Category Archives: Roman

Andie

September 21, 2021

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 will talk 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
https://ourspace.uregina.ca/bitstream/handle/10294/5853/Rowe_Jennifer_200205672_MA_HIST_Spring2015.pdf?sequence=1

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

 

Hidden Holt: An illuminating must-visit exhibition currently at Wrexham Museum

Cover of the free English/Welsh booklet accompanying the exhibition published by Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021.

My thanks to Brian Payne of the Holt Local History Society for alerting me to the fact that the Hidden Holt exhibition has been launched at the Wrexham County Borough Museum, running until 29th January 2022.  I went last week my father, and we were both bowled over by how good it was.

The exhibition introduces the Roman tile, brick and pottery works that were spread across a number of fields to the northwest of Holt, next to the river Dee.  It uses an excellent combination of original artefacts, video,  information boards and both old and new photographs and diagrams to track the twin stories of the site itself and the history of its discovery and excavation.  Holt Local History Society has a long-standing interest in the Roman works, and commissioned the most recent geophysical survey work at the site, so it’s great to see their contribution to the story being celebrated.

The exhibition (free to enter) is in Gallery 3, to the left as you move beyond reception and the café to enter the display areas.  I’ve given an overview below, but I seriously recommend that you just go – it is a tremendous, professionally-produced and beautifully designed little exhibition with some superb objects on display and some excellent information boards that explain what you are looking at.  You won’t regret it.  If you’re in the mood, the café serves a great coffee and what looks like a rather delicious lunch 🙂

Survey and excavation

Arthur Acton –  page 5 of the booklet accompanying the exhibition.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The story of how the site was recognized and investigated begins in the early 1600s when landowner Thomas Crue of Holt Hill suffered repeated damage to his plough on broken brickwork and eventually discovered a series of fifty 2ft-tall posts and recorded this in a letter now in the British Museum.  The letter was mentioned in the book Roman Cheshire by W. Thompson Watkins (1886).  Retired chemist and keen amateur historian Alfred Neobard Palmer read the book, and in 1905 decided to hunt for the remains that Crue had found.  He tracked down the original letter and accompanied by local vicar Jenkyn Jones, and with the permission of the landowner Mr Beard, he engaged in a series of fieldwalking expeditions that found plenty of fragments of Roman bricks, roof tiles and pottery over an area of some 20 acres.

Fold-out plan of the kilns at Holt, published by Grimes in 1930. (Scanned from my copy of “Holt, Denbighshire”)

Palmer was not an archaeologist, and the task of excavating the site was taken on by Wrexham solicitor and amateur archaeologist Arthur Acton.  Work began in 1907,  in Wall Lock Field, and continued until 1915.  Although he lectured prolifically about the site, Acton never published his work.  Fortunately some of his records survived, and he sold the finds to the National Museum of Wales.  After five years of admirable work, the Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum, William F. Grimes who was better known as a prehistorian, published a comprehensive 235-page report on the site, complete with site plans, photographs and object illustrations.

Photograph and logo from the Archaeological Survey West website: http://www.archaeologicalsurveywest.co.uk/

Work did not stop there, and during the 1970s Geoffrey Bevan conducted both field walking activities and an excavation, finding Roman material that filled dozens of boxes, which were donated to the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.  Most recently, Holt Local History Society commissioned Archaeological Survey West to carry out a geophysical survey of the site,  to accurately fix the positions of the known buildings and to identify any unexcavated and previously unknown structures.  This was successfully completed in 2018, and demonstrated that the Holt complex was even bigger and more complex than Grimes, via Acton, had been able to determine.  There is, of course, the potential for future field research.

The exhibition

Piece of a colander manufactured at Holt, on display at the exhibition

The exhibition is based mainly around discoveries made during the Acton excavations, using the Grimes and later reports to explain what was found and what has been discovered since.  Between them, Crue, Palmer, Acton, Grimes, Bevan, Holt Local History Society and Archaeological Survey West have produced a history of what lies beneath those lush green fields, and this is what the exhibition introduces.

As usual usual the exhibition’s narrative is arranged in a clockwise direction, so turn left as you walk in to Gallery 3.  The exhibition begins with a video that explains the history of survey and excavation and then talks about the site itself.  It is well worth taking a seat and watching.  It lasts about 15-20 minutes and is chock-full of information with some terrific photographs, diagrams and artist impressions of what various structures may have looked like.   The technique of superimposing building plans over a modern aerial view of the fields is particularly useful for understanding how the site was composed and what each element consisted of.   From there, the excellently designed displays take the visitor through the site’s history.

Site plan of the Roman tile and pottery work displayed in the exhibition. Also in the excellent booklet accompanying the exhibition, full details in Sources below. Click to see a bigger version with fully legible text.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The site was more elaborate than I realized, composed of a number of buildings as well as the kilns.  The image on the right is shown at full size in the exhibition, and shows how big a complex the Holt tile, brick and pottery works actually was.  This is a bang-up-to-date site plan, combining the information provided by Grimes in 1930 with the details obtained by Archaeological Survey West in 2018. What this and a lot of Acton’s photographs makes clear, is that the site was a fully integrated operation combining industrial, public and domestic architectural components. A senior manager had his own house, complete with hypocaust (under-floor) central heating, there was a public bath house, presumably for workers, a series of kilns for the manufacture of mainly tiles and pottery, and a barracks that may have housed workers, or alternatively a detachment of the Roman army based at Chester at this time.  The features shown in blue are unrecorded / unexcavated.  Those in dark brown are the building locations fixed in 2018, and those in paler brown those estimated by Grimes based on Acton’s work.

