Excavating the CA archive: Roman villas – part 2

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 5 December. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI358, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.


Last month’s column on Roman villas explored some of the best- and least-known sites in southern England, from glorious but forgotten Gadebridge to illustrious and industrious Fishbourne. In this second column on the Roman villas of Britain, I turn to a series of such sites across Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, and Northamptonshire, including names and places, people, and events both familiar and obscure.


Most readers of Current Archaeology have probably visited Verulamium, modern-day St Albans, one of the best-preserved Roman towns in the country and the site of excavations by generations of archaeologists. But what of nearby Gorhambury? Does the name even ring a bell? I suspect not – it didn’t for me, to my shame. But the magazine paid two visits – CA 56 (May 1976) and 87 (June 1983) – to this fascinating Roman site only minutes west of its more-famous neighbour. What’s more, the site is regularly open to the public and includes not just Roman but also Elizabethan and 18th-century features, set in a stunning parkland estate (see www.gorhamburyestate.co.uk).

Feature in CA 87 looking at Gorhambury
Often overlooked in favour of its more-famous neighbour Verulamium, Gorhambury boasts a well-preserved Roman theatre and a villa overlying an Iron Age farmstead. CA paid a couple of visits to the site, including in issue 87, seen here.

First discovered in 1847, Gorhambury had been periodically explored from that time onwards, including in the 1930s, the 1950s and 1960s, and, most recently, the 1970s, when David Neal, who had been looking for a villa to excavate as a follow-up to his fieldwork at nearby Gadebridge, set to work. Gorhambury’s proximity to St Albans explains both its exceptional remains and how it came to be overlooked by later archaeologists, outshone by the sheer scale of its neighbour. Neal’s fieldwork demonstrated the significance of the site, however, and its intimate relationship with Verulamium.

Most important is the well-preserved Roman theatre, dating to c.AD 140 (other Roman theatres are known at Colchester and Canterbury), and excavations here demonstrated continuous use and adaptation across the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries AD, with final works around AD 300 extending the theatre to seat approximately 2,000 spectators. The theatre alone, carefully redeveloped in 2014 to make it more accessible to visitors, makes Gorhambury significant, but the site includes a villa overlying an Iron Age farmstead, along with an intriguing series of remains thought to comprise a 1st-century AD shrine.


Since the late 1970s, two stalwarts of community archaeology have been involved in fieldwork at Piddington, five miles south-east of Northampton. Roy and Diana Friendship-Taylor are two of the most important names in British archaeology of the past 40 years, not just through their fieldwork, but also through their leadership of organisations such as Rescue – the British Archaeological Trust (http://rescue-archaeology.org.uk).

Cover of CA 117 showing Piddington
Piddington has featured in CA several times over its 40 years of operation, including in CA 117 – when it appeared on the cover (shown here) – and, most recently, in CA 356.

Since 1979 onwards, almost without a break, the Upper Nene Archaeological Society have been excavating at Piddington at weekends throughout the year and for several weeks at a time in the summer. This makes the project one of the longest-running in British archaeological history. CA has paid repeated visits to the site over the years, commencing in CA 82 (May 1982) and revisiting in CA 117 (November 1989), 146 (January 1996), 182 (November 2002), 200 (November/December 2005), 297 (December 2014), and 356 (November 2019). This run of articles gives Piddington the distinction of being the most-featured Roman villa in the history of the magazine, a deserved accolade for all involved.

A museum near the site, housing finds from the excavations, is also run by the Upper Nene Archaeological Society (http://unas.org.uk). The many discoveries made at Piddington since 1979 have given us an understanding of the site’s chronology and development (it began as a Late Iron Age site of some importance, as attested by quantities of imported pottery, especially from the Rhineland); of its possible first owner (tile stamps give the name of one Tiberius Claudius Severus); of its appearance (a somewhat gaudy colour scheme of red plaster walls offsetting sky-blue and cream roof-tiles); and of its later use (clear evidence of ‘squatter’ occupation from around AD 330, with signs of a shanty settlement among the ruins, including fires laid at the centre of the old tessellated floors and masses of animal bone piled up along the walls).


Frocester (to rhyme with Gloucester) is a Roman villa with a difference. The site began life in the Late Iron Age, but its unknown occupants backed the wrong side during the Roman invasion and it took two centuries to recover and become a ‘proper’ villa. CA 88 (August 1983) recounts the first 20 years of excavation by the site’s farmer/excavator, Eddie Price, and the magazine returned 17 years later in August 2000 to pick up the story in CA 169.

Frocester lies ten miles south of Gloucester, and is better known to architectural historians as the site of one of the largest stone-built tithe barns in the country. Eddie Price excavated there every summer from 1960 for over 40 years. His fieldwork demonstrated that the oldest remains date back to the Bronze Age, when a massive ditch ran right through the area, and that in the Iron Age, Frocester was clearly a wealthy and thriving settlement. Around the time of the Roman Conquest, however, events took a turn for the worse: finds from the site indicate that the conquest marked a major change from a high- to low-status settlement. Samian ware is conspicuous by its scarcity and plainness, and the coinage recovered tells much the same story. Only around AD 275 did change take hold. The old compound was abandoned, with every stone stripped from it, and a new villa was built on an adjacent site to the north-east. This was a villa of the ‘Germanic’ type, with a large central room that was more like a medieval hall than a conventional villa, and that had a kitchen and hearth at one end. Another dramatic change then occurred in the latter half of the 4th century, around AD 360, when the ‘new’ villa was given a major makeover. Frocester is then even more unusual in that it was one of the few villas where occupation appears to continue into the 5th and 6th centuries, albeit occupation of an increasingly impoverished type.

Image of the mosaics at Stanwick in CA 97
The Roman villa and village of Stanwick was destroyed by gravel-digging in the late 1980s. excavation at the site, which featured in CA 97, uncovered three mosaics in the southern end of the winged-corridor villa.

CA 97 (July 1985) and 106 (September 1987) visited a Roman villa and village now lost forever to development: Stanwick, near Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, was rapidly destroyed by gravel-digging in the late 1980s. Discovered as part of the survey of Saxon and medieval Raunds (see CA 75), the main building is of the winged-corridor variety, and when the topsoil was removed from the south end, three mosaics were quickly revealed. The excavation team began by thinking that Stanwick was a straightforward Roman villa, and in their first season they uncovered what was clearly the main building. Subsequently, however, the project and the site grew, and it became clear that the villa was only one component of an extensive site extending over 70 acres or more: a large village, with a villa at the end of it – or perhaps, rather, the villa forming the focus from which the village radiated. It has an interesting and complex history, and its loss to industry is a sad one, but alas indicative of many such sites that now only survive through their archives and finds.


Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 5 December. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI358’

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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