Building a Roman Villa

19 mins read

A Romano-Celtic temple-mausoleum and evidence of industry at Priors Hall, Corby

Overlooking the Priors Hall excavation site, where Oxford Archaeology East has revealed the remains of a Roman temple-mausoleum that was subsequently repurposed as a major tile- and brick-making centre. CREDIT: Oxford Archaeology East

Excavation just outside Corby has shed vivid light on the construction of a Roman villa, the reuse of an enigmatic religious building, and a bustling array of industrial activity, as Paddy Lambert explains.

The Northamptonshire town of Corby lies in a region well-known for the richness of its natural resources – including limestone and iron ore – meaning that this area’s history has long been entwined with industry. The county is also rich in Roman villas, with over 40 examples known (including, close to Corby, at Little Weldon and Stanion). Both of these characteristics came to light during our excavation at Priors Hall, which has added another site to this tally, as well as compelling evidence for industrial activity. The extensive villa remains were first identified during trial-trenching in 2011 and 2016. Nestling within a sweeping stream valley, its surviving limestone walls still bore traces of painted wall-plaster, and recovered pottery fragments suggest it was occupied in the 1st-3rd centuries AD.

More recently, between summer 2019 and spring 2020, a hardy team of archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology East carried out the excavation of a 1.3ha site adjacent to the villa. These works, undertaken as part of a wider scheme of archaeological investigation ahead of the Priors Hall Park development (a mixed-use urban extension to Corby that includes the construction of 5,000 new homes by Urban&Civic plc), revealed that this area was far more significant than previous excavations had suggested. Shedding dramatic light on the site’s Roman roots, our discoveries have been nothing short of spectacular: a panoply of features providing breathtakingly rare insights into the construction and economic life of a Roman villa, and reflecting a phenomenon that occurred across wide areas of Roman Britain during the 3rd to 4th centuries AD. At the heart of it all, the key discovery was a stone-built Romano-Celtic temple-mausoleum, probably associated with an earlier phase of the villa – though this ceremonial structure later had a rather more worldly function, repurposed to house a complex of tile and pottery kilns. This subsequent industrial activity may have continued well into the 4th century and perhaps formed a commercial arm of the estate. Before we explore these industrial aspects, though, what can we learn from the temple-mausoleum itself?

This site plan shows the key features recorded during OA East’s investigations. CREDIT: Oxford Archaeology East
EXPLORING MAUSOLEA

Romano-Celtic temples and mausolea both represent fascinating Roman architectural phenomena. They share a relatively similar basic plan – a squared wall (ambulatory or precinct) enclosing a smaller structure usually known as the cella – though with variations in the size and placement of certain elements, as well as the terminology used to describe them. At Priors Hall, the building’s location adjacent to a Roman villa, together with its orientation facing west (as opposed to the common east-facing aspect of Romano-Celtic temples), suggest that it is likely to be a mausoleum – although the term ‘temple-mausoleum’ will be used in this article with affectionate ambiguity.

Mausolea of this period are rare nationally, though there is a comparable example at Lullingstone Villa in Kent, which is strikingly similar in size and arrangement; other generally similar sites include another Kentish example at Stone-by-Faversham and, closer to home, the temple-shrine at Irchester in Northamptonshire. These buildings vary in ground-plan: square examples tend to be more common, but hexagonal forms are also known, for example at Colchester. The Romans called these funerary constructions monumentum, and they were physical embodiments of the need to perpetuate the memory of the high-status people who built them. Rather than meeting the spiritual needs of a local population, they represent testimonies to the successful acculturation of those Romano-British elites.

The temple-mausoleum at Priors Hall stood on a prominent ridge at the uppermost western point of the site. Constructed from local limestone, it consisted of a well-built single-celled square building, set within a rectangular courtyard bounded by stone walls that formed a square precinct. Two of the precinct walls – the southern and eastern walls – survived, standing between one and four well-dressed courses high and comprising a 0.8m-wide foundation with a narrower wall built on top. The precinct that they enclosed measured approximately 14m x 17m (subsequent activities had obscured the line of the western wall and the probable site of the entrance to the courtyard) and its floor was surfaced with compacted natural limestone.