The main kiln plant at Holt, published by William Grimes in 1930. Scanned from my copy.

Although now the archaeological remains are covered with fields, Acton used photography extensively, and his site plans were detailed, many published by Grimes, and used in the exhibition to reveal and explain the different components of the site.  This is very helpful not only for understanding how the site worked as an end to end operation, but is invaluable for putting the objects into context.  Objects on their own tell a limited story, but when contextualized in terms of the buildings in which they were produced and used, come to life.  The exhibition does this brilliantly.

It was a good location for a tileworks.  Building stone was available in the immediate locality thanks to the Bunter sandstone, alluvial clay was available locally, woodlands were present for the provision of fuel to feed the kilns, and the river Dee provided direct access to Chester, 12 miles / 19km away, passing the civic settlement at Heronbridge.  The generally flat environment meant that building of roads was not particularly laborious.

The visitor is taken step-by-step through the production process, explaining how the kilns and drying sheds  were built and how they functioned. The kilns formed two main units, a larger (139ft / 52m long, consisting of a row of six kilns) and smaller twin-kiln built on the natural bed-rock.  Each kiln was rectangular and tile-lined with an arched stoke-hole for access.  A round pottery kiln was also located on the edge of the main kiln complex.  The oven floor was fascinating, consisting of a raised floor of tiles plastered with clay that were pierced with holes that acted as vents.  I was fascinated to see that the drying shed was provided with a hypocaust, better known as the under-floor heating system that was used in villas and bath houses.  These, like the kilns, were stoked and kept hot to ensure that the tiles, pottery and bricks were dried through after firing.

The exhibition displays a number of artefacts, including a roof tile, a brick and a triangular atefix tile marked with the letters LEGXXVV, an abbreviation for the twentieth legion, known as Valeria Victrix (valiant and victorious).  The antefix tile, one of which is shown in the exhibition (photo left and illustration below) also shows Legio XX’s dramatic running boar symbol.   Legio XX was stationed at Chester from AD87, and the Holt works appears to have been established shortly afterwards, reaching its peak output at around AD135, and falling out of use in the mid 3rd Century.

Antefix tiles from Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

A display board shows the vast range of products that were made at the site, including floor and roof tiles, and a variety of different pottery forms.  There is a good explanation of how the roof tiles, called imbrex and tegula (plural imbrices and tegulae), worked.  A good memory for me – I dug up a lot of these tiles at my first ever dig in Silchester.  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.

Green-glazed ware found at Holt. Source: National Museum of Wales

Examples of the pottery found at the site are on display, with some really fine examples, including ollae (jars), urcei (jugs), lagenae (flagons), cattili (plates), calices (drinking bowls), and testa (lids).  I particularly liked a partly preserved ceramic colander and a mortarium (the latter working like a modern mortar, but with bits of stone embedded into the interior base of the pot to create a rough surface for grinding spices and seeds).  Green-glazed pottery, a luxury ware that I had never come across before, was also made at the site.  It is rare in Britain, so it was excellent to see examples of it on show.  A photograph of the green glazed pottery found at Holt (from the National Museum of Wales website) is shown below.

The workers also turned their hands to other types of objects made from clay – one cabinet shows a marvellous piece of shaped water pipe that was manufactured at the site.

Section of water pipe manufactured at Holt

All of the output manufactured at the works was sent by boat downriver to Chester, the exhibition suggests that a short may have been dug out at Holt in order to make loading the ceramics easier, its course marked today by annual floodwaters that, as they recede, leave a line of floodwater in what could well be a Roman channel.

Samian pottery found at Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

Interestingly, the exhibition shows that even though huge amounts of pottery was being made on-site, there were particularly favoured types of ceramic being imported.  Samian (terra sigillata), a truly gorgeous luxury dark red ware that has moulded decoration on its lustrous surfaces, was found in surprising quantities.  This was usually imported from south-eastern Gaul (France); a Roman experiment with samian production in southern England produced inferior pottery and was very short-lived.

Imported black-burnished ware was also found at Holt, which the exhibition explains was made in Dorset.  At sites in southern England it is common (we found bucket-loads of it at Silchester), but when found at northern sites, it was probably imported to fulfil a particular need or desire.  The works manager might have wanted high-status ceramics, and any soldiers at the site may have craved the comforts of home, but another option is that it was being imported for use by a nearby settlement.  One of the findings of the 2018 geophysical survey was the presence of a possible Roman fort or marching camp to the west of the site, suggesting that the site may have been on the edge of an unidentified vicus settlement, or village.

Coins on display in the exhibition.

The coins at the site are invaluable for their contribution to creating a timeline for development of the site, but are works of art in their own right.

