it was an English invention based on Chinese patterns.  The first version appears to have been produced in 1779 for Thomas Turner and his Caughley works in Shropshire, originally for a teapot, and then in the late 1780s on other objects, probably by apprentice Thomas Minton. 

Robert Copeland, in Spode’s Willow Pattern, acknowledges Caughley but points out that this was not the standard willow pattern, which he argues persuasively was developed by Josiah Spode, and initially called the Mandarin pattern.  It is not known if Turner, Minton or Spode had a particular story in mind when they began to produce their versions of the formulaic pattern, but a story soon emerged, and probably helped sales, raising the decoration from the level of a  mere pattern to the encapsulation of an exotic legend (albeit one thought up in an English porcelain factory).  It would otherwise be difficult to account for how popular the design became.  Other manufacturers also went on to make willow pattern.


The main features of the willow pattern design

The plates shown above exemplify the most common arrangement of the motifs that make up the willow pattern design, although there are sometimes minor variations.

A 19th century anonymous poem, of which there are numerous versions, summarizes the main themes as follows:

Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

The story behind the features on the plate can be fairly short or tediously long, but the essentials of the story can be summarized quite briefly.  Let’s have a closer look first at the main motifs that provide the cues for narrating the story.

The main anchoring feature of the composition is a two- or occasionally three-storey pagoda, usually just right-of-centre, approached by a path and a short flight of steps.  To the left of it is a smaller pagoda on the edge of the river.  A fence zig-zags across the front of the scene, blocking access to the approach path to the pagoda in its garden.

Behind the pagodas is a tree with big round discs that look like enormous pizzas.  Susan Ferguson has researched these and concludes that although they are usually referred to as apples (heaven help you if an apple of that size landed on you), and sometimes oranges, they are probably abstractions of circular spans of a Chinese conifer (needle clusters), a design that over the centuries has become so simplified that on the willow pattern the species of tree is completely unidentifiable.  In the absence of any other explanation that makes sense, I’m convinced.  A lush arboretum surrounds the pagoda.

A huge willow tree leans over the bridge, to the left of the pagoda, which gives the design its name, and usually has some sort of rosette- or round-shaped growths on the trunk.  Its long branches appear to blow lightly in the breeze.

The bridge crosses a narrow strait of water, met by a small building on the other side.  The bridge is being crossed by a woman at the front, a man in the middle holding a long thin box, and another man raising a stick at the rear.

Above left of the willow is a large expanse of water crossed by a man navigating a boat, heading towards the pagoda.  One or more cabins on the boat suggests that another person is inside.

In the distance at top left is an island with another pagoda, again surrounded by lush vegetation.

Overhead in the sky are a pair of birds facing each other, their wings spread to catch the breeze.

If the composition graces a plate, a tureen or a lid, the whole thing is usually circled with a loosely Chinese-themed geometric pattern, sometimes elaborated with leaves and flowers.  On teapots, cups and jugs only favoured portions of the entire composition may be shown.


The story of a forbidden romance and how to read a plate

The story is an invention, and English interpretation of scenes on Chinese export ceramics that had no such narrative.  It is probable that the story gained momentum as the willow pattern became more popular, becoming more elaborate over time.  The basics are these, although there are multiple alternatives:

  1. The pagoda, right-of-centre, the garden, and the weeping willow:  Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl named Koong-see who lived in a palace in China, a delightful sprawling pagoda in lovely ornamental gardens, with cherry blossom, apple trees, willows, streams, wildlife and birdsong.  Hidden within the pagoda, she is in love with a lowly office clerk named Changwho serves her father, a mandarin (senior official), and is far beneath her social standing. They meet every night beneath the willow.  Forbidden to marry by the Mandarin, she and Chang are in despair.  Both console themselves by caring for the birds in the garden, to which they are devoted and which are, in turn, devoted to them
  2. The mandarin’s daughter is promised to a warrior duke against her wishes:  The Mandarin has arranged for Koong-see to be married to the warrior Duke (a Ta-jin), who is even now approaching.  Much older than Koong-see, he brings a treasure chest as a gift for his future bride, also hidden from view.  Deaf to Koong-see’s pleas, her father insists on the marriage, erects a huge fence around the house and garden and imprisons her in a small pagoda overlooking the lake.  When the cherry blossom eventually blooms on the tree in the garden, the marriage will take place. 
  3. Three individuals are seen crossing the bridge.  When the Duke arrives, he, the Mandarin and guests celebrate with an excess of food and alcohol.  Chang enters the compound and seeing that the inebriated gathering has fallen asleep, he goes to Koong-see and they flee, taking with them the duke’s treasure, crossing the bridge over the river.  Koong-see is at the front, carrying a staff, the emblem of virtue.  Chang follows her, carrying the stolen treasure in a rectangular box.  They are pursued by the mandarin, brandishing a whip.  Sometimes a a fourth figure is shown, and this is the duke seeking to retrieve both his bride and, probably more importantly, his treasure.
  4. The pagoda in a distant land, top left.  Chang steals a small boat, and they couple sail to the north.  Having made good their escape, the couple sell the duke’s treasure and buy a pagoda in a distant place.  Having failed to find his daughter in spite of employing spies to track her down, the mandarin has the brilliant idea of releasing the birds that were so loved by Koong-see and Chang. The birds fly straight to the couple, with the mandarin’s warriors following close behind.  When the warriors discover the hideaway they set it alight. 
  5. The turtle doves in the sky.  Koong-see and Chang die in the flames, but unspecified gods looking down on the scene take pity on the devoted couple and transform them into birds so that they can remain together for eternity. 

An extended version, tears-and-all version of the tale, was published in The Family Friend, volume I, in 1849, and is extremely long-winded and tedious (as well as slightly sickly), but obviously pushed some of the right buttons in the 19th Century.  As well as the anonymous poem quoted above, there were a number of others as well, some of which are posted on the Potteries website here and the Willow Collectors website here.

Chinese morality versus English romanticism

The willow pattern design that grew out of these imports was not merely an English invention, but the romantic tale of runaway lovers that was developed to sell the design would almost certainly have offended Chinese morality.  The story was born of an unmistakeably western tradition, recognizable in the narrative concerns of star-crossed lovers, persecution by unwanted suitors and unreasonable parents, all of which are solidly  familiar from the Classical Greek tale of Hero and Leander, the 16th Century Os Lusíadas by Luís de Camões, Shakespeare’s 1597 Romeo and Juliet, and many, many more.

The Butterfly Lovers. Source: ShenYunShop

There are some tales from Chinese literature that are superficially somewhat similar, but a closer look at them reveals culturally significant differences.  Two good examples are “The Butterfly Lovers” and “Han Ping and His Wife.”  

The story of the butterfly lovers concerns a rather complicated story about a woman disguised as a man, Zhu Yingtai, and her unsuspecting friend Liang Shanbo who eventually fall in love with one another.   Although women were usually prevented from becoming scholars, Zhu was allowed to study in the guise of a young man.  She meets a fellow scholar, and they become close friends, studying together for the following three years.  Liang remains none the wiser, but Zhu begins to fall in love with him.   Although tolerant enough to allow his daughter to study as a man, Zhu’s father expects her to return when he writes to tell her that he is ill.  She departs, and Liang accompanies his dear friend for part of the route.  Although she drops hints about her true sex, Zhu is unable to reveal her secret to Liang directly and intend invents a sister to whom she proposes that Liang should become betrothed.  She offers to set up a meeting.  Liang eventually visits Zhu, and finds that there is no sister and that Zhu is a woman.  Liang realizes he loves Zhu and they are both overjoyed for a brief period, but Zhu now reveals that her father’s illness was a ruse and he has betrothed her to a wealthy merchant.  Liang leaves, heartbroken, and although he tries to lead a normal life, soon dies.  Zhu, meanwhile, is prepared for her wedding.  The wedding procession forms, its route due to pass Liang’s grave.  As they reach the grave, a great wind blows up, stopping the marriage party in its tracks.  Taking the opportunity to pay her final respects to Liang at his grave, she begs for the grave to swallow her too, and in response to her pleas, it opens up and takes her in.  Zhu and Liang rise as butterflies, and fly away together for eternity.  

A second tragic romance, from a collection of early legends (The Man Who Sold A Ghost), is the tale of Han Ping and his wife also concerns lovers who were transformed into birds following the successful completion of their suicide pact.  Han Ping and his wife were deeply in love.  Han Ping worked for Prince Xang as steward.  His wife was very beautiful and the king, inevitably attracted, took her for himself.   Han Ping’s anguished protests were answered with imprisonment and hard labour.  Eventually his wife managed to send Han Ping a letter, a cryptic message written using allusions to lay out her plan for suicide, which each carried out.  In a separate letter to the king, she requested burial alongside her husband, but this was denied her.  They were buried in the same cemetery but far apart.  All was not lost. Two trees sprung up overnight and within only days were tall and strong, leaning towards each other, their branches intertwining.  Two inseparable lovebirds nested in the branches of the entwined trees, the spirits of the wronged Han Ping and his  wife.

A silk bed covering from Canton, showing the type of artistic device used to represent clusters of fir spines.  This might be the source of the enormous disks in the trees behind the pagoda in the willow pattern design  Source: Ferguson 2017

Although Chinese literature has stories of star-crossed lovers, acting on a forbidden love was counter to Chinese ideas of obedience and arranged marriage and would never be celebrated.  In the first case, even though Zhu is in love with someone else, she obediently, albeit unhappily, accepts marriage.  The gods intervene to allow the couple to live together as butterflies, but only after Zhu has behaved with honour according to her father’s wishes.  Although the couple were not married, they came to represent fidelity in marriage.  In the story of Han Ping and his wife, the two are already married and it is only when the wife is dishonoured by the prince that they are reunited as birds, again demonstrating the power of marital fidelity.

All of this is far more subtle than the rather simplistic willow pattern narrative, which celebrates love conquering all, but ignores the Chinese morality that would have seen the willow pattern story and its outcome as abhorrent.  Daughterly disobedience and unmarried, prohibited love would have been a serious breach of decency and integrity.  Fleeing paternal control would have been unthinkable, particularly as it left behind and honourable and broken-hearted father.  The theft of the Duke’s treasure would have appalled most Chinese people; the Duke, after all, was not the bad guy in the scenario, because arranged marriages were perfectly normal and his gift to his prospective bride was a gesture of great generosity.  A happy-ever-after outcome for the disobedient and ungrateful runaways, even in the form of turtle doves, would not have been sanctioned by Chinese moralists or the authors of Chinese literature.

Stoneware and transfers

Mid 19th Century transferware willow pattern trivet. Source: Inessa-Stewart’s

All of the willow pattern from my garden is robust transferware.  We have found porcelain pieces in other designs, some of them very fine, but the vast majority of it, including all of the willow pattern, is transfers applied to stoneware and earthenware.  Porcelain, almost translucent, was time-consuming to produce, often shattered during production, was usually hand-decorated and was therefore expensive to buy.  Stoneware an earthenware were much easier to manufacture, fired at lower temperatures and not hand-painted.  These solid wares were far more robust and suitable for everyday domestic use.  

It is often possible to find the edge of the transfer on bigger pieces of transferware, as on this corner of a large 1930s red-on-white Royal Venton plate.

Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture in the second half of the 18th Century, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics that could be produced by relatively unskilled workers rather than craft specialists.  Chinese-influenced ceramics, like many product that were once luxury products due to their exotic source and/or their expensive manufacturing process, began to be produced in inferior fabrics, became more affordable, and were therefore in more demand, both in Britain and America.  Once an appropriate fabric was developed, a quicker way of decorating the ceramics was required, and transfers were developed to meet this need.  A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface.  The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.  The meeting of the demand for transfer wares was helped by the roll-out of the canal network and the improvement of trade networks that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.  

Final Comments

A more recent interpretation of willow pattern (microwave safe, dishwasher proof).  Although it is a nice, clean design, there is a gap in the fence in front of the path to the pagoda, which rather defeats the object (and is more evocative of an English country cottage than a defensive barrier to prevent a daughter escaping).

The story behind the willow pattern design is far more interesting than the design itself.  Some of the earliest patterns, evoking original Chines designs, had considerable charm, but very soon a fairly rigid formula was developed that was repeated over and over again, with only a little occasional variation from one piece to the next.  As such it is more than a little tiresome.

It is entirely different when it emerges piece by piece from one’s garden, all of them minute fragments contributing to the house’s own story.  Over time, the people who lived here broke an awful lot of pottery!  The house was probably occupied by farming families for many years, with a sign of increased prosperity when the two original cottages were linked up to become a single building.   The earliest finds from the garden belong to the later 19th Century, well into the period when most willow pattern was stoneware.   Not the sort of thing that a labourer’s family would be able to indulge in, but probably affordable as Sunday Best for a slightly more affluent rural family.  I need to find out a lot more about who lived in the house before speculating further. 

Pealrich clock in the form of a willow pattern plate. Source: Amazon UK

It is interesting that willow pattern continues to be made and purchased.  The above picture shows a simplified version of the design, much less elaborate than earlier versions, much cleaner but also more sterilized.  I would not have thought that it is  the sort of story that would carry much appeal today, but the design itself obviously continues to be attractive to a modern audience.  A quick search on Amazon produced willow pattern oven gloves, a willow pattern mug that could be personalized, an embroidery kit, a large tea set, a “collectible” thimble, a cushion cover and even a clock in the form of a willow pattern plate (shown left).  A company called PRSC specializes in “deconstructed” willow pattern products, which take the motifs and arrange them in aesthetically pleasing combinations that abandon the narrative completely.

Deconstructed willow pattern. Source: PRSC

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, willow pattern obviously spoke to something in people’s imaginations.  Perhaps the very standardization and mass-production of the design enabled the exotic to be both familiar and comprehensible, even offering some level of reassurance.  By developing new and improved ways of manufacturing pottery and decorating it, and taking advantage of new modes of transport and communication, potteries making ceramics in the English Midlands were able to spread willow pattern throughout the UK and into America.  A decorative phenomenon, it is difficult to account for its success, but a success it certainly was.  It has left a legacy that continues to attract collectors and re-interpreters alike.