The main elements of the temple-mausoleum, as well as aspects that were recycled and reused by the Roman tilers who later worked on the site. CREDIT: Oxford Archaeology East

At the heart of this courtyard stood the cella. Three of its original four walls, 1m wide, survived in varying states of preservation, suggesting that the small chamber had an interior space of c.4.1m by 4.6m. The cella, crowned with a limestone-tiled roof and clearly standing at a considerable height (as indicated by the width of its walls), would have stood proud in the local landscape, an impressive commemoration to the memory of its financier. Interestingly, 600m directly to the west of the mausoleum lies an Early Bronze Age henge monument, which was excavated in 2012. Might this much-earlier feature provide an intriguing temporal link in monumental architecture? Links between Roman and prehistoric monumentation and funerary landscapes are known, but not fully understood.

Based on trends in the construction of known Roman mausolea, and viewed through the prism of its villa neighbour, it is probable that the Priors Hall temple-mausoleum dates to the late 2nd to 3rd century – it is hoped that forthcoming radiocarbon dates will clarify this. The structure appears to have fronted directly on to a road or track, which was represented by two parallel drainage ditches that ran north-west to south-east, bisecting the wider site. Although no road surface survived in situ, some of the raised agger and metalling material was excavated from the fills of its ditches.

The southern precinct wall (shown here) and its eastern equivalent survived to between one and four courses high; the foundations were 0.8m wide. CREDIT: Oxford Archaeology East

Not surprisingly, the later reuse of the building and its precinct had removed any architectural embellishment, such as painted wall-plaster, that related to its life as an ancestral monument. Nor were any human remains or artefacts associated with its ceremonial function recovered, though this is not wholly uncommon. A small set of notches along the southern and northern faces of its interior cella walls may hint at its former life, however, perhaps reflecting suspension attachments for ossuary cubicles, or beam slots for a raised floor.

FROM TOMB TO TILERY

At some point in the later 3rd to early 4th century, the Priors Hall landscape underwent a dramatic evolution from a bucolic villa estate into a hub of industrious activity, populated by dozens of workers and animals. The earlier temple-mausoleum building, which was probably semi-dilapidated by this point, was chosen as a suitable site for a tilery, with two kilns being constructed, the larger of which utilised the rather sad shell of the former cella.

The reuse of sacred or funerary architecture is not altogether uncommon during this period: tombstones were often recycled in the construction of town walls, while small-scale industry within temple structures is also known. Across the wider Roman Empire, graffiti tells us that mausolea were used as toilets, for illicit sexual encounters, and even just as a bed for the night. However, the scale and intensity of evidence for the fundamental change in function of a large funerary monument – as we observed at Priors Hall – is extremely rare. While it will never be known for sure, the repurposing does not appear to reflect any concerted effort on the part of the tiler-builders to eradicate or deface the memory of the original owner, but simple, prosaic opportunism, seizing on a stone shell suitable for a kiln.

Once the mausoleum went out of use, the cella’s western doorway was bricked up using tegula and thick mortar (as shown here), and a squared pottery kiln built immediately outside it. CREDIT: Oxford Archaeology East

In this new guise, the walls of the precinct were no longer required and were extensively robbed during this initial phase – the material was reused as trackway metalling, as well as in the construction of various kilns. Similarly, three of the four outer walls of the central cella structure were levelled and its stone recycled. Its western doorway was bricked up using tegula and thick mortar, and a squared pottery kiln built immediately outside it. Meanwhile the cella’s eastern wall was partially demolished to facilitate the construction of a new entrance, and a small tile kiln was constructed parallel to the line of the eastern wall. This smaller kiln mirrored the construction of the cella-kiln: it was orientated north to south, and utilised the lower dressed courses of the earlier wall as its western edge, while its internal infrastructure had an arched pilae system. Both kilns were fired from the same stoke pit – the eastern one of the two described below – and, while it is unknown whether they were in use at the same time or in succession, the proximity of both may suggest a relationship of production, perhaps for different types of tile or brick.