The exhibition provides another insight into the inhabitants of the site by displaying some of the other objects they owned, like small pieces of jewellery made of bronze, manicure equipment, a beautifully crafted needle and a delectably delicate silver spoon.  These are objects that people chose and kept on them, intimate reminders that these were real people who lived complicated lives in which personal appearance had an important role.

Silver spoon from Holt on display at the exhibition. Source: Grimes 1930

A map at the end of the exhibition was riveting, showing how widespread Roman presence in northeast Wales actually was, showing everything from single find-sites to industrial sites like that at Holt, the settlements at Heronbridge and Plas Coch, and the villa at Rossett, the latter two sites both recent discoveries.  It looks as though there will be more Roman discoveries in the future, filling out a picture not merely about the activities of Romans in Britain, but on their interactions with local communities, something which remains poorly understood.

Museum details

The museum is an excellent resource, a small but modern with excellent displays and a lot of great information on professionally produced display boards into context. At the time of writing (August 2021) masks must be worn and you need to leave your name and telephone number with reception.  For opening days and times, plus directions, see the Wrexham County Borough website:
http://old.wrexham.gov.uk/english/heritage/wrexham_museum.htm

A booklet accompanying the exhibition is available both in the museum foyer and under the video screen in Gallery 3.  The cover and some of the pages from the booklet are shown at the top of the post, and full details are in Sources, below.   A leaflet, Holt: Legacy of the Legions, is also available from the museum, or can be downloaded.

It is a real shame that the Hidden Holt gallery is only a temporary feature, but Wrexham Museum has a lot more to see, and I will be posting about some its permanent displays in the future.

Sources:

Books and papers

Grimes, W.F. 1930.  Holt, Denbighshire:  Twentieth Legion at Castle Lyons.  Y Cymmrodor.  Society of Cymmrodorion.

Ward, M. 1998. A collection of samian from the legionary works-depot at Holt.  In (ed.) Bird, J. Form and Fabric.  Oxbow Monographs 80.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333155555_A_collection_of_samian_from_the_legionary_works-depot_at_Holt

Ward, M. 1998. Some finds from the Roman works-depot at Holt.  Studia Celtica 32:43-65
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311789557_Some_finds_from_the_Roman_works-depot_at_Holt

Booklets / leaflets

Wrexham Heritage Service 2021.  Hidden Holt.  The Story of a Roman Site.  The Discovery of a Roman Legionary Tile and Pottery Works at Holt, near Wrexham.  (Booklet accompanying the exhibition in both English and Welsh)

Holt Castle Conservation and Interpretation Project.  Holt. Legacy of the Legions.  An introduction to the history of the Legionary Works Depot at Holt. (Leaflet, including site plan, available from the museum)
http://old.wrexham.gov.uk/assets/pdfs/heritage/holt_castle/holt_legacy.pdf

Websites

Hidden Holt
Wrexham Museum
https://www.wrexhamheritage.wales/?exhibition=hidden-holt-the-story-of-a-roman-site

Hidden Holt – Roman history revealed in a new Wrexham Museum exhibition
Wrexham Council News
https://news.wrexham.gov.uk/hidden-holt-roman-history-revealed-in-new-wrexham-museum-exhibition/

Holt Local History Society
https://holtlhs.weebly.com/

National Museum of Wales
https://museum.wales/

Roman Glazed Pottery from North Wales
National Museum of Wales
https://museum.wales/articles/1327/Roman-glazed-pottery-from-North-Wales/

The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britian by Vivien Swan (database)
https://romankilns.net/

Who was Bishop Bennet and why do we travel his Way?

The official 10-page Bishop Bennet Way leaflet can be downloaded at the end of this post

Threading its way all around the immediate area is the Bishop Bennet Way.  It is completely unavoidable on maps of the area, picked out in the lines of green horizontal triangles that mark a “Recreational Route” on the OS map, or the pink diamonds on the Public Map Viewer.

The Bishop Bennet Way follows a most circuitous route incorporating both roads and footpaths, and has been established mainly for the benefit of horse riders and mountain bike riders, but is very also popular with walkers.

Section of the Bishop Bennet Way near Churton. Cheshire West and Chester Public Map Viewer.

I first noticed it when walking down Pump Lane in Churton.  Where the road takes an abrupt turn to the north, there are small brown signposts pointing north, along Edgerley Lane and east along Marsh Lane to something called the Bishop Bennet Way.  Whichever of the two options it takes, it loops and switches in all sorts of crazy directions, a diabolically inefficient way of getting from A to B, and eventually it falls off the edges of my OS map, still going.  Once you’ve noticed the little brown Bishop Bennet Way signposts, they seem to pop up all over the area.  So who was Bishop Bennet, where does the Bishop Bennet Way go and why, for that matter, has that route been so carefully preserved in maps and on signposts?

A signed letter from Bishop Bennet to his friend the Reverend Maurice

The first thing to establish was whether Bishop Bennet was a real person rather than a fictional character, and indeed he was.  William Bennet was a “prelate of high character and estimation.”  He was born, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, in the Tower of London on 4th March 1745. Clergymen were usually very well educated with a good academic knowledge of both Classical and British history, and many doubled up as antiquarians, explorers of all things ancient.  Although some of their excavations were distressingly destructive, their surveys often provided invaluable foundations for future work.  Bishop Bennet conformed to this model.  He was educated at Harrow School and then went on to study at Emanuel College, Cambridge, where he later became a fellow and tutor and “distinguished himself by his compositions in Latin, as well as in English, in which he discovered not only great fluency , but a lofty taste, both in prose and verse.”