For other posts in my History in Garden Objects series click here or see the
link of the same name in the Categories list on the right.


Sources:

Books and papers

Copeland, R. 1999 (3rd edition). Spode’s Willow Pattern And Other Designs After the Chinese.  Studio Vista

Ferguson, S. 2017.  “Blue Willow”: Apples or Oranges?  Transferware Collectors Club Bulletin, 2017 Vol. XVIII No. 1.
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/bulletin_previews/articles/17_TCC_XVIII_No1_Blue_Willow_Apples_or_Oranges.pdf

Hsien-Yi, Y. and Yang, G. 1958.  The Man Who Sold A Ghost.  Foreign Language Press
Available online at:  https://www.bannedthought.net/China/MaoEra/Arts/Literature/TheManWhoSoldAGhost-ChineseTalesOfThe3rd-6thCenturies-1958.pdf

O’Hara.  P.  “The Willow Pattern That We Knew”: The Victorian Literature of Blue Willow.  Victorian Studies. Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1993), pp. 421-442
Available online with the academic site JSTOR digital library if you register (free): https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828644?seq=1

Websites

East India company at home 1757-1857, University College London
The Willow Pattern Case Study:  The Willow Pattern Explained
https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/eicah/the-willow-pattern-dunham-massey/the-willow-pattern-case-study-the-willow-pattern-explained/comment-page-1/

Encyclopaedia Britannica
Willow pattern pottery
https://www.britannica.com/art/Willow-pattern#ref235738

Popular Culture in Modern China
The Butterfly Lovers – Response.  By Dr Liang Luo
http://chi430.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-butterfly-lovers-response.html

The Potteries – An A-Z of Stoke on Trent Potteries
The Willow Pattern Story
http://www.thepotteries.org/patterns/willow.html

Spode History
Spode and Willow Pattern. By Pam Woolliscroft
https://spodehistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/spode-and-willow.html

Transferware Collectors Club
What is transferware?
https://www.transferwarecollectorsclub.org/news-information/faqs

Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool
Story of the Willow Pattern, 15 January 2021 by Amanda Draper
https://vgm.liverpool.ac.uk/blog/2021/willow-pattern/

 

Adventures with Churton honesty eggs: A user guide to Hollandaise and Béarnaise sauce

Both of these butter- and egg-based sauces, hollandaise and béarnaise, only take about five minutes to make, but an awful lot longer to prepare.  You will see many alternative recipes in books, but Mum’s was based on Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, and that’s where I went when I had to start from scratch.  Hollandaise and béarnaise are based on a mix of base ingredients, but add different flavourings.   The basics usually include the following:  egg yolks, white wine vinegar, butter, peppercorns, and bay leaves.  The differences are described below.

Hollandaise is usually served used with fish and/or vegetables, and is traditionally made with egg yolks, butter and lemon juice.  It is a rich, buttery sauce that gives the kiss of heavenly life to poached salmon and asparagus.

Béarnaise accompanies steak and is defined mainly by armfuls of tarragon.   Another traditional differentiator is that it is  usually made with white wine and vinegar instead of lemon juice.

Breaking with tradition, my hollandaise and béarnaise both have the same base by using a same reduction as the base for both sauces.  I combine all three liquids, the lemon juice, wine vinegar and white wine and mix them together as a base for the reduction in both hollandaise and béarnaise.  The only differentiator in my version is that lots of tarragon is added to make béarnaise.  My reason for this blending of the two recipes stems from a comment of Elizabeth David’s that an hollandaise based on just butter, egg yoks and lemon juice is “apt to be insipid” and consequently she recommends the addition of a reduction of white wine or vinegar (as in béarnaise).  It works splendidly for me, but I would suggest that you experiment.  The only time I feel like doing an hollandaise the original way is with poached salmon, where the simplicity of the lemon, egg and butter mix is perfect.

Cover of the hardback version of Elizabeth David’s “French Provincial Cooking,” Grub Street, 1960, 2007

On this occasion I was cooking a béarnaise sauce, so I used a huge handful of tarragon from my garden.  A couple of nights ago I found a ribeye steak from Bellis (farm shop and butcher in Holt) in the freezer.  The Bellis ribeye is wonderful, although I have no idea where they source it from.  It deserved special treatment, and as I have three big pots of French tarragon in the garden, and had a box of Churton eggs at the ready, here’s how I did it, resulting in a happily successful outcome.

 

A couple of weeks ago I was very gung-ho about how easy it is to make mayonnaise in my post on the subject,  which I think is fair enough because it is so easy when you know the two basic rules about how to handle it.  However, I am never gung-ho about Hollandaise or béarnaise, because they can go seriously wrong.  I’ve only screwed it up a couple of times, and I have now learned some excellent risk-avoidance techniques and one or two rescue solutions.  Preparation minimizes the risks, but  things can still go wrong, especially when you are starting out.  On the other hand. WOW is it wonderful, so the best thing to do is to prepare well and experiment on someone who won’t mind being a guinea pig.  Once you have the knack, and you will have it for life.

Important Preparation 

There are a couple of technical points to take into consideration, other than briefly editing out the conversation of your friends.  Hollandaise and béarnaise are all about preparation, and that’s not just about lining up your ingredients and equipment, but understanding how it’s all going to work, and how you may attempt to to recover it when/if it goes wrong.

First, both sauces have a terrible reputation for splitting, which means that after being heated, the oil in the butter separates from the other ingredients and you end up with a big oily mess on your hands.  Eggs should be at a nice cool room temperature before you start.  This is only a small part of the prep work, but it is an essential one.

Two, I have experimented and found that clarifying the butter makes life a lot easier.  I have no idea what the proper way of doing it may be, but I simply heated butter in a saucepan and poured it into a small jug.  White bits (solids) drop to the bottom of the jug leaving a translucent, bright yellow liquid on top.  The yellow bit is the clarified butter and the white bits need to be left in the bottom of the jug.  It means that you use a lot less butter, because it emulsifies much more efficiently, which is much better for the health.  That in turn means that it forms more quickly.  As a technique, it is also easier to prevent separation of the oil from the egg because you can easily control the addition of the butter, in drops and a slow trickle, to the egg and vinegar mix.  So I now always start off by separating my egg/s.  Keep the clarified butter somewhere warm so that it does not solidify.

Three, make sure you have some ice cubes in the freezer.  If everything starts to overheat you will end up with scrambled egg.  A bit of cold water helps, but if it is going too far too fast, lob in an ice cube, stir it rapidly until the sauce starts to go slightly lighter in colour and then haul it out.  That usually does the trick.

My impromptu bain marie, at the back, consisting of a glass bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water that heats the sauce, reducing the chance of splitting. The asparagus is steamed, but here it is waiting in cold water prior to cooking, after having its ends trimmed. Don’t worry – not all of this went on to my plate!  Some of it made a leek and asparagus soup.

Four, if you don’t have a bain marie (I don’t) you need to sort out a glass bowl (not metal) that will sit over one of your small saucepans.  Anyone who has worked with chocolate will be familiar with this.  The water in the pan must not come into contact with the glass bowl, and should simmer, not boil.  You are cooking your eggs with indirect heat, not direct heat, a bit like steaming.  However, no lid is required.  A wooden spoon must be to hand for almost constant stirring, so that the sauce is moved constantly into and away from the heat.

Five, and assuming that you are making a béarnaise for steak (which means a lot of tarragon), take hold of your tarragon and divide it in half, finely chopping all of the leaves.  Do not throw away the stalks, but snap them into short sections.  Keep half of the leaves on one side and put the other half of the leaves and all the stalks into a bowl of white wine vinegar, shallot, bay and white wine.  Leave it to infuse flavour into the vinegar for an hour or so.

SixWhatever gas  you are cooking on, what you want for the sauce is a light simmer, absolutely not a boil.  If the water is boiling, you run the risk of creating scrambled eggs, not a sauce.  I am cooking on Calor gas, not mains gas.  Calor and Butane burn hotter and make it difficult to maintain a low temperature.  I have a set of round, diffusing metal plates with handles that  sit over the top of my hob and diffuse the heat, allowing the water to become hot but preventing it from boiling.  

Seven, if you are intending to serve this in a jug rather than just plonking it onto plates alongside whatever else you are eating, remember that the jug (as well as the plates) needs to be warmed through.  If you pour warm hollandaise/béarnaise into a cold jug you will instantly lose the heat and end up with a cold sauce and, more importantly, you will raise the chances of it separating before it reaches the table.  

Eight, there are conflicting views in the literature on whether you should use salted or unsalted butter.  I use salted.  Salt helps the emulsification (thickening) process but you can also add salt to a sauce made with unsalted butter to taste.  Just be sure to add it early on in the sauce-making process so that it helps to emulsify the sauce.  I’ve tried it and it works, but unsalted butter with no additional salt is risky.

Nine, keep some cold water in a jug at the side so that if your sauce starts to over-thicken you can loosen it up.  Add a teaspoon at a time until you have the right consistency.  Cold water also helps to prevent the sauce over-heating and separating.

Ten, the vinegar mixture must go into the egg and butter hot.  Do not let it cool down.

Finally, bear in mind that the whole process is only going to take a few minutes once you have added the hot vinegar mix to the egg yolk and started adding the butter, no more than five minutes, possibly less.  Most of the time is taken up with preparation.  Whatever you are intending to serve it with, you either need to be good at delivering multiple time-sensitive dishes in one go, or alternatively persuade someone to look after the rest of the meal while you concentrate on the Hollandaise or béarnaise, because the latter can turn against you in just a few seconds.

If this is your first attempt, I would suggest that you keep an emergency back-up sauce or herb butter on one side.  For the latter, finely chopped herbs added into soft butter, and rolled in clingfilm to form a cylindrical tube of butter, and placed in the freezer for half an hour to solidify before putting it in the fridge works well.  Before serving you can chop it into disks that sit on top of your steak or fish and melt beautifully to form a gentle butter sauce.  If I was planning to do a béarnaise, as in this case, the herbs chopped into the butter would be tarragon.  If the béarnaise works, you can keep the herb butter in the freezer for a quick way to liven up a piece of steak or fish, or use it to make unusual, flavourful sandwiches.


Getting on with it

Everything else is fairly straight-forward, but there are a number of steps that cannot be avoided.   I usually avoid writing down step-by-step instructions because whatever the recipe, the outcomes depend so much on the ingredients used and the equipment employed, but there are some things that really must be taken into account.

  • I recommend clarifying the butter.  Like mayonnaise, the key trick here is to add the butter so slowly that you begin to seize up.  Mum used to add small lumps one by one and not add another until fully incorporated, the system that I used until just recently when I read that if you clarify the butter, it reduces the risk of separation and stabilizes it at the end.  That end moment, where the sauce is ready but you may be waiting for vegetables, fish or steak to cook, is a terrible waiting game when you hope that the sauce stays in one piece, but worry that it might split.  Clarifying the butter reduces the risk and the stress at one and the same time.  Keep it warm until you need it so that it doesn’t solidify.
  • Remember that if you are using a jug, this needs to be nice and warm to receive the sauce, as do the serving plates.
  • When you are ready to cook, first you need to heat up your vinegar mix until it just threatens to boil.  Turn down the heat until it is just simmering and keep a careful eye on it.  You are aiming to reduce it in order to intensify the flavour.  If you’re cooking for two, you’ll need about a tablespoon and a half of clear liquid, but a dessert spoon for one.
  • When it has reduced, strain out the flavourings and retain the flavoured vinegar.  The vinegar needs to be hot (very warm rather than boiling hot) when you add it to the egg yolk.
  • Make sure that the water in the pan of your assembled bain marie arrangement is hot and place your glass dish over the top.  By sealing the water pan with the bowl you will cause the water temperature to rise, so keep an eye on it to stop it boiling.
  • Separate your eggs and put your egg yolks (one per person) into your glass dish.  Add your vinegar (still warm) and mix it very rapidly into the yolks.  You now have a beautiful yellow fluid that will start to heat in the bowl over the water.
  • Add the remaining fine-chopped tarragon and give it a good stir
  • The sauce heating in a glass bowl set over a pan of simmering water, a quickly assembled bain marie

    Now your clarified butter (or small dice-sized chunks of butter) needs to be added, but oh-so slowly.  If your butter is clarified add it first in drips and then in a very slow and fine stream, stirring gently all the time and breaking now and again to ensure that it is fully incorporated.  If you are using chunks, make sure that each is melted before adding the next. I cannot repeat enough that you should go slowly.

  • Pause occasionally to ensure that the butter is being incorporated into the egg and vinegar mix.  Adding the butter is very much suck-it-and-see, but if you go slowly enough and keep stirring you should be safe.  There’s no clear guideline, because different butters emulsify the yolks at different rates, and egg yolks are different sizes.  
  • If it doesn’t emulsify properly, add another egg yolk and keep adding the butter.  That might produce rather more sauce that you were aiming for, but hey – it’s lovely stuff!
  • Continually make sure that the water is simmering, to heat the eggs, but not so hot that you end up with scrambled eggs.  If it begins to cook rather than heat, add either a little cold water or an ice cube to the egg mix.  Don’t forget to retrieve the ice cube before it melts.  You want to cool it down, not liquefy it.

Rescue

I’ve modified Elizabeth David’s recipes, as did Mum, but here are her originals on pages 118-9. Click to expand.

Don’t forget that if the water in the pan is too hot and the sauce starts to scramble, you can take it off the heat for a moment, and use ice cubes or cold water to help cool it down, stirring, and ensuring that the water in the pan has calmed down before placing the bowl back over the pan.  If the sauce is thickening too much, cold water is again a good solution, added gradually.

