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.
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.
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.
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 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 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