Episcopal Palace, Cloyne in Cork, Ireland. Photograph by colin.boyle4.
Source: Flickr Photos.

One of his students, in whom he took a particular interest, was John Fane, the 10th Earl of Westmoreland.  The Earl went on to become Viceroy of Ireland and remembered his former mentor by appointing him first as chaplain, then promoted him to Bishop of Cork and Ross from 1790–1794 and finally Bishop of Cloyne from 1794–1820, resident in the Episcopal Palace of Cloyne.  The episcopal see (jurisdiction) of Cloyne eventually became united with that of Cork and Ross in 1835, after which the Palace was leased to a private tenant.

Bishop Bennet was a member of the House of Lords, was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1790 and married the daughter of a  fellow clergyman in 1791.  He died in London in 1820.  In his lovely, deeply affectionate and appreciative eulogy, his friend Dr Parr commented on this career path:  “From the retirement of a college he stepped at once in the circle of a court;  but has not been dazzled by its glory nor tainted by its corruptions.”

One of Bishop Bennet’s contributions to Magna Britannia, volume 2, part 2.

None of this, of course, explains what the Bishop Bennet Way was all about.  After some hunting around, I found that Bishop Bennet was a very early driving force behind the investigation and publication of some of England’s Roman roads, something that became his own personal mission, all carried out in his summer vacations.  He contributed valuable work on the subject to published histories, of various areas including those of Lincolnshire and Cornwall.  He also contributed to the multi-volume work produced by the Lysons brothers, Magna Britannia, in which they set out to explore most of England’s counties in a series of dedicated volumes.  In West Cheshire, one of the roads that he had surveyed was the path now taken by the A41, from Chester (Roman Deva) to Whitchurch (Roman Mediolanum), and his investigations were incorporated into the Roman section of the history of the Palatine City of Chester published in Magna Britannia volume 2, part 2, 1810.

Map from the official 10-page Bishop Bennet Way leaflet that can be downloaded at the end of this post

The Bishop Bennet Way was officially opened in May 1998 incorporating restored byways and bridleways, and includes sections of country roads.  It is  of course very popular with walkers too.  Cheshire Live says that it was the inspiration of Bernadette Harden who was working on a temporary basis at Beeston Castle and began to take an interest in Bishop Bennet and his exploration of the area. It took her the best part of twenty years to campaign for the restoration of bridle paths and byways, but the Bishop Bennet Way is a very suitable reward for all her hard work.

The Way starts near Beeston Castle and finishes near Wirswall on the Cheshire–Shropshire border, just to the north of Whitchurch, although it might be extended in the future.  The route covers 55km/34 miles, and 27km of that route are on minor roads, only some of which have pavements and verges.  If you are a walker trying to avoid traffic, it is worth checking the Ordnance Survey map for public footpaths along the route that bypass road.  There is often another route possible for those of us on two legs rather than four, albeit rather more circuitous.  The official route crosses some seriously busy roads, like the A41 at Milton Green, and anyone planning to do the whole route is advised to plot their track on OS Map Explorer 257.  In 2006 Bishop Bennet Way was linked to Jack Mytton Way in Shropshire, between them creating a 125km/78 mile route.

The official 10-page Bishop Bennet Way leaflet can be downloaded by clicking here (but do check for updates on the Visit Cheshire website if you are reading this after summer 2021, in case a new edition is issued). 

Section of the Bishop Bennet Way as it heads north along the edge of Middle Beachin Farm, part way between Churton and Coddington.

Sources:

Books and Papers:

The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1821
No.XVI. The Right Reverend Father in God, William Bennett, D.D. MRIA. Lord Bishop of Cloyne. , Volume V, p.263-266.  Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown
tinyurl.com/3vr2y4fh

Codrington, C. 1919.  Roman Roads in Britain. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Lysons, D., and Lysons, S. (eds.) 1810.  Cambridgeshire and the County Palatine of Chester.
Magna Britannia, being a concise topographical account of several counties of Britain, Vol 2, Part 2.
https://archive.org/details/magnabrittanicab02lyso/page/n3/mode/2up?view=theater
https://ia802608.us.archive.org/27/items/magnabrittanicab02lyso/magnabrittanicab02lyso.pdf

Websites:

Cheshire Live
Walker turns trail-blazer in route revamp
https://www.cheshire-live.co.uk/news/chester-cheshire-news/walker-turns-trail-blazer-route-revamp-5246941

Dictionary of National Biography
William Bennet
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1885-1900/Bennet,_William_(1746-1820)

Fastest Known Time
Bishop Bennet Way
https://fastestknowntime.com/route/bishop-bennet-way-united-kingdom

Historical Autographs
William Bennet, Bishop of Cloyne
https://www.historicalautographs.co.uk/autographs/bennet-william-bishop-of-cloyne-17093/

North Wales Live
Campaign uncovers long lost bridleway
https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/local-news/campaign-uncovers-long-lost-bridleway-2898100

Visit Cheshire
Bishop Bennet Way
https://www.visitcheshire.com/things-to-do/bishop-bennet-way-p176521

 

A touch of Rome just east of Churton #2 – The Walk

Yesterday I went to find the section of the Roman road that runs from Chester, through Aldford, and down to the east of Churton.   The Roman road that starts in Chester and passes to the east of Churton is Margary’s road number 6a, also known as Watling Street West. On the Cheshire West and Chester’s Public Map Viewer, the section of it that passes through Aldford and passes Churton is public footpath “Aldford FP8.”  I described the background to Roman Chester and the British road system yesterday, in part 1.  The walk I took to find the traces of the road on the ground is the subject of this post, part 2.