I have never successfully recovered an Hollandaise or béarnaise that has split completely (where the butter abandons the sauce and forms rivers of oil over a lumpy egg mixture).  I only ever twice split it in my early days of making this sauce.  Even following all the advice about rescuing a split Hollandaise, it was a matter of chucking it away and starting again or providing an alternative sauce.   But if you have used a rescue method that works, please do let me know.

The Final Product

Not an elegant presentation, but it tasted heavenly.  As I said, I was doing mine with rib-eye steak (with loads of black pepper ground over it), tender stem broccoli, asparagus and baby new potatoes (which, apparently unusually, I peel).  I like my steak cooked on an iron griddle pan, super-heated very quickly on the outside, which chars it but leaves it pink and moist in the middle.  The spuds were boiled, the vegetables steamed and the plate heated beforehand.  Terrible presentation, but in spite of that, it was a really  luxurious treat.

A classic vegetarian option that I have often served as a starter just because it’s so good, is asparagus Hollandaise (no tarragon).  Most fish works for a pescatarian option with Hollandaise, but salmon and swordfish are particularly good.  Strongly flavoured fish like tuna and mackerel won’t work.

Health and Safety

Your egg yolks will be cooked through when it comes to serving them, so don’t worry about serving raw egg.  You won’t.

Fat and cholesterol:  When I was editing this, I had also  been editing images of gravestones in Aldford and Farndon churchyards to go with a post on 19th Century Churton directory listings.  It reminded me that both hollandaise and béarnaise are exclusively for special occasions 🙂  All that egg yolk and butter!  To be handled with care, and reserved for special occasions, and avoid completely if you are trying to shed a few kilos.  But one of the most delicious things ever.  And don’t forget that if you clarify your butter you will use less than if you add it in chunks.

You can see my previous Churton egg adventures by clicking here.

For fun: Dolmades made with locally grown vine leaves

Whenever I see Ann Davidson, who runs the free magazine My Village News, we discuss gardens and she nearly always brings me cuttings and little plants grown from seed, of which a yellow dahlia is a particular favourite.  I haven’t seen her for a couple of months, but she remembered that I had said I would like to grow vines in the future, partly for the grapes but also for the vine leaves, which can be stuffed.  Yesterday I heard the doorbell go when I was in the shower, and by the time I emerged, no-one was there of course, but there was a bag in my parcel box with lots of vine leaves and several bunches of tiny red grapes.  The excitement!

Ann grows the vines herself in Bulkeley (probably best known as the home of The Bickerton Poacher, but perhaps that’s just me).  The vine is a variety called Black Hamburg (Vitis vinifera Schiava Grossa) that Ann found at Wroxeter Roman Vineyard (which lies partly over the Roman site of Viroconium Cornoviorum).   Wasting no time, I tried some of the grapes, which are tiny little explosions of massive flavour, utterly delectable, and I started looking at recipes for stuffed vine leaves (Greek dolmades).

I have had a love of Greek cooking for decades, due to the emphasis on quality ingredients and simple but big and well-matched flavours that taste, above all, fresh.  Dolmades were a feature of rural cooking, usually vegetarian, quick, easy and inexpensive to prepare, but full of taste.   In the vegetarian version the flavour comes from the onion, garlic, fresh herbs (including a selection from dill, mint, parsley, thyme, coriander, bay and oregano) and the stock in which the rice is cooked (which can be herb or vegetable stock).  In a meat-based version, the flavour comes mainly from the meat and a less lavish combination of herbs, but may have more spices  (such as cumin, paprika, fennel seed, nutmeg and cinnamon) and a vegetable-, herb- or meat-based stock.  The meat used is usually minced lamb or goat.  Coastal Greece and its islands have a shrubby, Mediterranean landscape that favours livestock that will browse on low quality vegetation.

Vine leaves are available in tins or vacuum-packed online and in some supermarkets, although I’ve never tried them.  Those need no preparation.  Ann’s, being fresh, needed to be softened a little, and the conventional wisdom of various recipes suggested that placing them in just-boiled water, taken off the heat, to poach for 5 minutes should do the trick, and it worked perfectly.  The green of the leaf becomes a little yellower in the hot water, in spite of lemon juice being added, but this is normal.

I didn’t have any lamb or goat mince, and at this time of year there are not enough herbs in the garden for a fully flavoured vegetarian version, but I did have some beef mince, so went with that.  I kept the spices and herbs simple:  ground cumin, dried oregano, plus fresh marjoram and a bay leaf from the garden and a heaped teaspoon of sun-dried tomato paste.

Onion and garlic are fried with raw long-grained rice, and when the rice begins to go golden, the mince is added.  Once the mince is browned, enough water is added to reach just below the top of the mince mix, and this is simmered off, so that a stodgy mix is left, and the rice has taken in some of the water to plump up a little.  At this stage I stirred in some chilli flakes, some cassia bark (a bit like cinnamon) and some paprika, just to give it a bit more pizazz.

You will need an oven-proof dish with a lid.  Place unused vine leaves on the base (the tatty ones or the ones that are too deeply lobed to hold the stuffing), and place tomato slices over the top.  The vine leaves and tomato slices act as a lining and trivet to prevent the dolmades from burning and impart flavour into the water or stock that you pour over before putting it into the oven.  I also added lemon slices to mine.

The rice mix is then added to the surface of the softened leaves.  The leaf is laid out with the untidy side facing upwards so that when stuffed it is the smooth side that shows.  Leave enough room for rice to continue expanding as it cooks.  The vine leaf is like a sycamore leaf, an upside-down heart.  I did mine by bringing together the two lobes of the heart across the mix, bringing in the two sides to cover it, and then pulling the pointed end over the top.  Place seam-side down on the tomato layer, and when all the dolmades are in, preferably tightly fitting.  I had a vine leaf left over, so aid it over the top, just for decorative effect.

Next add a  good glug of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon, then place an oven-proof plate or equivalent on top to prevent them unravelling when you add the water.  I used an all-metal pan lid.  Then pour over hot water or stock. This should reach the top of the dolmades.

Some people do theirs on the hob, some in the oven.  I did mine in a pre-heated oven at 190ºC (conventional oven).  Recipes vary on how you should proceed from here but I simply let mine cook for 40 minutes, checking every 10 minutes to make sure that the dolmades didn’t dry out.  There was still some liquid left at the end of the process, which will make an excellent stock, having incorporated not only the dolmades stuffing flavours, but the tomato and lemon from the base too.

Vegetarian dolmades are usually served slightly warm, at room temperature, or cold whereas meat ones are often served hot, but may also be warm or cold. I had mine straight out of the oven, but I cooked double what I needed to ensure that I would have half left over to try cold, and will be trying it tomorrow.  The photo at the bottom of the page shows a tidy display, but that was before I drizzled the stock over the top of the dolmades, just to add some more flavour and interest.  The tzatziki, recommended by every recipe I read, worked superbly.

Traditionally dolmades are served with lemon slices and tzatziki (mint in yogurt), and I served mine with both, as well as olives and a mixed herb salad with feta.  It was not, however, a Greek salad, but a very English garden salad with mint, buckler-leaf sorrel, little gem, sweet cicely, marjoram and a lot of lovage, with some cucumber.  I drizzled the whole lot with chilli oil and lemon juice, with lots of black pepper.

It was all a bit cobbled together but it was nevertheless a resounding success.  I would like to do it with lamb and a different combination of accompanying herbs, and I must have a go at a vegetarian version, but the beef version was really excellent and will remain in my repertoire.  Of course, I have now added a Black Hamburg vine to my must-have plant list!  A visit to the Wroxeter Roman Vineyard might not be a bad idea either 🙂

Thank you Ann!

 

Cheshire Proverbs 6: Tied by the Tooth / Llyffethr wellt

Tied by the Tooth /
Llyffethr wellt

Bridge’s number 324, page 124

Dairy cattle relaxing at 4am on a misty morning in a Churton field in June 2021

 

Sheep on Craig yr Aderyn in midwest Wales

Bridge explains that this proverb refers to the fact that “sheep and cattle will not break through fences or try to wander if the pasture of the field in which they are grazing is very good.”  He had obviously not run into any pigs, which are extreme escape artists.

Bridge wonders which came first – the English or the Welsh version of the proverb, but both Cheshire and north Wales are prominent areas for the grazing of livestock, so it could have come from either.  Certainly around many areas of the Cheshire Plain the fields are full of rich pasture favoured by cattle, and the Welsh foothills and highlands are much better for sheep that graze on much sparser vegetation.

It sounds very much like the better known proverb in which the route to the male heart is reputed to be via his stomach.

Cattle grazing below Beeston Castle

A similar proverb in Bridge is “Hanged hay never does cattle” (Bridge 159, page 64).  The word “does” in this context derives from doesome, which means “thriving,” and hanged hay for is feed bought from a supplier and will probably be supplied very meanly to the cattle because of the cost, to the detriment to the cattle.

Both proverbs also resemble another of Bridge’s Cheshire proverbs (no. 208 on p.80, and no.159, p.64):  “A doesome child paises its pasture,” meaning that the health and wellbeing of a thriving child is credit to his or her food, and perhaps, by extension, to the care of the parents that provide the food.  The word “paise” comes from late Middle English and means to be “balanced” or “poised,” but in this context it may be a mistaken reading of “praise.”

For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1.

For the other proverbs in the series, click on the Cheshire Proverbs label in the right hand margin.

Dairy cows grazing in a field in Churton

Grown in my garden last week and already eaten

For no better reason than I am so chuffed that I actually grew vegetables, lettuces and cucumbers in this, the first summer after moving in.  Showing off, in other words, although none of them are ever going to win any prizes.  I don’t actually have a vegetable plot, because I have turned everything over to flowers, shrubs and a small orchard, so these were grown in pots on a small south-facing side-patio.

The marrow speaks for itself (my fourth so far).  At the back, the little yellow globes are cucumbers (I promise you).  At the front is one of many golden beetroot, which have the lovely earthy taste of purple beetroot, perhaps a little more subtle, but don’t leak colour into everything you eat.  I like them steamed or roasted.  Once steamed, they are great cold too, with vinaigrette.

The salad and vegetable plants, except for the globe cucumbers, were all bought as tiny plugs from Bellis in Holt, but my goodness they grew!  The cucumbers were bought from the Grosvenor garden centre.  All were planted in general purpose compost, with mycorrhizal and bonemeal (in a ratio of 1:3 handfuls) placed in the hole in the compost before the plant was added.  Then slow-release plant food was scattered over the top.   

I have grown herbs outside in pots for years, as well as nasturtiums.  The ones above are lollo rosso and little gem.  Oregano, marjoram, mint, thyme and particularly lovage and the fluffy bits of fennel foliage make for a really special salad.  The round nasturtium leaves and flowers are excellent in salads, and their seeds are a little like capers.  I have also grown lettuces in the past, but not on such a grand scale.  

Feeling rather pleased with myself 🙂

 

The Roman villa at Rossett #3 – The Archaeology Open Day

Chris Matthews from Archaeological Survey West, explaining the puzzle of Trench 2. Note the dark areas of the trench, which contain remains of charcoal and are evidence of burning.

The Archaeology Open Day on Saturday 18th September was a super idea.  There has been so much interest locally about the recent Roman discoveries that it was always going to be a great success.   We were there at 1300 for the 1330 talk on a nice dry day, and the atmosphere was terrific.  The event, which was free but had to be booked in advance, was sold out.  It’s not often that a very local archaeological site becomes an A-list celebrity, but this has the badge, mainly because of the excellent work done to keep the public informed via Archaeology Chester and the #RomanRossett posts (or “tweets” if you really must) on Twitter.

I had already done a lot of reading to find out more about the rural hinterland of the legionary fort at Chester.  My first posts about the villa, part 1 (a summary of research about the nature of villas in general) and part 2 (about the background to the discovery of the Rossett villa, derived from the project team’s posts and tweets) provide some background about the excavation.   All that reading and typing was a nice prelude to the day, but seeing it in the ground, being exposed by trowel and brush as we watched, brought it all superbly to life.

There’s not a lot of point to this photograph, except that I really, really fancy that vehicle on the left, which I could really see myself driving.

Everything was so beautifully arranged on the day.  I picked up my Dad from his house in Rossett and we drove through Burton towards the site, which had been given a What Three Words location (the best way of providing a location for absolutely anything).  Initially the location of the site was very wisely kept secret, to protect it against night-hawking (illegal treasure hunting).  It is lovely that the decision was made to make the location public, so that visitors could see the excavation on an Open Day and learn more about the site.

As soon as we approached the site there were little signposts helping to direct visitors to the site, and there was a one-way system set up to let people into and out of the field next to the site, efficiently managed by some great volunteers who managed to be efficient, relaxed and humorous, which must take some doing when directing the chaotic general public into a field that was to serve as a carpark 🙂  Given clear direction by the volunteers, cars lined up beautifully without blocking anyone else in, and the mood as we all headed towards the excavation was one of gentle excitement.

Our names were checked at the gate between the parking field into the excavation field (perhaps a liminal zone 🙂 ), and we were handed an information sheet, English on one side and Welsh on the other.  Tables were set up in front of the excavation, one with some of the finds that had been excavated in the previous two weeks, another set up to explain the super Portable Antiquities Scheme, another with a set of things-to-do for children (questionnaires, word games and trails).  There were lots of leaflets to collect, and there was even a coffee trailer, which was doing very good business.  In short, lots to keep early arrivals for the talk happily busy.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme, it should be mentioned, is one of British archaeology’s greatest inventions, and there is a Welsh branch, PAS Cymru.  The idea was to set up a service for registering anything that the general public found that might be of archaeological interest, and is helping gardeners, walkers and metal detectorists to not only have objects identified, but to contribute those finds to a national database of objects that has become a massive resource for researchers from prehistory to the 17th Century.  That’s quite an achievement.