The remaining interior surfaces of the cella walls and other exposed surfaces were lined with a thick layer of clay to seal them, with particular focus placed on the small notches along the faces of the walls. This activity left the small interior space conveniently exposed and the original floor level, probably originally of opus signinum, was dug out and lowered by approximately 0.8m. A foundation of reused flat building stones and tiles was then constructed to build the floor level back up, and atop this new surface, a network of between 16 and 18 mortared pilae stacks (columns of tiles) were placed, each 0.4m tall, acting as the framework of the kiln. The pilae were spaced exactly 0.16m apart, with narrow mortared vents positioned on a 45º angle between each one, allowing the air to circulate efficiently during firing. Overall, the pilae formed an arched configuration above a large, deep linear clay-lined flue that had been cut east to west, bisecting the floor.

One of the site’s star finds: a well-preserved lime kiln that was so large it could comfortably accommodate the whole excavation team. CREDIT: Oxford Archaeology East

As mentioned above, the pottery and tile kilns were powered by two enormous stoke pits – each measuring between 3m and 5m wide and up to 1.5m deep. These were dug through the courtyard against the western and eastern walls. A network of more than 11 sub-square post-pads, again constructed out of whatever the builders could find, were laid out flanking the cella structure on its northern and southern sides. These would have provided the footings for large posts that once supported a wooden roof, protecting the tile kiln from the elements. Two substantial squared blocks, hewn from sandstone and certainly linked to the entrance of the original temple-mausoleum, had been utilised for this purpose on the southern side of the cella. There was clear evidence that the old roof for the cella had been demolished or had simply collapsed, since the original Collyweston slate tiles were dotted all over subsequent rebuild elements. The presence of numerous other posts around the courtyard suggests that large parts of the area were enclosed, perhaps at different times of its industrial use.

The completed kilns would have produced enormous quantities of bricks and tiles – during the excavation, we encountered over 10 tonnes of just the waste product! The original output must have been staggering. The waste assemblages suggest predominantly tegula roof-tile production, although other products, such as Bessales, Pedales, and Lydion floor tiles, were probably also produced. In the surrounding precinct courtyard, the tileries operated alongside numerous subsidiary industries, including two pottery kilns to the west, another enigmatic kiln built into the southern wall of the cella (the function of which is currently uncertain), and a small oven.

This aerial photograph shows the temple-mausoleum site in relation to the known Roman villa, which lies beneath the adjacent field. The large dark area is the location of the stone quarry before it was excavated. CREDIT: Oxford Archaeology East

One of the backfill deposits of the building yielded a personal and individual link to one of the tilers themselves. On this inscribed tile, sadly not complete, the tiler had used a finger to quickly scratch in his name before firing. It read ‘…EN(TI) [or IT] (F)ECIT’ (‘…NENTI has made this’). Although we do not know his full name, perhaps it was Nentius and he just did not have room to complete the inscription – but we do know he was proud of his work. Indeed, this find means that while we may never know the name of the elite owner of the villa, we do know the name of one of the normally invisible workers. We also encountered several dozen tiles with both boot and animal footprints. The former examples reflect the fact that tilers checked the dryness in the tiles before firing. The animal prints show that species such as deer, fox, dog, and cat walked across the tiles as they were laid to out to dry before firing.

Digging down through the later demolition layers of the building complex, we recovered Roman pottery, iron nails, animal bone and, inevitably, hundreds of fragments of ceramic tiles and brick. Generally, finds such as coins and metal artefacts were relatively scarce, but a handful of notable finds included a heavy lead plumb bob, its iron attaching-hoop broken – it was probably used during one of the construction phases. An enigmatic and worn Late Iron Age coin seemed to have been deliberately placed beneath one of the tile-kiln roof post-pads. This coin would have already been an antique to those that placed it there: possible votive gifts are not uncommon on building projects, even today.


This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 370. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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