The Roman road that starts in Chester and passes to the east of Churton is Margary’s road number 6a, also known as Watling Street West. On the Cheshire West and Chester’s Public Map Viewer, the section of it that passes through Aldford and passes Churton is public footpath “Aldford FP8.”

Plan from David Mason’s comprehensive book “Roman Chester. City of the Eagles,” 2007, p.50. My annotations in colour, picking out structures mentioned in the text that flank Watling Street West on the start of its route to Aldford, Churton, Whitchurch and beyond. Click image to enlarge.

By AD 200, after repairs and reconstruction, with new buildings added, Deva had fulfilled all of its architect’s original hopes, and plans of the fortress at this time allow reconstruction of the first part of the original route from fortress. On today’s city plan the route of Watling Street West begins at the Chester Cross, at the head of Bridge Street. The Bridge Street stretch of the road within the fortress walls was called the Via Praetoria. The fortress headquarters (principia) and neighbouring legionary commander’s residence (praetorium) would have been located here, behind the Chester Cross, facing down Bridge Street. The building housing the Victoria pub (with a toast to our friend Jack), and the neighbouring St Peter’s Church both sit over parts of the the principia and praetorium.

Proceeding down the Via Praetoria, flanked first by the scamun tribunorum (senior officer’s quarters) on each side and then by the thermae (bath-house) on one side, and what may have been the valetudinarium (hospital) on the other side, a traveller would have crossed the Via Sagularis that ran along the inner edge of the rampart. At that point he or she would have been stopped at a large stone gateway mid-way along the southern wall of the fort, the Porta Praetoria, which would have been one of four substantial defensive checkpoints for those going in and out. Sadly, the gateway was destroyed when the Medieval defences were extended. From here, the route passed down the path of Lower Bridge Street, crossing a bridge over the Dee into what is now Handbridge and was then a canabae legionis (civilian suburb) that sprawled beyond the fortress walls.

A section of the route of 6a from Aldford to Churton – LiDAR and Ordnance Survey. Click to see the bigger image. Source:
Roads of Roman Britain online gazetteer.

Once the bridge was crossed and the canabae legionis traversed, a left-hand turn down Eaton Road follows the path of 6a/Watling Street West to Eccleston. Much of the line of the road from here is shown both on the LiDAR (remote sensing) image and the corresponding Ordnance Survey map (from the Roads of Roman Britain website). Some 2km (1.2 miles) to the south of Chester, the road passed through Heronbridge (once a large Roman civil settlement on the west bank of the Dee), before crossing the Dee again, at Aldford. A Roman presence at such crossings, such as a fortlet, roadside inn (mansio) or way-station (mutatio) was not unusual, but to date there is no evidence for any such installation at Aldford.

From Aldford the road passed to the east of Churton and the Roman works at Holt, which were on the west side of the Dee. There was no bridge but the river could be forded at low tide. There is currently no evidence that a Roman site was established at or near Farndon on the eastern bank of the river. The road continued on its way from east of Churton through Tilston and Malpas before reaching Whitchurch (Mediolanum). From Whitchurch, another stretch of Roman road ran to Wroxeter (Virconium Cornoviorum) and from there travellers could proceed either southeast to London (Londinium) or Colchester (Camulodunum), and from these bases to the rest of Europe, or south to Caerwent (Venta Siluris).

A second and short stretch of road into this long section to the north of Churton at Aldford, and is also shown on the above map. In Ivan Margary’s scheme, this stretch of is 6aa. The route had been proposed during the 19th Century, but was not confirmed until recently. Although much of the route is under modern development, sections of the proposed section of road were identified by LiDAR, confirming that the road headed south through Huntington to Alford. LiDAR also revealed what is thought to be a previously unknown Roman camp fort along the path of that road. LiDAR, a remote sensing method, has become invaluable for revealing sub-surface features without excavation.