The first thing that attracted the eyes (and ears) as we moved towards the trenches was a big tarpaulin covered in children with archaeological sieves, who were all having a fabulous time.  What a brilliant idea!  “Artefacts” had been hidden in heaps of earth and the children had to sieve through the heaps to find them.  Looking at the sheer joy with which children, helped by  grinning parents, were sifting through the soil to find the objects, I suspected that an awful lot of tiny would-be vets, football stars and celebrity chefs decided there and then to become archaeologists instead.

Trench 3, the villa

We were free to wander around the site until the talk began.  The site had been opened at 1000 for wanderers, and then site tours arranged for 1100, 1230, 1330, and 1500 with Roman re-enactments at 1145 and 1415.  That’s a lot of public interaction for one day!  I believe that Stephen Grenter, Heritage Services Manager, at Wrexham Museum and our tour guide for the hour, said that there were going to be over 200 people turning up over the course of the day.

The first striking thing about the site, apart from the uncovered foundations, was how near the surface those foundations are, just a few inches down, probably less than a foot.  There were four trenches open, three at the villa itself and the fourth some distance away that is being excavated by local school children, a superb incentive.  There are plans to involve more school children from surrounding areas as the dig progresses in the future.

Trench 3, the villa

The excavation was just heading into its final week of a 21-day run, an intensive three-week opportunity to find out what’s down there.  That was a fascinating experience – all the interest of seeing what had already emerged, and a sense of the next chapter of the book missing because there was still a week to go.  Thank goodness for the project’s updates on Twitter to keep the momentum going.

The field in which the villa is located has ploughed for at least five years, which has the potential downside of disturbing upper levels, but has the upside of turning up all sorts of interesting finds that suggest the presence of something more substantial below.  It is often disturbance of this sort that suggests to archaeologists that survey, potentially followed by excavation, may be worth organizing.

I’ve talked about the background to the excavation in my previous post about the site, but Saturday was the first opportunity I had to see the site in all its glory.  It is years since I’ve done any Roman excavation but it made me want to whip out my trowel and leap in.  Super to see it all happening.

Trench 3, the villa

Trench 3 has been opened to explore the footprint of the former villa, approximately half of which has now been exposed.  It was great to see how the magnetometry survey image was being translated into real life stone foundations and floors.  Samien pottery, black-burnished ware (imported from France and Dorset respectively) had been found, as well as mortaria, a Roman coin from the date of Constantine (327-341AD), a bronze pin, animal bone and various other finds.

Trench 2, just a few feet away from the villa, and shown at the top of the post with Chris Matthews giving an impromptu talk on the subject, was an enigma at the end of week two, but two pieces of medieval pottery had been discovered.  By the end of the week, Chris Matthews reported on Twitter that it had been established that these were the remains of a medieval building with some fairly heft walls that had been robbed in the past, leaving just the foundations.  The walls retain some pieces of facing stone, which means that something of its external appearance survives.  Traces of carbonization were already visible, often a sign that a fire has contributed to at least one phase of a building’s history, and 14th Century pottery was beginning to emerge.

Trench 1, the possible bathhouse, showing a massive external wall

Trench 1 is a little farther away and lies close to a brook that circles part of the field within which the villa lies.  The proximity of the building both to a water source and to the villa would be ideal for a bathhouse, and excavations were well underway, but this has yet to be confirmed.  Some of the exterior walls were vast, the one above nearest to the camera about 1.2m thick.  A little piece of painted plaster had been found in the morning of the Open Day, so it is possible that the possible bathhouse’s internal walls were once decorated.

The project is  a good example of different interest groups, including academic, museum and commercial interests working together with amateurs, metal detectorists, and volunteer diggers to reveal the area’s past.  The dig was funded by a number of benefactors, which tells its own story of how many parties it takes to get something like this off the ground.  Hats off to all of them.

A seriously great time was had by all.  I suspect (or more precisely hope) that not only will the project receive more funding for the planned six week project next year, but that this dig will be just the beginning of a much bigger project to understand the Romano-British and prehistoric past in the Rossett-Burton area, and the poorly understood areas beyond.

For those wanting to read the previous news about the Rossett villa excavation, its aftermath and future plans, use the hashtag #RomanRossett on Twitter to keep yourself updated

Sources of information for this post were Stephen Grenter’s 1330 talk at the site, the #RomanRossett Twitter feed, and the University of Chester’s excellent video on the subject by Howard Williams and Caroline Pudney at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVXrb45pCiw

 

 

Look what’s coming to dinner: giant puffballs found on a grass verge

If you are lucky enough to find puffballs, especially giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), in your travels they must be eaten almost immediately as they simply don’t keep.  Put them in the fridge, and they will last maybe two days, perhaps three if your fridge is very cold.  Freezing them on the same day is also possible but they are not nearly as good as when eaten fresh.  I used to harvest them from the golf course when I lived in Aberdovey, but never did I collect any this enormous!  My father had a couple, I had a couple and a neighbour had one.  These came from a local grass verge that I was driving past, and I pulled over to go and retrieve them.  Because puffballs reproduce during the decay of the puffball (at which point it puffs off its spores), always leave one behind to ensure that there is a chance of them coming back next year.

A giant puffball looks a little like chicken breast when you slice through it.

As always, collecting wild mushrooms comes with a health warning.  It is easy to mistake puffballs for mildly poisonous earthballs when they are both very small and white, although earth balls quickly become dark as they grow whereas puffballs look pure white throughout their growth cycle, until they mature and the spores (like seeds) are ready to depart when they go creamy yellow.  They are pretty well unmistakeable when they reach a size bigger than a golf ball, but read more about them here on the excellent Forager Chef website.

Puffballs have a subtle mushroomy taste and a soft texture, both of which are quite unique and utterly delicious.  When they are big enough, they are fabulous cut into big slices and tossed in  sizzling butter and fresh sage.  Small ones can be cooked whole.

Slices of giant puffball at the base were topped with smoked bacon, black pudding, crispy sage leaves, spinach and a poached egg.  A terrible photo – I really cannot take photographs in artificial light!  I need to sort out a mini home studio.

There are a million ways of serving them, some gastronomic, others rather more down to earth.  Last night I had mine fried in butter (yes, I know, but how delicious), served at the bottom of a stack made up of a rasher of smoked back bacon, a slice of excellent black pudding, both done on an iron griddle plate over a high flame, with a handful of steamed spinach over the top and a poached Churton egg on the top of that.  Bliss.  I’ve been a bit off food recently, but I couldn’t wait to cook this.

For a vegetarian version, the puffball slices would be excellent cooked in garlic oil, and served on griddled sourdough toast with the spinach, courgettes, and crispy sage leaves, or with asparagus, perhaps with a drizzle of cream.  For me, the poached egg is a must with this meal.

However you cook giant puffballs, be careful not to overwhelm their delicate flavour.  I would not, for example, do them in a red wine sauce, but they go well in a white wine and cream sauce, or in a pasta carbonara.  They are also sensational as an accompaniment for steak, and go very well with chicken or pork.  As tapas, they are divine cooked in garlic and sherry.

 

The Roman Villa at Rossett #2 – Some background to the excavation

It is difficult to imagine this field as a beating heart of a villa complex life in northeast Wales, but here it is.

This short series focusing on the Rossett Roman Villa began yesterday with Part 1  – What is a Roman Villa? , which was an overview of Roman villas in general, looking at how they are defined, their key features, what is known about who lived in them, how they changed over time and how they are dated.

Today’s post, part 2, looks at the background to the decision to start excavating at the site, information assembled from press releases, the villa project’s Twitter releases (impressive!) and the information imparted by Stephen Grenter, Heritage Services Manager at the Wrexham Museum on the Open Day.  Part 3 will describe the excellent Archaeological Open Day that took us through what was happening in the three big trenches opened in the last two weeks, as well as plans for the future.  Again, I just want to say huge thank-you for such a great tour of the site and the sheer amount of knowledge imparted in such a relaxed but professional way.  I have included some of the information communicated on the day in this post, and much of the rest is taken from Caroline Pudney’s posts on Archaeology Chester, with thanks to both of them for being so generous with the information, but of course any errors are my own.

The Rossett villa before excavation.  Source: Archaeology Chester

The strategically important legionary fortress at Chester means that a Roman presence in the surrounding area was almost inevitable, and it has been known for a long time that there was a civilian settlement south of Chester at Heronbridge, Roman industrial activity in Holt (a brickworks and tileworks) to the east and at Halkyn Mountain to the west.  Also in the west, Ffrith has produced Roman remains, but it lies under the village so not much is known about it.  Up until now, however, nothing concrete was known about Roman activity in the Rossett-Burton area.

The Rossett site is located to the west of Burton and is the first villa known from northeast Wales, making it of particular importance.  Prior to any major discoveries, the existence of a Roman presence of some description in the area had already been inferred by archaeologists who had found Roman objects in local ploughed fields.  Ploughed fields are excellent for field walking, as the action of ploughing draws artefacts from lower down up to the surface of the field, and they are often clearly visible against the dark soil.  When the field is recently ploughed, there are no distractions like crop stubble or weeds.

A site plan taken from the geophysical survey of Rossett villa. Source: Archaeology Chester

Confirmation that from the 1st Century onwards Romans had at least passed through the Rossett-Burton area came with a discovery made by a responsible metal detectorist who reported an important find:  an inscribed lead pig that turned out to date to the 1st century AD, the century in which the Romans first arrived.   All of a sudden, the Burton area was in the archaeological spotlight.  A survey and excavation of the ingot site followed, funded partly with a grant from the Roman Research Trust and carried out by archaeologists from Wrexham Museum, the University of Chester and Archaeological Survey West.  There was sufficient time and funding remaining after the ingot investigations had been completed for further geophysical survey work to be carried out in a nearby field and this revealed a beautifully delineated buried structure with the typical layout of a Roman villa, staggeringly clear on the survey image shown below.  Additional structures were evident, but not so easy to interpret, and some of those too are now under excavation.


Background

The Rossett Ingot

The first indication of a site near Rossett was the discovery of a lead ingot or pig.  A pig is a roughly rectangular bar of mined metal that is shaped to be convenient for transportation to a location where it can be processed.  Its discovery by detectorist Rob Jones, who reported the find to the archaeological authorities, was reported on the Archaeology Chester (University of Chester) blog:

Lead pig in situ. Portable Antiquities Service ID WREX-8D3982. Source: Archaeology Chester.

Our story begins in September 2019 when a lead pig (ingot) marked with the name of Trebellius Maximus, the Governor of Roman Britain from AD 63 to 69 was found near Rossett, Wrexham County Borough, Wales. A responsible, skilled, and knowledgeable local metal detectorist found an impressive metal signature while out detecting. He immediately contacted the local Finds Liaison Officer based at Wrexham Museum and the object was subsequently excavated with the help of staff at Wrexham Museum and the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust.

The find generated a lot of interest in academic circles and was widely reported in the media, because this is the first inscription known in Britain that mentions Marcus Trebellius Maximus, who was the governor of the province of Britannia between AD 63 and 69 during the reign of the Emperor Nero, one of Britain’s first governors after the AD 43 invasion.   An administrator rather than a soldier, he made no push to gain more territory, placing emphasis on consolidation and economic growth.  He was unable to secure the respect of the military and in AD 69, after the death of Nero and a period of instability in Rome, a mutiny in Britain forced him to flee.  He was replaced by Marcus Vettius Bolanus who had the twin assets of being both a Roman Senator and a soldier.

One of Julian Baum’s stunning impressions of Deva, showing the
beginning of Watling Street West (Margary 6a) and the Dee
crossing linking to roads south and west. Source: Julian Baum, Take27 Ltd.

Although as a legionary fortress Chester was an important Roman centre, with roads radiating out of it towards other Roman sites in all directions,  northeast Wales itself has not provided much data to support the idea of a significant Roman interest in the area, so the find raised two important questions that led to the decision to carry out further surveys and excavations in the area.  The first question raised by the pig itself was about the extent to which the Romans were exploiting local mineral resources from early on during their occupation of Britain.  The second concerned how a major new Roman find might shed light on the Roman occupation of northeast Wales, data for which is extremely thin on the ground to the northwest of Wrexham and southwest of Chester.

Not the most ideal conditions for excavating the ingot site!  Source: Archaeology Chester

The initial fieldwork, phase 1 of the project, took part during partial lockdown with atrocious weather conditions during September and October 2020, with financial support from the Roman Research Trust, the University of Chester and Wrexham Museum.   Although the surveys suggested some promising features, excavation by a small 6-person team, battling with rapidly flooding trenches only revealed remains from mainly much later periods.  The absence of Roman period finds during the excavations was, however, informative:

The absence of Roman archaeology and confirmation of alluvial deposits highlighted the likely watery or marsh-like setting that existed during the Roman and later periods. In turn this tells us that the ingot is reflective (perhaps) of a stray loss since no evidence of deliberate deposition or lead processing could be found nearby. [Pudnesy 2021]

The conclusion is that the lead was mined elsewhere and was lost in transit on its way to its intended destination.  The analysis of the lead at Liverpool University, which hopes to narrow down a source, is still ongoing but initial work suggests that it may have been mined from elsewhere in northeast Wales, perhaps at somewhere like Ffrith, where Roman remains have been found, including indications of lead mining, or Minera:

That the Romans mined lead at Minera has long been inferred; the mineral veins would have been easily discovered at outcrop, a Roman road passes close by, and residues of lead smelting have been recorded in a Roman context only three miles distant. Proof
remains elusive though ancient working is inferred by the discovery of a stone mortar. [Peter Appleton]

No further archaeological remains were discovered at the site during excavation.

Lead ingot from a river jetty site at the edge of Chester racecourse dating to 74AD.  Source:  David Mason’s book Roman Chester, p.45.