The map on the right is from the online  Map from the online Cheshire West and Chester Public Map Viewer

The red arrow shows the line of FP8, the footpath that runs along a stretch of the original Roman road, Watling Street West (also Margary’s 6a). Although I did a circular walk, along the footpaths marked by the arrows, the photographs below show only the Roman section of my walk, between Aldford and the section of the roadway that runs east of Churton. I will post photographs of the full circular walk that incorporated the Roman section in the next couple of days. There is nothing particularly Roman about it, apart from the broad width of the track and the fairly straight route that it takes, but it makes a very fine walk in its own right, with plenty of scenery and some wide, colourful vistas. I was intending to follow FP8 as far as FP10 (the diagonal path that runs back to where three paths meet on the yellow B-road, Edgerely Road). In fact, just past the dauntingly named but aromatically inoffensive slurry bed (marked on the map above as a blue rectangle) and on the other side of a metalled lane, the grassy path was flooded with very gungy, muddy ankle-deep water and I really didn’t fancy getting a boot fool of distinctly fetid sludge. Instead, I retraced my steps and turned west to cut along the metalled track that leads from FP8 to Grange Farm (of which it is a part) and retraced my original path along FP6 to Edgerley Road (along the route that I took a couple of days ago). So there remains a small run of the Churton section of Watling Street West accessible on public footpaths that I have yet to complete.

Roman Road Watling Street West (Margary 6a) where it crosses Edgerley Road.  The section south of the road is not a public footpath.  Source: Roman Roads in Britain Gazeteer

As the above maps show, Watling Street West bypassed Farndon completely, running to its east.  There is speculation, currently unsupported by archaeological evidence, that there may have been some sort of Roman installation at the present crossing between Farndon and Holt, because this may have been the best place to ford the river.  The tile and pottery works to the north of Holt on the east bank of the Dee made use of the river for most of their transportation needs, but a connection to Watling Street West would have been desirable, via a small branch road.  Even if there was a small Roman presence at Farndon, like a fortlet, it did not attract a large community and there was no reason to divert the main line of Watling Street West.  It is only when Farndon became an expanding community, some time after the construction of a permanent bridge, that a route from Aldford to Farndon was established.  Today, the B5130 passes along the 6aa (Huntington to Aldford) route rather than the 6a (Bridge Street to Aldford) route and then heads through the middle of Churton before arriving at Farndon.  Churton grew up as a small ribbon development along this new route, its earliest buildings apparently dating to the 17th century.  This route eventually replaced the section of Watling Street West that ran from Aldford to the east of Churton.  We are lucky that Watling Street West still survives as a farm track and public footpath.

Aldford viewed from Lower Lane

Footpath FP7 across a field from Lower Lane, just short of the B5130 road that runs through Churton and  Aldford.  A short flight of wooden steps leads to a stile.

Footpath across the field from Lower Lane  The footpath goes through the hedge and heads south, to the right

There are good views over the fields as you head to the south.

Follow the footpath to the east end of the restricted byway (RB16 on the map above), turn left and proceed along footpath FP8 along the Roman road

After crossing a small metalled lane leading to Grange Farm, the track runs out and a grassy and soggy section of the footpath leads further south.

The sogginess became very wet indeed and I turned back at this point, and will resume on another day.

Looking back the way I had come, the Roman road heads back towards Aldford and I turned left towards Grange Farm and a dry route back to Churton.

A note on walking conditions. Some of the walk follows a small lane but the rest runs through fields and young woodland or coppices. It is all very easy underfoot. However, at this time of year, and following any recent rainfall, sturdy damp-proof hiking footwear is strongly recommended as there is a bit of slightly uneven ground and some very muddy sections. Hereabouts, the land is not always well drained, and standing water tends to gather and linger soggily on the surface.

Sources:

Books and journals:

Davies, H. 2008. Roman Roads of Britain. Shire Archaeology

Frere, S.S., Hassall, M.W.C. and Tomlin, R.S.O. 1988. Roman Britain in 1987. Britannia, Vol. 19 (1988), p.415-508

Jones, G.D.B. and Webster P.V. 1968. Mediolanum: Excavations at Whitchurch 1965–6. Archaeological Journal, 125:1, p.193-254

Lathan, F.A. 1981.  Farndon. The History of a Cheshire Village.  Local History Group

Margary, I. 1973 3rd edition). Roman Roads in Britain.  John Baker 1973.

Mason, D.J.P. 2001, 2007. Roman Chester. City of the Eagles. Tempus

Mason, D.J.P. 2007. Chester AD 400-1066. From Roman Fortress to English Town. Tempus.

Peel, J.H.B. 1976. Along the Roman Roads of Britain. Macmillan

Shaw, M. and Clark, J. 2003a. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Aldford Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council

Shaw, M. and Clark, J. 2003b. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Farndon Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council

Ward, S. 2013. Chester. A History. The History Press

Website resources:

Cheshire West and Chester – Public Map Viewer
https://maps.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/cwac/webmapping

Roman Roads Research Association http://www.romanroads.org/

The Roads of Roman Britain
http://roadsofromanbritain.org/index.html
http://www.romanroads.org/gazetteer/cheshire/cheshire.html

A Web-enhanced version of Roman Roads in Britain by Thomas Codrington,
published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1903
https://tinyurl.com/75ujdd43

A touch of Rome just east of Churton #1 – Background

Yesterday I went to find the section of the Roman road that runs from Chester, through Aldford, and down to the east of Churton.  I have divided this post into two parts.  The first part, below, looks at the background to Roman roads in Britain.  Part 2 describes the walk itself.

The Cuppin Street excavation one lunchtime, 1986 or 87. My photo.