Other pigs have been found in the Chester area.  David Mason shows one in his book Roman Chester, excavated with the remains of a timber jetty at the Roodee (Chester racecourse on the side of the river Dee) in 1886 dating to AD74.  The text is abbreviated but reads “[Cast] while the Emperor Vespasian Augustus was consul for the fifth time and Titus, acclaimed Imperator, consul for the third time.  On the side is another inscription that reads “Deceangl” meaning that it was mined on Deceangli territory.  The Decaengli territory of northeast Wales ran along the borders of the Cornovii territory that occupied what is now West Cheshire, and probably extended up the Wirral.

Wales in AD47. To the east of the Deceangli, in what is now Cheshire, was the tribal area of the Cornovii, who were based at Wroxeter.  Source: Emerson Kent

Britain’s mineral resources were amongs the properties of Britain that was extremely attractive to Rome, and the territory of the Deceangli had numerous stone and metal resources including lead. Lead was used in building projects, but some of it was also a source of silver when subjected to a process called cupellation.  Lead mines at Prestatyn were established in c.75AD.  Others have been found at Meliden, Pentre-Oakenholt, Halkyn and Ffrith. Clwyd and Powys Archaeological Trust describes an ore vein that runs east to west at Halkyn.   A Roman ‘pig’ or ingot of lead was found in 1950 inscribed with the letters C NIPI ASCANI, the abbreviated name of a private lead producer, C. Nipius Ascanius, the lead thought to have been mined and smelted on Halkyn Mountain.  Excavations in the Pentre Oakenholt area of Flint have provided evidence of lead smelting, presumably from ores from Halkyn Mountain. Roman domestic buildings at Pentre Farm, Flint may have been the home of a mine supervisor.

Magnetometry results at Rossett Villa. Source: Archaeology Chester

There was sufficient funding from the Roman Research Trust grant left over for additional geophysical survey.  Stephen Grenter had visited the field in which the villa was found at an earlier date because pottery sherds and other small finds had been made there, and found additional objects that suggested that it would be worth carrying out additional fieldwalking and geophysical survey, so this was carried out.

The field walking recovered a total of 181 artefacts from the ploughsoil. A large proportion of artefacts were ceramic, including brick and tile (CBM).  A total of 76 sherds of pottery, 23 fragments of worked stone, 4 metal objects, 5 fragments of glass and one fragment of animal bone were also retrieved. Together with fragments of painted plaster and opus signinum, the assemblage reflected the likely presence of a Roman building, but potentially of higher status than we’d initially suspected. [Pudney 2021]

Geophysical survey (magnetometry) followed.  Geophysical survey results can be remarkably difficult to interpret, but the amazing scan of the villa’s foundations, was phenomenally clear, showing the perfect layout of a wing and corridor villa with rooms behind.  Other features suggested by the geophysical survey were not nearly as clear, and some of those are now under excavation.

The Rossett Villa

To the west of Burton Green, the villa is described as  Rossett Villa.  Clear evidence of Roman occupation in the immediate area had been indicated by objects produced in the process of agricultural ploughing as well as metal detecting.  These items included pieces of samian ware (terra sigillata, a Roman luxury ceramic), box tiles,  fragments of mortaria (food preparation mortars) and quern stones.   Other Roman objects  found in the general vicinity had been registered with the Portable Antiquities Scheme including Roman brooches and coins.  The presence of a villa had not been suspected as they are extremely rare in the northeast Wales/Cheshire areas.

Primary areas of villa occupation in Roman Britain. Source: Rowe, J.E. 2015.  Roman Villas of Wales.  M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

The Rossett villa is unusual in that its location is outside the main distribution area of villa sites.  The densest concentration of known villas is in the south of England.   Rossett is only one of two villas known in the area that potentially fell under the influence of the Chester legionary fortress, the other being located at Eaton-by Tarporley.  The discovery of signs of a hypocaust at Crewe-by-Farndon have led to suggestions that there may have been another a third one in that area (mentioned in the the Farndon Archaeological Assessment).  The nearest villa in Wales is at a substantial distance from Rossett, in a remote part of Ceredigion, near to Trawsgoed Roman Fort.

Some of the sites in the Chester area are connected to one another by the Roman road network, but it is not yet fully understood how northeast Wales was reached from Chester and how it was connected to west Wales, including the sites at Ffrith and Halkyn.

The wing and corridor villas at Sparsholt (top) and Lullingstone. These artists’ impressions are intended to provide an idea of what a villa might have looked like above the level of the foundations.  Source of Sparsholt image: Johnston, D.J. 1991 (cover photo).  Source of Lullingstone image:  English Heritage Lullingstone website)

The Rossett villa is located just off the proposed route of a potential Roman road from Chester. It has been suggested that the road may have run south from the fortress, across the bridge shown in Baum’s reconstruction of Chester above, before turning southwest and passing through Ffrith, where there is plenty of evidence both for Roman settlement remains and a stretch of Roman road, before proceeding via Bala to the fortlet at Brithdir to the south of Dolgellau.  This presumably also connected with the Cefn Caer fortlet at Pennal (about which I posted on another blog here), which guarded a crossing over the river Dyfi, connecting north and south Wales.  It is hoped that future LiDAR research will clarify the location of the road.  It worked a treat with clarifying Roman road 6A (also known as Watling Street West) that runs south from Chester via Aldford and Malpas to Whitchurch and beyond to Wroxeter (about which I have posted here).

The nearest villa to Rossett, as the crow flies, was actually at Eaton by Tarporley in Cheshire, excavated 1980-81 and again in 1982.  As far as I know, it remains Cheshire’s only known Roman villa, as reported by Morris in 1982 and 1983, and summarized  on the Heritage Gateway website.  The summary is copied here because it provides a useful illustration of the often multi-period character of villas:

Excavations of Eaton-by-Tarporley Villa. Source: Morris 1982 and 1983

During the laying of the Lake Vyrnwy-Liverpool water main in 1886, Roman tiles, mortar and a coin of Marcus Aurelius were found on the western fringe of Eaton-by-Tarporley (a). A field-walking programme in 1980 to investigate the context of these finds, led to the discovery at SJ 57176341 of a Roman winged-corridor villa, the first villa to be identified in Cheshire. Excavations were conducted on the site from 1980-82. These revealed 4 Roman phases.
Phase 1. Only two post-holes were found relating to the primary occupation of the site, perhaps beginning c. AD 150. The building was probably short-lived, quickly succeeded by the phase 2 construction on a different alignment.
Phase 2. A timber building was erected delimited to W and N by ditches perhaps serving to convey water to the site from a nearby spring rather than for drainage. Again the building seems to have been short-lived, this time destroyed by fire.
Phase 3. About the last quarter of the 2nd century, the first stone-built villa was constructed, of winged-corridor plan and of a single storey only. The S wing formed a baths suite. All rooms in the main range were decorated with painted wall-plaster and had floors of opus signium or mortared pebbles. One room here was heated, plus two in the N wing.
Phase 4. c.AD 350 the villa underwent thorough reconstruction. The colonnade was demolished and the living space extended out to this line. Thickening of the walls indicates a second storey was added at this time. No evidence survived for the destruction/abandonment of the villa due to Medieval stone-robbing and PM ploughing.
Medieval. Large numbers of pottery wasters were recovered from the villa, and excavation SW of it located a complex of 14th century pottery kilns. At some later date but still within this period, a building of unknown function was erected out of re-used Roman materials over the SW corner of the villa.  

The villa included a bath suite including a calidarium and tepidarium sitting over hypocausts (raised floors on short pillars, the spaces created heated with fires), and a frigidarium for cooling off.

Two different ideas about the appearance of Abermagwr in Ceredigion, a small villa dating to c.AD 230, both views drawn by one of its excavators, Toby Driver.  This demonstrates that although foundations may look much the same from one villa to the next, the actual appearance may differ considerably.  The two interpretations also usefully suggests that the survival of inorganic building materials, particularly wood, may potentially offer an alternative interpretation. Sources: RCHAMW (top) and Wales Online (bottom)

In Wales itself, the only other villa site known north of south Wales is in Ceredigion, less than a mile from Trawsgoed Roman Fort, and in a very remote area.  Abermagwr villa was first identified from aerial photographs taken during the drought of 2006, was subjected to geophysical survey in 2009 and was partially excavated in 2010 by by Jeffrey Davies and Toby Driver.  Described by its excavators as “a comparatively modest late third- to early fourth-century AD house,” was established around 230AD, which is interestingly around a century after the Trawsgoed fort was abandoned, and it is suggested that building material from the fort’s bathhouse was used to build the villa.  It had a very fine slate roof, and finds included pieces of a remarkable glass bowl that was made in Germany’s Rhineland. The villa burned down in c.330AD, and was abandoned.

This is a very poor showing for villas in northeast, northwest and mid Wales, and for Cheshire as well.  The scarcity of villas in this area seems to require an explanation, particularly as Chester was such an important fort, there was a civil Roman settlement at Heronbridge just to the south of Chester near Ecclestone, a tile and pottery manufacturing base was located immediately to the north of Holt and there was another pottery production centre at Plas Coch on the outskirts of Wrexham.  This was an area of prime agricultural land that one would have thought would be ideal for the establishment of one or more potentially profitable estates.  There are two primary reasons why sites do not occur on distribution maps. The first is because they were simply not built in certain areas, and the second is that they have not yet been found.  There are more reasons too, such as sites that have been completely destroyed, or those that whose building materials were robbed for the building of other buildings, but a complete absence of evidence in an area tends to fall into one or other of the first two categories.  In practical terms, this means that a gap on a distribution map is a question mark, not a sign that nothing was build there.  This is perfectly demonstrated by the Eaton-by-Tarporley, Abermagwr and Rossett villas, all of which turned up in places that were empty patches on villa distribution maps.   With more grants for future research, a lot more field work and a bit of luck thrown in, the Rossett and Burton areas may reveal more previously unrecognized archaeology, including that from both previous and later periods. Indeed, Toby Driver has recorded cropmarks at Rossett similar to those at Roman villas in other parts of Wales (noted on the Coflein website).  However, with the discovery of the Rossett villa, it seems likely that others will now turn up.

 

Conclusions

Findspot at the Rossett Roman villa excavation.

Even before I went to the Open Day, the team had made it clear in their reports that the Rossett and Burton Green finds are exciting hints of a greater Roman presence to the southwest of Chester than had previously been suspected.  Both the original discoveries and the work that has since taken place will hopefully form a platform for the launch of future survey and excavation work that will help to clarify how northeast Wales fits into the bigger Roman and Romano-British picture.  The team is hoping to reconvene next year for a six week dig, assuming that funding is forthcoming.

The last words today go to Dr Caroline Pudney:

Both the lead pig and the villa whisper to us of great potential. The prospect that this villa complex does not exist in isolation is very real. There are not many Roman villas known across north Wales. North east Wales specifically, was until now, yet to reveal one buried beneath its soils. Who knows how many more lurk beneath the surface? There are also a surprisingly low number known further west and south into Cheshire and Shropshire. This is strange considering the presence of a whacking great Roman fortress (Deva Victrix) and the civitas capital at Viriconium (Wroxeter). One would surely expect a richer character of rural settlement in this area than is presented in the known archaeological record to date.  [Pudney 2021] 


Follow the Roman Villa excavations, their post-excavation findings and their news about future work on Twitter using the hashtag #rossettvilla.  


Sources:

The main source of information about the Rossett discoveries is Dr Caroline Pudney’s report on the Archaeology Chester (University of Chester) website, which has been quoted extensively above:  The highs and lows of archaeology: In the footsteps of Trebellius Maximus. By Dr Caroline Pudney, 16th Apr 2021
https://archaeologychester.wordpress.com/2021/04/16/the-highs-and-lows-of-archaeology-in-the-footsteps-of-trebellius-maximus/

Additional background information as well as some notes about the villas in Cheshire and Ceredigion have been sourced as follows:

Books and Papers:

Clark, J. 2003.  Cheshire Historic Towns Survey.  Farndon. Archaeological Assessment.  Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HTS_Arch_Assess_Farndon.pdf 

Clark, J. 2003.  Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Tarporley. Archaeological Assessment.  Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HTS_Arch_Assess_Tarporley.pdf

Greene, K. 1986.  The Archaeology of the Roman Economy.  Batsford

Johnston, D.E. 1994.  Roman Villas.  Shire Archaeology

Mason, D.J.P. 2007 (2nd edition). Roman Chester. City of the Eagles. Tempus

Morris, M.G. 1982.  Eaton By Tarporley, SJ57176341. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 8, p.49-52
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-8.pdf

Morris, M.G. 1983.  Eaton By Tarporley, Roman Villa. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.67-73
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf

North, F.J. 1962. Mining for Metals in Wales. National Museum of Wales
https://www.aditnow.co.uk/documents/personal-album-128/Mining-for-metals-in-Wales.pdf

Pudney, C. 2021.  The highs and lows of archaeology: In the footsteps of Trebellius Maximus.  Archaeology Chester, 16th Apr 2021
https://archaeologychester.wordpress.com/2021/04/16/the-highs-and-lows-of-archaeology-in-the-footsteps-of-trebellius-maximus/

Rowe, J.E. 2015.  Roman Villas of Wales.  M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
https://ourspace.uregina.ca/bitstream/handle/10294/5853/Rowe_Jennifer_200205672_MA_HIST_Spring2015.pdf?sequence=1


Websites:

Aberdovey Londoner
Cefn Caer, the Roman auxiliary fort at Pennal.  By Andie Byrnes. 3rd February 2019
https://aberdoveylondoner.com/2019/02/03/cefn-caer-roman-auxiliary-fort-pennal/

Based in Churton
A touch of Rome just east of Churton #1 – Background to the Roman Road. By Andie Byrnes. 3rd April 2021
https://basedinchurton.co.uk/2021/04/13/a-touch-of-rome-just-east-of-churton-1-background/

Coflein
The Abermagwr Roman Villa, Cerdigion
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/405315/
Lane Farm Cropmarks, Rossett
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/409231/details.html

CPAT Regional Sites & Monuments Record
PRN 100020 – Ffrith Roman site (multiple site). Scheduled Ancient Monument FL164(FLT)
https://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/ffrith/100020.htm
PRN 86912 – Ffrith, Roman Road
https://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/ffrith/86912.htm
Holywell Common and Halkyn Mountain
https://www.cpat.org.uk/projects/longer/histland/holywell/hoindust.htm

Heritage Gateway
Historic England Research Records – Monument Number 71430 (Eaton by Tarporley villa)
https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=71430&resourceID=19191

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales
The Roman villa that made history: Abermagwr Villa, Ceredigion. By Toby Driver, 24th July 2020
https://rcahmw.gov.uk/the-roman-villa-that-made-history-abermagwr-villa-ceredigion/

U3A Ruthin and District
Mineralisation and Mining at Minera, North Wales.  By Peter Appleton.  Date unknown.
https://u3asites.org.uk/files/r/ruthin/docs/mineralisationandminingatminera.pdf 

Wrexam.COM
Rossett Roman villa dig underway in ‘history-changing project. 6th September 2021
https://www.wrexham.com/news/rossett-roman-villa-dig-underway-in-history-changing-project-208603.html

Wrexham County Borough Museum and Archives
The Rossett Lead Pig
www.wrexhamheritage.wales/explore/#rossettpig

 

Rossett Roman Villa #1 – What are Roman villas and who lived in them?

A site plan taken from the geophysical survey of the winged-corridor villa to the west of Rossett.

In this and the next two posts I will talk about the Rossett Roman villa.  Part 2 talks about the legwork, geophysical surveys and discoveries that built up to the Rossett Villa excavation, and part 3 will describe the truly excellent Rossett Villa Open Day on Saturday 18th September 2021, what visitors learned about what has been surveyed and excavated at the site to date, and what the plans are for the future.  Parts 2 and 3 will be posted early next week.

In Part 1 today, I simply want to look at what a Roman villa in Britain actually was and what we know about them in general terms.  I am far from being anything resembling a Roman expert, so this is intended to provide  a top-level context for the discussion of the Rossett villa itself.  Obviously this is a very short summary of an complex subject, so in Sources at the end, I have highlighted in orange the books, papers and websites that might be most of use to those wishing to read more about British Roman villas.

The archaeologist who guided us so excellently on the Open Day was Stephen Grenter, Heritage Services Manager at the Wrexham Museum, who balanced a natural gift for delivering information to a mixed crowd, with an encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject.  He was great.  Only a few points from his talk have been repeated here because most of his excellent explanations are incorporated in parts 2 and 3, but I just want to start with a huge thank you for such a great tour of the site, the enthusiasm with which so much information was imparted, and the friendly clarity with which the visitors’ many questions were answered.  For those wanting to keep an eye on the Rossett villa excavation, its aftermath and future plans, use the hashtag #RomanRossett on Twitter to keep you updated.

This is a very long post, something of an essay, so if you might find it easier to save it or print it off.  The entire post can be downloaded as a PDF here:  Rossett Roman Villa #1 – What are Roman Villas

This page is divided up into the following short sections:

  • The arrival of Rome in England and Wales
  • Rome in the ground
  • What is the purpose of a Roman villa?
  • What features make up a Roman villa?
  • Who lived in a Roman villa?
  • Dating Roman villas
  • Conclusion
  • Sources


The arrival of Rome in England and Wales

The emperor Claudius. Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Roman Empire first dipped its toe into Britain’s Iron Age waters in 55BC, when Julius Caesar mounted an expedition to Britain.  It was not, however, until AD43 that the Emperor Claudius decided to expand the empire and shore up his precarious position by providing himself some kudos as a military leader, and sent in the legions once again.  This time, Rome came to stay for a very long visit, not leaving until the early 5th Century.  That, as author David Johnston evocatively points out, is as long as the time between Queen Elizabeth I and the present day.  For many generations life under Roman rule was simple normality.  400 years of Roman presence in Britain left an indelible stamp in the form of hundreds of archaeological sites, assemblages and individual objects, all connected by a phenomenal network of roads.

Aulus Plautius was the chosen commander of Emperor Claudius.  He was the man who led an invasion force to Britain and  landed in the southeast before expanding throughouth southern Britain.  Aulus Plautius first found himself in the territory of the prosperous and sophisticated Catuvellauni tribe, whose reach extended from Essex to Surrey under the leadership of Caratacus and his brother Togodummus.  Caratacus and Togodummus were defeated when confronted with the 40,000 men in four legions and supporting auxiliary forces.  Caratacus abandoned his family and fled to the Silures tribe in southeast Wales to rethink his strategy.  An alliance with the Ordovices was struck.

It was not until AD 47 that the Romans felt the need to turn their attention to the tribal areas of what is now known as Wales. Wales had many benefits from a Roman point of view, including rich mineral resources, fertile valleys and a long coastline. It would also have been a good source of manpower via voluntary enlistment or conscription. Perhaps most important, strategically, without peace in rebellious Wales, all Roman-controlled land to its east was potentially under threat. The first period of military hostilities between Rome and Wales lasted between AD 47 and AD 60, with multiple campaigns against the Marches and Welsh communities, starting in the southeast.

A gold stater (coin) of Caratacus, showing him on horseback in suitably fearsome mode. Source: Sunday Times

A significant event was the Battle of Caer Caradoc in AD 50, where Caratacus led armies composed of the Ordovices and Silures against the Roman military. In spite of the strategic advantage of Caratacus and his armies, holding the high ground, the Roman forces under the governor Publius Ostorius Scapula had weaponry, body armour and military experience that outclassed Silurian and Ordovician resources. Caratacus was defeated and ultimately taken into custody and carried to Rome where the Roman senate were sufficiently impressed by his speech that he earned a pardon from Claudius and lived out his life in Rome.

During the later 1st Century Rome began to expand out of the south of England towards the north.  Towns were expanded and administrative civic centres were established.  As well as soldiers, other professionals began to arrive from elsewhere in the empire, including officials, professional classes, traders and craftsmen, slaves and freed slaves.  Some of these arrivals may have brought their families with them.  Some of these newcomers stayed only on a temporary basis, others will have settled permanently, and all beginning to change the character of many areas of Britain.

The Romans did not have it all their own way.  For example, the Silures went on to defeat a Roman legion in AD 52, and there was a brief respite for British dignity when the Boudiccan rebellion in East Anglia in AD 60 required the redeployment of troops, including those stationed in Wales. Full-scale invasion of Wales was temporarily abandoned and a strategy of containment was practised in Wales, with all of the only permanently occupied military bases lying along the border. David Mason, in his book Roman Chester, argues that “while there is no evidence of military activity at Chester in this period, the whole of Cheshire and the neighbouring portions of north-east Wales was undoubtedly in the firm grip of the Roman Army by the mid-50s” and that Roman forces had been active in the area for more than 20 years before the fortress was founded at Chester.

Wales in AD47. To the east of the Deceangli, in what is now Cheshire, was the tribal area of the Cornovii, who were based at Wroxeter.  Source: Emerson Kent

In AD 73 under the Emperor Vespasian, Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed Governor of Britain (AD 73-77), and it is during his tenure that much of Wales was fully conquered. Three legionary fortresses were established as campaign bases, at Caerleon (Isca Silurum), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and the port of Chester (Deva Victrix) the latter on the river Dee, navigable at that time to the Irish Sea.  A number of temporary camps were also set up within Wales itself, setting the scene for “a network of garrison posts, incorporating fortlets and watchtowers, eventually linked by an all-weather road system” [Arnold and Davies] which was used to maintain control over rural areas.  David Mason comments on the strategic value of Chester’s location: 

Although of limited strategic importance during the initial phases of Roman penetration into the region, Chester came into its own with the expansion of the province in the AD 70s.  The occupation of the Cheshire Plain as a means of driving a wedge between the Ordovices and the Brigantes had long been recognized and in the period of consolidation following their subjugation it made sense to exploit this natural advantage by installing a legion in the area.

Northeast Wales, in which Rossett and Burton are located, was the territory of the Deceangli whose territory abutted that of the Cornovii in what is today West Cheshire.  Although there are a number of Iron Age hillforts in their territory, particularly along the Clwydian Range, there is no sign of conflict.  Unlike other areas of Wales it seems as though the Deceangli offered no significant resistance to the arrival or Rome, and probably functioned as a useful buffer zone between the Ordovices and the troublesome Brigantes in the northeast.  

Plan of the Chester legionary fortress at around AD75 showing the main features, including headquarters (principia), barracks (centuriae), the legionary commander’s residence (praetorium), workshops (fabrica), granaries (horrea), and baths (thermae). Source: Mason 2007, p.50, fig 20a

The establishment of the legionary fortress at Chester, the appearance of Roman roads and the presence of soldiers would probably have been seriously alarming to local inhabitants.  A legion was made up of around 5500 men but together with slaves, servants and ancillary personnel this could have reached a number in excess of 6600.  In addition, there were those who followed the legions, civilians who supplied the legions with the small luxuries of everyday life, as well as inamorata and unofficial families.  How this impacted the Deceangli residents is impossible to assess at the moment because no Iron Age homes or villages have been found in northeast Wales.  If Iron Age farms and/or villages had existed, It is difficult to assess whether any impacts caused by the legionary fortress would have been good or bad for local livelihoods.  It is possible that local villages could have benefited from opportunities to sell their goods, because food would have been an urgent and ongoing requirement for the Roman fortress in Chester, and farming communities would have supplied it, probably via middlemen who lived in the sprawl of buildings that grew up outside forts.  It is, however, also likely that the countryside was scoured for recruits to be pressed into the army, and taxes would have been imposed, which would not have been popular. The arrival of the Roman legion was always going to be a mixed blessing.


Rome in the ground

Chester Roman Amphitheatre.  Source:  English Heritage

Some of the structural remains of Roman buildings in Britain are visible above ground level, like bits of Roman walls in Chester that were later repaired and expanded in the Middle Ages, and still visible when you know where to look.  Some of Roman Britain was below ground until excavated and is now on permanent display, like the Chester amphitheatre.  Some sites have been excavated and reburied to preserve them, and others are currently under excavation.  Other buried sites have been identified via aerial photographs or geophysical surveys, but have not yet been excavated, and there must be dozens of sites that have not yet been recognized.   One of the most complete sites in Britain, under excavation for decades, is the walled town of Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) in Hampshire, which is remarkable for not having been built over in modern times, apart from one or two farm buildings.  It is a complete Roman town, in the middle of farming country (and it was my first ever dig!).

Fortunately, even if you can’t see the remains of buildings in the field, you can learn about Roman Britain via its objects.  Finds from Roman sites fill museums throughout Britain, including the Wrexham Museum and Chester’s Grosvenor Museum.  The current Hidden Holt exhibition at the Wrexham Museum (open til January 2022), which I reviewed on an earlier post, is a brilliant example of how objects and information boards based on surveys, excavations and ongoing research can continue to illuminate Rome’s impact on Iron Age Britain.

Rome’s impact on Britain, dotted all over the urban and rural landscape and preserved either in the ground or in museums and excavation reports, is remarkable.


What is the purpose of a Roman villa?

Artist’s hypothetical reconstruction of Sparsholt villa in Hampshire under construction. Source: Johnston, D.J. 1991 (cover photo)

A simple definition would state that villas are essentially rural farms or farming estates, with residential facilities, which were common to many areas of the western Roman empire.  Villas are usually associated with well-watered lowland areas suitable for agricultural exploitation.  Buildings described as villas were dotted through the landscape at reasonable distances from one another to avoid conflict over land.  

Kevin Greene in his book The Archaeology of the Roman Economy (p.89), makes it clear that defining a Roman villa in terms of its job description is by no means straightforward:

Most British archaeologists would agree about the definition of perhaps 80 per cent of supposed villa sites in Britain, and will entertain no doubts about those endowed with fine mosaic floors and bath-houses.  The problem arises over borderline cases – when does a farm become a villa?  Excavation in Italy, Germany and Britain has demonstrated that many indisputable villas had humble origins, and developed gradually over several centuries from pre-Roman ‘native’ houses to rectangular buildings, first in timber and then in masonry or half-timbering. . . . At what point did they become villas rather than Romanised farmhouses?

It is a similar problem with much later landed estates, from the Middle Ages to the present day.  When does a wealthy farm become a grand estate?  Often so-called stately homes have rather more humble beginnings, sometimes as farms, and some of them have burned down by accident or have been deliberately demolished and, in both cases, rebuilt more than once over the centuries. 

An artist’s impression of the Roman villa Latimer in Buckinghamshire, showing some of the main external features of a winged corridor villa. There is always a lot of guesswork in reconstruction pictures, because all that is left are the foundations of the buildings, and some post-holes of wooden structures if lucky.  It is a useful way of visualizing what a building might have looked like, a way of imagining the past, rather than a set-in-stone vision of what it actually did look like, which is impossible to recreate.  Source: Johnston 1994, p.35

There are at least three ways of answering Green’s question.  The first is to say that all rectangular homes consisting of a run of rooms arranged along the horizontal axis are villas, whether simple or complex.  That certainly makes life simple, but function.  Another way of defining them is to say that they are Romanized rural homesteads attached to specific economic activities, made to a model that re-used a basic idea that was elaborated over time (i.e. the started off simple and became more complex).  Ken and Petra Dark distinguish between the more luxurious villa  and four types of “non-villa,” the latter defined as enclosed farms, unenclosed farms, dispersed settlements and villages.  

Greene makes the point that not all villas were built for agricultural enterprise, but could be associated with other economic activities and that still others might have very little to do with income generation, but were built where they were because they were nice places for non-resident owners to visit.   All these types of activity are very recognizable in today’s society.  This is explored below in Who Owned and Lived in Roman Villas?