As mentioned in the introduction to this blog, I trained as an archaeologist and spent my summers in the 1980s digging up various parts of England and Wales. Although technically a prehistorian, my early excavation experience also included the Roman temple site at Caerwent (Venta Silurum in southeast Wales), the basilica at Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum in Hampshire) and three consecutive seasons with the Grosvenor Museum team on the multi-period Cuppin Street site in Chester (Deva). Whenever modern building work takes place in Chester, the city’s archaeologists are given time to undertake excavations. Before we started digging it up, under the capable direction of Dr Simon Ward, the site was an informal, roughly surfaced car park that was destined to become the Magistrates Courts, originally just outside the Roman town’s walls.

A collapsed road was one of many important features that made up a truly fascinating site. The metalled road had a central dip along its depth, which we set out to investigate. Black tar from a defunct Victorian gasworks oozed into a very deep trench, where a friend and I were excavating what lay beneath the road. A wood-lined drain beneath the road had slowly collapsed over time, becoming blocked with general waste, the middle of the well-made road had gently subsided into the void, creating a bizarre concave profile. Drains in Deva were often located under roads, and could be up to 5ft deep. The Cuppin Street example was one of several major and minor roads and lanes that punctured Deva from all directions. I’ve had something of an interest in Roman roads ever since.

Deva (later Deva Victrix) was at the far northwestern edge of the roman Road network Where England and Wales met at the point where the Dee emptied into its estuary. It was a strategically important Roman base with a large command area over much of the northwest and north Wales. The legionary fortress was established by at least AD79 in the territory of the Cornovii who were based at Wroxeter (Virconium Cornoviorum), although Rome’s presence in the Chester area predates the permanent fortress by two decades. There is no indication of violence, and it is possible that the Cornovii had already come to terms with the Roman invaders, perhaps as early as AD43 when Claudius entered into treaty relationships with a number of kings. Whatever Roman presence had been here previously, the fortress was established in AD79, having been started in around AD74-75, and was built by the Second “Adtiutrix” Legion. In AD86 the second legion was sent to the Danube and was replaced by the Twentieth “Valeria Victrix” Legion, which remained until the withdrawal of the Roman army from Britain in AD 410.

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

When completed, the Deva fortress covered over 60 acres (24 hectares) on the standard playing-card plan (see site plan below), and eventually housed up to 6750 soldiers, servants and slaves, and was the headquarters of the local legion. It was a sizeable entity, 20% larger than both Caerleon (Isca) and York (Eboracum), which were both permanent legionary fortresses that were built at much the same time as Deva. It has been suggested that this size may have been needed to accommodate some unusually grand buildings under orders from an important official resident at the fortress, perhaps the provincial governor who, appointed by the emperor himself, would have required a more impressive portfolio of amenities than the usual fortress would have provided. A civilian entourage followed the military, including merchants, service providers and families of the soldiers (legionnaires were not permitted to marry until AD212, but this did not prevent them having partners and children). They were not permitted to live within the fortress so settlements (canabae legionis) grew up as suburbs immediately in the vicinity of the fortress. Also near to the fortress were the site’s cemeteries. Other small civil settlements growing up further afield at Heronbridge, a farming community, and the smaller Saltney. A tile and pottery works was established further down the Dee at Holt.

Roman roads of the Chester area. 6a and 6aa leave Chester and head south, meeting at Alford. 6a continues south, passing to the east of the Dee and the villages of Churton and Farndon. Map source: The excellent “Roads of Roman Britain” online gazetteer.

The fortress was in a good strategic position, convenient both for subjugating fractious groups in north Wales and for maintaining control over the northwest, where subjugation of the troublesome Brigantian tribe had become a priority. It was built on a rise in the land within a bend in the river Dee, meaning that it had natural defences on two sides, which contributed substantially to the security of the walled fort. The racecourse, on the Roodee, sits on the location of what was once a natural harbour, enabling a busy port to flourish on the Dee just beneath the fort. This was a natural extension of the road network, enabling the fort to be provisioned, with both soldiers and supplies being brought in from Europe, and for local commerce to develop along the coast. The Romans brought a wide selection of foods to Britain that we now think of as everyday, but were then luxury items, including apples, pears, cherries, grapes, asparagus, cabbages, carrots, onions, turnips, cucumbers, fennel and dill. High value perishables like these were much better transported by sea than road, which was both slower and could seriously jolt fragile produce. Other luxury items usually trusted to sea rather than road were high quality but delicate or costly objects like samian pottery, glass and vessels of wine. To link north and south, the river required the provision of a bridge, and this was erected where Lower Bridge Street crosses the Dee into Handbridge. In its place is now the Old Dee Bridge, dating to the 14th Century. The road went on to Whitchurch and Wroxeter, from where a number of destinations were possible. Today it is known as Watling Street West. Other roads out of Deva headed north, east and west, as shown on the map below.

The vast and complex road network was the glue that bound the impressive imperial infrastructure of forts, fortresses, fortlets, towns, inns, way-stations, camps and industrial centres. It is a remarkable cat’s-cradle of long straight stretches, most metalled or paved, others very rough, with some following much older trackways. Today many modern roads follow these original Roman routes, like Watling Street, along which the A5 now travels. Roman roads were planned out by teams of engineers and surveyors.  There are no documents detailing how the task was achieved, but the first step was probably to establish the line of the road, which was planned as a more or less straight line, as the crow flies, from a to b (in this case Chester to Whitchurch).   Just as today, the army had trained surveyors and engineers.  A map would probably have been prepared, and the required line would have been staked out

The profile of Stane Street in Surrey offers a good idea of how many roads were built in Roman Britain. Source: Epsom and Ewell History Explorer website.