Two different ideas about the appearance of Abermagwr in Ceredigion, a small villa dating to c.AD 230, both views drawn by one of its excavators, Toby Driver.  This demonstrates that although foundations may look much the same from one villa to the next, the actual appearance may differ considerably.  The two interpretations also usefully suggests that the survival of inorganic building materials, particularly wood, may potentially offer an alternative interpretation. Sources: RCHAMW (top) and Wales Online (bottom)

If the purpose of a villa is essentially analogous to a farm, or as a base light industry, like pottery manufacture or metalworking, one would expect the internal rooms of the villa to reflect the way in which people lived in them.  In the case of the more elaborate villas, some of the rooms can be understood as reception rooms because they have walls covered with decorative painting, and floors covered with sophisticated mosaics, but these were confined to the homes of the wealthy.  Sadly, most of the time, the archaeologist is left with rubble and rubbish, and these scattered remains rarely make it easy to decide which room was allocated to which everyday function.  As well as reception rooms, there will have been bedrooms, a dining area, a kitchen and storage areas, but it is not always possible to determine which room corresponds to which function.

Roman villas arrived rapidly, first appearing in southeast England during the 1st Century AD.  Various types are known, and most correspond to areas where there was fairly dense occupation during the late Iron Age, where tribal elites were in power, and with whom sophisticated material remains were associated.  Some villas were built over the top of Iron Age structures.  In south Wales, Whitton in Glamorgan is a particularly good example of an Iron Age farm that developed into a simple villa within the enclosure that had defined the earlier building.  Unless the Rossett Villa excavation reaches levels below the villa itself that change the picture (which would be terrific) no Iron Age sites are known in the immediate area, in spite of its water sources and excellent agricultural potential.

What features make up a Roman villa?

Villas are usually understood only from the surviving foundations of the building.  Most were robbed of their walls for other building projects, and wood has mostly rotted into oblivion.  There are very few clues about the appearance of internal and external walls.  Gaps in walls indicating doorways may provide evidence of  points of access and the width of a given doorway, but give no indication of what the doors looked like or how impressive they may have been. The location, size and character of window openings is only rarely preserved.  Furniture almost never survives.  

Of the four types listed by Ken and Petra Dark, aisled houses are shown at the top, and winged corridor villas (like Rossett villa) are shown beneath. Source: Dark and Dark 1997, p44-45

The foundations, however provide a lot of information, including the layout, scale and complexity of a building, and sometimes the floors and bits of fallen external and internal wall are preserved.  Thin outer walls sometimes suggest a single storey building whilst wide walls suggest that two storeys may have been present, although de la Bédoyère points out that even thin lower walls could support a second storey superstructure built of wood.  Imbrex and tegulae, Roman roofing tiles, found in amongst the rubble will suggest a tiled rather than thatched roof, but how the roof was built and what it looked like are rarely entirely clear.  It is worth remembering that buildings with similar floorplans may actually have had very different appearances above ground level.    

Ken and Petra Dark, building on the foundational work of the archaeologists R.G. Collingwood and I.A. Richmond from the 1960s, describe four main types of villa, based on the layout of the ground plan.  A simple “cottage villa,” a simple rectangle subdivided into rooms with no corridors or wings.  The “aisled house” was a slightly more refined version, with parallel internal walls or columns running the length of the rectangle to create parallel aisles, much like many churches today.  Most common in Britain is the “winged corridor” villa like Rossett villa, which includes a separate corridor or veranda running along the rooms, and has two or more protruding rooms that form the wings.  A “courtyard villa” extends the wings to create a u-shaped plan in which the house and its wings frame a square or rectangular space.  A “corridor house” is the same as a winged corridor villa, but minus the wings.  As with all typologies, these are just the basic forms, but of course there were many variations on these basic layouts.

The fully evolved villa shares some or all of the following features that are combined to make a recognizable entity:

  • A rectangular house consisting of a row of rooms.  The more elaborate buildings had a long corridor at the back of the rooms, and a wing at each end, sometimes a long veranda at the front
  • Located in a rural area, usually lowland, often floodplains
  • Consisting of a number of rooms separated by internal walls, usually including reception rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and a food preparation area
  • Thatched, slated or tiled roof
  • Stone walls with doorways and windows.  Windows were rarely glazed due to the expense
  • Plastered interior walls (the wealthiest of which were painted with patterns or scenes)
  • Floors that could be surfaced in a number of ways (the most luxurious of which were mosaics, but which were usually a lot simpler)
  • Storage areas, including under-floor storage (a cellar)
  • Internal columns and sculpted stonework
  • Use  of decorative stones like imported marble (for very wealthy owners)
  • Underfloor heating in the main reception rooms or just a central brazier to provide warmth (you would require something in Wales!)
  • A central courtyard around which other structures were built
  • Garden / kitchen garden / orchard
  • Ancillary buildings, sometimes including bathing facilities that included of one or more heated rooms on raised floors, but also including storage facilities and stables
  • High quality objects found within the confines of the villa building
  • Fields surrounding the villa

Some houses were very simple and included only a few of these features whilst others could be very elaborate.  Most lay somewhere in between, and no two were precisely alike.  Some began as a simple row of rooms, and were later modified with the addition of a corridor to allow rooms to be accessed individually.  Wings were often included in the original design but they too could be added later as the family grew, or the owner acquired more wealth and wanted to make the villa more impressive. Some villa complexes included outbuildings that created a courtyard, and some grew to include a second courtyard.  These elaborations simply extended the original concept of the villa, and did not re-invent it.  Even the so-called palace of Fishbourne in West Sussex is still recognizable as a villa, albeit a very ambitious one.

An undecorated tesselated floor made with chunky stone pieces under excavation in Bath. Source:  Wessex Archaeology

Looking a little more closely at some of the features that often survive, there are many that tell us a lot about how villas were built, as well as what sort of financial resources the villa owners had available to them.

When one thinks of Roman flooring, the word “mosaic” springs immediately to mind, but even in the most impressive of the villas like Bignor, mosaic floors were restricted to only a few rooms.  A mosaic floor is made up of up to thousands of individual pieces of stone called tesserae.  Ornamental mosaics made of very small tesserae in different colours are arranged in complex patterns to form patterns or scenes.  Very beautiful, these are works of art, and were correspondingly expensive, unambiguous indicators of wealth and status as well as good taste.  The costs involved in the creation of individual pieces of the right shape and colour, the copying of patterns and scenes, and the laying of the pieces to create the required scene must have been enormous.  There are much simpler versions as well.  Some tessellated floors are very simple arrangements of blocks of about two inches (5cm) square and all of the same local stone.  Nothing like the expense of an ornamental mosaic, they were still a significant investment.   More common were floors of opus signinum (a mixture of mortar and crushed pottery sherds or stone).  Examples of opus signinum have been found at the Rossett villa site.  

Imbrex and tegula tile arrangement. Source: Wikipedia

Roofing tiles, called imbrex and tegula (plural imbrices and tegulae), worked.  The arched imbrices, sit snugly over the upright edges of two facing tegula tiles, as shown in the above photograph, and the the triangular antefix tiles were placed to cover the ends of the imbrex.  Less wealthy homes could thatch their villas.

In some of the rooms that would have been used for receiving visitors and entertaining, where mosaics would have been laid, plastered walls were sometimes painted with either patterns or scenes derived from Rome.  Again, this represents a serious investment.  A piece of painted plaster was discovered at the Rossett villa, but no details about it have yet been released.

Screengrab of a YouTube video of the hypocaust at Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight, showing how their hypocaust works to heat a room. Arrangements could be different, with the heat delivered by pipes instead. An excellent way of visualizing how a hypocaust worked.  Well worth a look – and there are other excellent animations on the Brading YouTube channel. Source:  Friends of Brading Roman Villa YouTube Channel

Under-floor heating was a sign of wealth.  Some homes were heated only by braziers in the main rooms, but under-floor heating (a hypocaust) was a sign not merely that the owner had the wherewithal to afford its installation, but sufficient slaves to maintain it.  See the animation to the left from Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight to show how a hypocaust works.

Bath houses, operating in the same way as under-floor heating, were common even in some of the simpler villas.  They consisted of up to three rooms:  a hot room, a warm room and a cold room.  The floors of the hot rooms were built on short pillars called pilae, creating a space beneath the floor.  The space was heated by creating a fire in a furnace, the heat from which was passed through a short arched tunnel or pipes into the underfloor space before being expelled through the walls.   A separate bath building and, again, the slaves necessary to keep the heat coming, were indications of wealth, and was probably used to puff off a villa’s status.  It is thought that a side-building at the Rossett Villa may have been a bath house, but this has yet to be confirmed through more excavation.

Samian ware (terra sigllata) found at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall. Source: Vindolanda Charitable Trust website

Pottery is usually found in large quantities at Roman sites, and villas are no exception.  Pottery was used for preparing food, cooking, eating, drinking, storing, transporting, and at the top end, was displayed for its decorative properties.  The most prestigious of Roman pottery is terra sigillata (or samian), which was imported from what is now France (eastern Gaul) and often featured beautiful decorative motifs in relief.  These are often very complex and detailed patterns and would have been much-valued by their owners.  Another form of pottery, black burnished ware, is a very common in sites in southern Britain because it was manufactured in Dorset, but it is also found on sites in the north, where it must have been imported because of its desirable properties.  Sherds of both have been found on the Rossett site, together with other types as well.


Who owned and lived in Roman villas?

Whether they were simple or elaborate, villas were built by people who had ideas about what they wanted out of a building that would be both a home and a base for whatever commercial activity they were engaged in, usually on agricultural land, sometimes incorporating light industry, and were usually located in rural lowland areas. But who were the people building them?

Museum of London hypothetical but informed reconstruction of a villa room, including the original mosaic, from Bucklesbury villa. Source: Archaeology Travel

Guy de la Bédoyère comments that as well as having no names of any villa owner in Britain, we do not even know if a house remained with one family throughout its occupation, whether it was owned by one person and rented to another, whether a town resident employed a manager to care for the operation, or whether, in the bigger and more complex arrangements of multiple buildings, multiple families occupied the villa.  It is not even known whether villas were inherited by family members on the death of the owner, although it is assumed that this must have been the case, unless the villa was built with a financial loan, in which case it may have reverted to whoever had made the loan.  There’s no single answer to who owned both the villa and the surrounding land, but archaeology is always the realm of multiple possibilities.

Holme House villa in Yorkshire. Source: PJO Archaeology

First of all, building a villa required wealth.  Coinage was in use, but payments could be made in the form of farm produce (e.g. barley, wheat and oats), livestock (e.g. cattle, sheep and pigs), manufactured goods, and anything else that builders and craft specialists particularly required.  The arrival of Rome probably created wealth amongst the best-positioned farmers and craftsmen.  As the requirements of the Roman army and Rome’s administrators became clear, middlemen will have thrived, and certain craft specialists will suddenly have become important suppliers.  Farmers produced the food that fed the army.  There were doubtless many downsides to the arrival of Rome, but for those in a position to take up the opportunities offered, there was the chance to become very wealthy very quickly.  The opportunity to contribute to an organized economy, may have created layers of wealth in the areas around forts and towns.  “Romanization” of British people, at first a tactic, will have created its own momentum, and as this happened the once alien styles of Roman life were copied. 

I bought this piece of willow pattern china on eBay for £2.99 for a post I am writing about objects that I dig out of my garden. No-one would mistake it for a piece of 17th or 18th Century Chinese porcelain because for one thing it’s not porcelain (it is dishwasher proof, microwave proof and a very solid piece of crockery) and it is clearly not hand-painted. Finally, willow pattern was invented in Britain, not China.  It illustrates how something exclusive, prestigious and elite will always eventually find a path to the lower echelons in the form of something with a similar appearance but much less refined in all its elements.

Whether looking at buildings or objects, it is worth remembering that grand cultural innovations, originally exclusive to invaders or the super-rich, inevitably trickle down from the wealthiest upper echelons to those further down the status ladder as cheaper versions become available.  The process of fashion tied in with social ambition is an ancient phenomenon, but a useful analogue is Chinese porcelain in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  At first only the super-wealthy could afford Chinese porcelain, but as it became popular in Britain, local potteries began to make inferior copies and cheaper ways of producing it were invented, making it even more affordable.  Eventually, tea-sets and dinner sets that looked like Chinese ones were fashionable in all but the most impoverished households.  It’s the same with imported foods, like exotic spices and interior design.  As Rome became part of everyday life, and the wealthy, whether Roman or Romano-British, conspicuously differentiated themselves from the poor by their adoption of Roman ideas and designs, those who could eventually afford to copy the rich, even in small, simple ways, would do so, differentiating themselves from their own social inferiors.  Quality and integrity of concept was usually compromised in this process, but a degree of  the original idealized vision would be reproduced.

Gorhambury villa, near St Albans, was built within an Iron Age enclosure. Source: Neal et al 1990 (cover image)

Some of the villas were probably built by what are known as Romano-British landowners on their own land.  Romano-British is a term used to describe indigenous British people living under Roman occupation.  Rossett and Burton were on the land of the Deceangli, who were mentioned above.  Although not much is known about them, the absence of any records of conflict implies that the transition to a life under Roman rule was relatively painless, with life continuing much as it had before.  Still, the influence of Rome filtered within a generation into many areas of life, and villas began to spring up in the landscape.  Sometimes rectangular villas are built over the remains of circular Iron Age roundhouses, which suggests that they were built by local people rather than Roman opportunists and may have had something to do with the relationship between these villa builders and the Roman economy.   

Julian Baum’s reconstruction of the fortress at Chester and the outer buildings in the mid 3rd Century.  Source: Take27 Ltd

Where a villa does not appear to have been built on the site of an earlier Iron Age farm, this may have been the result of new opportunities being taken up by Romano-British entrepreneurs in the vicinity of major Roman centres.  Urban areas were a new concept in Britain in the 1st century AD, and they will have changed the economic landscape of Britain where they were established.  Agriculture and livestock herding, once exclusive to the support of families and the local elite would now be feeding the Roman army, and although there may have been tensions about how this happened early on, some form of commercial arrangements must have been arranged as time went on, and this could have lead to considerable improvements for farmers who could take advantage of such arrangements.  As discussed above, some of these new opportunities may have been converted into wealth-producing commercial ventures, and the role of middle-men in these commercial times would have been conspicuous.  Perhaps they too invested some of their newfound earnings into the building of villas where they could emulate Roman traditions, entertain in style, and display their growing status.

Artist’s impression of Great Witcombe Roman villa, Gloucestershire, in the 4th century. Source: English Heritage

Other villas may have been established by Roman arrivals, long term occupants of Britain such as retired legionnaires who wanted to remain, perhaps because they had families.  As mentioned above, legionnaires were not permitted to marry, but there was little to stop them forming unofficial relationships with local women and having families.  The illegitimate children of such alliances were given Roman citizenship if they enlisted in the army.  So in some cases, retired legionnaires may have wanted to stay either to remain with their families or because they could see a viable way of making a living, and in doing so incorporated Roman cultural and aesthetic ideals into their new homes or investments.

Villa owners would have shared the landscape with other Romanized sites such as burials and small temples, as well as more traditional farmsteads that owed more to Britain’s Iron Age past than Rome’s arrival.  In the Rossett area none of these have been discovered, but the discovery of the villa suggests that many more sites, of various periods, have yet to be located.  It is not known what sort of relationship, if any, villa owners will have had with more traditional neighbours.

Whilst we have no idea who lived in these villas, or even if they were all lived in on a full-time basis, they represent a considerable investment of money and time, and they were clearly highly valued as places of relaxation, commercial activity and social display.

Dating Roman villas

A reconstruction of how the early villa at Sparsholt may have looked, based partly on excavations. Source: Wikipedia

Although the earliest villas were simple, and the most complex appear only in the 3rd and 4th centuries, there is no straightforward progressive model that leads us from simple=early to complex=late, because although the earliest types are simple forms, the building of simple forms continues throughout the Roman occupation of Britain.  As complex villas were built over a period of two centuries, being able to state that they were “later” than more simple ones is not actually particularly helpful.

Size, internal complexity, external flourishes, the presence of mosaics and painted plaster, underfloor heating, and a separate bath house, sometimes very large, would be examples of wealthier villa complexes.  These may have been ambitious from the start, but more usually they grew in scope over time either as their owners became wealthier, as new generations tried out new ideas, or for that matter, as they changed hands.   Putting villas into their correct chronological, social and economic context therefore requires more than a simple model of progression. Small and simple villas were built at the same time as complex villas and so, it should be remembered, were traditional round houses. 

A selection of pottery found in Roman Britain showing some of the variety  of shapes and styles available. The British Museum display includes Black-burnished ware jars, a Rusticated Ware jar, a Central Gaulish Colour-Coated Ware beaker, Trier Black-slipped Ware with white trailed decoration, Nene Valley Colour Coated Ware, a coarse ware cheese press and other fine wares. Source: Wikipedia. Photograph by AgTigress

For most archaeological structures, typology is a useful analytical tool for describing structures, but in order to place villas in a chronological sequence additional information is required.  The objects found within the villa during excavation are much better indicators of date than the building itself, and can help to build up an idea of not merely when a building was first erected, but what happened to it through its life, and how long it was occupied for.  Some objects are more diagnostic than others.  Coins are invaluable, as they were produced during fairly narrow date ranges, which are known.  The value of pottery to dating depends on the type and the style.  Some pottery types were found throughout the Romano-British period, whilst others were specific to certain time ranges and are more useful.  Mosaics, where they appear, may be used to help date a building, thanks to research that has focused on putting known mosaics into a chronological framework.

At the top is Lullingstone villa in Kent in the 1st Century, in the middle is Lullingstone villa in the 4th century (both from the English Heritage Lullingstone website, and the photo at the bottom is Lullingstone as it is today, from Guy de la Bedoyere’s book Buildings in Roman Britain.

One of the best known villa sites is Lullingstone villa.  It is extremely useful for demonstrating the multi-period nature of some of these sites, and the odd things that can happen on their route from one state to another.  It was apparently built in the decades immediately following the Claudian invasion, in the 1st Century A.D. 

  • The earliest phase was very like the Rossett villa, a winged-corridor construction, with a row of rooms backed by a linking corridor and two short wings.  One wing contained a single room, beneath which was a late 2nd century cellar, that has sometimes been interpreted as a cult room.  Unfortunately, later modifications of the building have eliminated more information about the earliest phases.  Little is known about this phase of the structure as it is obscured by later modifications and reconstructions.
  • In the early 2nd Century another building was added to the north of the house, an unusual circular shape that may have been a shrine.
  • In the later 2nd century, a number of improvements were made, suggesting either that the owners were doing rather well for themselves, or that the villa had changed hands.  A bath suite was built onto the side of the house, with an external door at the far end, perhaps indicating that it was used by visitors rather than the owners.  The cellar, whatever its use in the past, was now unambiguously a cult room, decorated with wall paintings.  Again, external access was provided.
  • The most elaborate and luxurious version of the villa dates to the mid-4th century when gorgeous mosaics, a clear indication of wealth, were put down.

The greatest and best known of the villas are in southern Britain, and are deservedly regarded as the most impressive of Rome’s contributions to British cultural life.  These include Bignor, Woodchester and Fishbourne (the latter built on top of the remains of an early Roman military installation).

Screengrab of a YouTube animation of the Roman villa at Brading on the Isle of Wight, complete with mosaics and painted internal walls.  Even though this is a late villa, in the 4th Century AD, it is a simple wing and corridor type. Source: Friends of Brading Villa YouTube Channel

The Rossett villa appears to be along the simpler end of the scale, a step up from a simple aisled house, and typical of the winged corridor type that make up the majority of the villa types found in Britain.  Pottery from the 2nd to 4th Centuries has been found.  If Trench 1 turns out to be a bath-house, this would indicate an additional level of comfort and display, although I personally wouldn’t fancy the short walk from villa to bath-house on a typical Welsh wet winter day 🙂  Stephen Grenter was saying on the Open Day that surprisingly little pottery has been found, but as the dig continues, both this week (its final week in 2021) and next year, when they hope to open the site for another six weeks, hopefully a lot more diagnostic material will be pulled out to help to define more clearly both the date (including duration) and the character of the villa and its surroundings.

A final word

Flower mosaic from Sparsholt Roman villa in Hampshire. Source: Hampshire Cultural Trust

The winged corridor villa’s footprint is so familiar that it is almost an icon in books about Roman Britain, but at the same time villas are not well understood.  It is not known what most of them looked like, from the ground up, and they could have looked very different from one another in spite of the similarity of floor plans.  It is not known who lived in them or for how long, and although it is generally thought that they were owned by their inhabitants, exceptions may have occurred and there are few indicators to suggest which were owned, which rented (if any), whether there were absentee owners who left managers in charge, how often they changed hands, and what they cost to build or buy.  It is not even known how they relate to the local and Roman economies.  In spite of all the unanswered questions, archaeologists have done a great job of building what is known from the clues within and surrounding the villas distributed across Britain.

I would like to leave the very last words with an expert, so here are Ken and Petra Dark’s conclusions about villas and the landscape in which they existed:

Through the Roman period both the villa landscape and its extent changed and acquired new attributes.  Likewise, the social and cultural system that produced it, and was enacted through it, changed.  However, the villa landscape never came to cover the whole of Britain, despite its centrality to the society and economy in those areas in which it was established.  In other parts of Britain other landscapes continued to co-exist with it, whether the ‘barbarian’ native region to the north of Hadrian’s Wall . . . or the ‘native’ landscape of the north and west [Dark and Dark. p.75]

Hopefully, the Rossett villa will contribute more to our developing understanding the landscape of northeast Wales.

For those wanting to keep an eye on the Rossett villa excavation, its aftermath and future plans, use the hashtag #RomanRossett on Twitter to keep you updated

 

Sources (for parts 1 – 3):

Good further general reading about villas are highlighted in orange


Books and Papers:

Arnold, C.J. and Davies, J.L. 2002.  Roman and Early Medieval Wales.  Sutton Publishing

de la Bédoyère, G. 2001.  The Buildings of Roman Britain.  Tempus

de la Bedoyere, G. 2003.  Defying Rome. The Rebels of Roman Britain. Tempus

Clark, J. 2003.  Cheshire Historic Towns Survey.  Farndon. Archaeological Assessment.  Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HTS_Arch_Assess_Farndon.pdf 

Clark, J. 2003.  Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Tarporley. Archaeological Assessment.  Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/HTS_Arch_Assess_Tarporley.pdf

Collingwood, R.G. and Richmond I.A. 1969, 2nd edition.  The Archaeology of Roman Britain. Methuen

Dark, K and Dark, P. 1997.  The Landscape of Roman Britain.  Sutton

Davies, J.L. and Driver, T. 2018. The Romano-British villa at Abermagwr, Ceredigion: excavations 2010–15. Archaeologia Cambrensis, Vol. 167 (2018)

Davies, J. and Lynch, F. 2000. The Late Bronze and Iron Age.  In (eds.) Lynch, F., Aldhouse-Green, S. and Davies, J.L.  Prehistoric Wales.  Sutton Publishing

Greene, K. 1986.  The Archaeology of the Roman Economy.  Batsford

Johnson, P. 2002 (fourth edition). Romano-British Mosaics. Shire

Johnston, D.E. 1994.  Roman Villas.  Shire Archaeology

Mason, D.J.P. 2007 (2nd edition).  Roman Chester. City of Eagles.  Tempus.

Morris, M.G. 1982.  Eaton By Tarporley, SJ57176341. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 8, p.49-52
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-8.pdf

Morris, M.G. 1983.  Eaton By Tarporley, Roman Villa. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.67-73
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf

Neal, D.S., Wardle, A., and Hunn, J. 1990.  Excavation of the Iron Age and Medieval Settlement at Gorhambury, St Albans.  English Heritage
https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-1416-1/dissemination/pdf/9781848021464.pdf

Richmond, I.A. 1969. The plans of Roman Villas in Britain.  In Rivet, A.F.L (ed.) The Roman Villa in Britain.  Routledge

Rowe, J.E. 2015.  Roman Villas of Wales.  M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
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Salway, P. 1984, 2000. Roman Britain. A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press

Websites:

Aberdovey Londoner
Cefn Caer, the Roman auxiliary fort at Pennal.  By Andie Byrnes. 3rd February 2019
https://aberdoveylondoner.com/2019/02/03/cefn-caer-roman-auxiliary-fort-pennal/

Based in Churton
A touch of Rome just east of Churton #1 – Background to the Roman Road. By Andie Byrnes. 3rd April 2021
https://basedinchurton.co.uk/2021/04/13/a-touch-of-rome-just-east-of-churton-1-background/

Brading Roman Villa YouTube Channel
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuFMK_4SltShKivk0P1VG2g

Coflein
The Abermagwr Roman Villa, Cerdigion
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/405315/
Lane Farm Cropmarks, Rossett
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/409231/details.html

CPAT Regional Sites & Monuments Record
PRN 100020 – Ffrith Roman site (multiple site). Scheduled Ancient Monument FL164(FLT)
https://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/ffrith/100020.htm
PRN 86912 – Ffrith, Roman Road
https://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/ffrith/86912.htm

English Heritage
History of Lullingstone Roman Villa
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/lullingstone-roman-villa/history/

Heritage Gateway
Historic England Research Records – Monument Number 71430 (Eaton by Tarporley villa)
https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=71430&resourceID=19191

RCHAMW
Abermagwr: The remote Welsh Roman villa which produced a unique cut-glass bowl and early evidence for the slater’s craft in Wales
https://rcahmw.gov.uk/abermagwr-the-remote-welsh-roman-villa-which-produced-a-unique-cut-glass-bowl-and-early-evidence-for-the-slaters-craft-in-wales/

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales
The Roman villa that made history: Abermagwr Villa, Ceredigion 
https://rcahmw.gov.uk/the-roman-villa-that-made-history-abermagwr-villa-ceredigion/

U3A Ruthin and District
Mineralisation and Mining at Minera, North Wales.  By Peter Appleton.  Date unknown.
https://u3asites.org.uk/files/r/ruthin/docs/mineralisationandminingatminera.pdf 

Wrexam.COM
Rossett Roman villa dig underway in ‘history-changing project. 6th September 2021
https://www.wrexham.com/news/rossett-roman-villa-dig-underway-in-history-changing-project-208603.html

Wrexham County Borough Museum and Archives
The Rossett Lead Pig
www.wrexhamheritage.wales/explore/#rossettpig

 

Milepost to the north of Crewe-by-Farndon

Someone has been tidying up the verges and hedges that flank the road that passes through Crewe-by-Farndon towards Worthenbury, and they have done such a good job that one of the mileposts that I went hunting for when I was writing the post about the Chester to Worthenbury turnpike (toll road) has been revealed.  And here it is!   It is in the grass verge on the west side of the road, just before Caldecott Farm.

If you want to know more about these 1898 mileposts, have a look at my post about them here.  They post-date the turnpike, which went out of service in 1877.  Turnpikes were all supposed to have mileposts, so it is probable that when Cheshire County Council was first established was formed on 1st January 1889, and when all of the local turnpikes eventually came under council control, they replaced the original ones, which were probably rather dilapidated by then, with nice shiny new ones.

Not so shiny and new now, but still hanging on in there!  It is located just short of a farm on the left heading south (the east), and is on the west side of the road about two or so metres to the right of a telegraph pole.  I will go back and get an exact What Three Words location for it next time I’m in that area, but for the time being it is roughly at ///rainfall.duplicity.proofs.