Although the local geology, geomorphology and soil structure determined the exact construction of roads, they followed a basic conceptual idea of how a road should be built.  Roads were flanked by drainage ditches, which carried rainfall runoff and provided quarry material for a raised section along the road.  In profile, the roads were were usually built up above the level of the surrounding landscape and were cambered, with a curved top and sloping edges to aid drainage.  Many modern accounts describe four or more levels of construction, but Hugh Davies says that this belief, widespread but incorrect, was probably a misreading of the work of a famous Roman architect called Vitruvius who certainly describes for successive layers, but was actually referring to paved areas around prominent buildings rather than roads.  In the case of roads,  a standard arrangement was usually much simpler, consisting of two levels, although road construction methods differ from one place to another.   The standard arrangement consisted of an agger (a built-up section of road between the two drainage ditches), a layer of rough metalling consisting of stones, cobbles, pebbles  and smaller infill, and then a top layer of smaller stones and/or gravel.  Some were then topped with paving stones, which helped to preserve them.  The agger could be up to 1.2m (4ft) but was often raised only just above the level of the surrounding landscape.  Like forts and temples, roads were not strictly standardized.  Today some remarkable examples survive, but the greater majority have been destroyed or eroded.  Re-use for modern roads and expansion of urban settlement have destroyed sections of roads, while weather damage and compaction over the centuries have flattened many of the surviving roads and broken up their surfaces.

Sasha Trubetskoy’s schematic map of Roman Britain, based on
Harry Beck’s London Underground map of 1933. Click image to see a bigger version. Source:  Sasha Maps

Modern knowledge of this vast network, extending from the south coast into mid Scotland, has been built up by extensive detective work from the 18th Century onwards. Initial research into the British Roman road network was based on the “Antonine Itinerary,” written in c.AD 200, one of handful of surviving Latin documents that provide records names and other data that can help to located both and the routes of roads. The document is made up of a series of lists, and each list, or iter, provides details about the start and end point of each route, its total mileage (mille passus or m.p, meaning 1000 paces) and notes places distributed along the routes. The lists only cover about 25% of British roads, and are by no means complete, but they have been an invaluable research tool. Today, with dedicated work on foot, together with the use of remote sensing technologies from the air, each year new discoveries help to fill the obvious gaps and to reveal unsuspected stretches. One of the most important organizations contributing to this task of identifying sections of the road network is the terrific Roman Roads Research Association, which builds on work pioneered by Roman road expert Ivan D. Margary. Margary devised a numbering system to both identify and categorize Roman roads, publishing his comprehensive “Roman Roads in Britain” in 1955, which continues to be an invaluable reference. The Roman Roads Research website includes an invaluable online gazetteer, the Cheshire section of which has been assembled by David Ratledge and Neil Buckley, with many thanks for such a great resource. The outcome of all of this research is nicely captured on a cleverly conceived schematic map designed by cartographer Sasha Trubetskoy, using the London Underground of map of 1933 designed by Harry Beck as a template.

The Roman road that starts in Chester and passes to the east of Churton is Margary’s road number 6a, also known as Watling Street West. On the Cheshire West and Chester’s Public Map Viewer, the section of it that passes through Aldford and passes Churton is public footpath “Aldford FP8.”  This is the subject of part 2.

 

Sources:

Books and journals:

Davies, H. 2008. Roman Roads of Britain. Shire Archaeology

Frere, S.S., Hassall, M.W.C. and Tomlin, R.S.O. 1988. Roman Britain in 1987. Britannia, Vol. 19 (1988), p.415-508

Jones, G.D.B. and Webster P.V. 1968. Mediolanum: Excavations at Whitchurch 1965–6. Archaeological Journal, 125:1, p.193-254

Lathan, F.A. 1981.  Farndon. The History of a Cheshire Village.  Local History Group

Margary, I. 1973 3rd edition). Roman Roads in Britain.  John Baker 1973.

Mason, D.J.P. 2001, 2007. Roman Chester. City of the Eagles. Tempus

Mason, D.J.P. 2007. Chester AD 400-1066. From Roman Fortress to English Town. Tempus.

Peel, J.H.B. 1976. Along the Roman Roads of Britain. Macmillan

Shaw, M. and Clark, J. 2003a. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Aldford Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council

Shaw, M. and Clark, J. 2003b. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Farndon Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council

Ward, S. 2013. Chester. A History. The History Press

Website resources:

Cheshire West and Chester – Public Map Viewer
https://maps.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/cwac/webmapping

Roman Roads Research Association http://www.romanroads.org/

The Roads of Roman Britain
http://roadsofromanbritain.org/index.html
http://www.romanroads.org/gazetteer/cheshire/cheshire.html

A Web-enhanced version of Roman Roads in Britain by Thomas Codrington,
published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1903
https://tinyurl.com/75ujdd43