Piddington Uncovered: Beyond the Roman Villa

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Roy and Diana Friendship-Taylor have been excavating at Piddington for the past 35 years. There they have uncovered a typical Roman villa, evidence for a Roman fort, but also much more. CA‘s editor-in-chief, Andrew Selkirk, explains.


Piddington is an excavation that perhaps approaches most completely the ideal of what many people think an independent excavation should be. Piddington is a late Iron Age settlement and Romano-British villa, lying in the middle of rolling English countryside, half a mile from the small village of Piddington, some six miles or so south of Northampton.

Here Roy and Diana Friendship-Taylor have been excavating for 35 years with the Upper Nene Archaeological Society. They dig for ten days at Easter, the whole of August, and also at weekends throughout the summer. Since there wasn’t a suitable museum to curate their finds — there is no county museum for Northamptonshire — UNAS has set up its own, having purchased a  former Wesleyan chapel for £11,500 in 1993. This was converted, with the aid of various grants, including from the Heritage Lottery Fund, into a single site-museum, store, and post-excavation centre, which also forms an educational facility for children and students.

We have written about Piddington before in Current Archaeology — frequently. Indeed, they did me the honour of making me President of UNAS for three years. But it is some ten years now since I last wrote about the site (in CA 200), so it is time to bring you up to date with what is happening.

This reconstruction drawing shows Piddington as a classic wing-corridor Roman villa, with the corridor running around two sides of the house.

Revisiting the villa

We must begin with a brief recapitulation. The main villa has already been fully excavated and  back-filled, and has now been sown with grass and wild flowers (see CA 146). It was a typical stone-built Romano-British villa that began as a simple range of five rooms, and perhaps a corridor, erected around AD 90. Soon, a second similar range of rooms was added to the south of the original structure, not quite at right angles, due to the influence of an underlying military ditch. A bathhouse was then built in the 2nd century, just to the north of the first two blocks, to form quite a substantial villa, with corridors front and back. An unusual feature was the deep cellar under the main villa block, where two windows with splayed openings were preserved almost complete.

Around AD 150, a freestanding second bath suite was added to the north of the main villa building, followed by the addition of a large hall-like room, in the later 2nd century AD. Together they formed the third side of a central courtyard, now making it a classic wingcorridor villa, and virtually a courtyard villa — this being the superior form of the Roman villa. Near the bathhouse was a huge well, over 2m in diameter and 8.5m deep, that Roy persuaded the Anglian Water Company to shore-up as a training exercise, enabling the team to excavate it in safety. A fine collection of objects, such as part of a wooden bucket, wooden combs, and door furniture, together with many iron and copper-alloy objects, plus environmental evidence, including 128 species of insect, were recovered from the well.

Roy and Diana Friendship-Taylor have headed the Piddington excavations for the past 35 years.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the villa is its date. Originally constructed as a stone-built villa in the late 1st and early 2nd century AD, there was a disastrous fire in the late 2nd century, which also affected a detached building (labelled no.16) outside the villa courtyard to the northeast. This led to a complete reconstruction of the villa’s south wing and of Building 16.

The complex then continued in use through to the end of the 3rd century when, suddenly and dramatically, villa life seems to come to an end. But why? The building was not in decline — far from it, rebuilding or refurbishment was in progress, and further expansion seems to have been contemplated, as demonstrated by the discovery of large heaps of unused mosaic cubes, both limestone and red tile, ready prepared for being laid down in a new mosaic or tessellated floor. Yet suddenly, everything ceased. What happened?

Drama then decline?

Overlooking the remains of the villa: the main residential building, with its inner and outer cellars, and the integral bathhouse visible to the right.

History provides us with the possibility of a dramatic story. At the end of the 3rd century, Britain broke away from the Roman Empire under the rebel emperor Carausius and his successor Allectus. Eventually, in 296, Britain was brought back into the Empire by Constantius, and Allectus was killed in a battle — probably near Winchester. Was the owner of Piddington one of the supporters of Carausius and Allectus, hoping to refurbish and enlarge his villa under the new regime? And when that regime fell, did he fall too, and was his villa confiscated?

The villa was then in a partly reconstructed state, and with a very different sort of occupation. It seems to have been settled by perhaps eight groups of people, possibly family groups, who were deployed to work the land. A vast amount of rubbish was found in the reoccupied rooms, including huge quantities of food debris, animal bones, and pottery, with a massive pile of spent oyster shells (numbering around 4,500) in one room.

The site’s detached bathhouse, with its drain still visible flowing into what is now the modern field ditch.

Over 1,000 low-value coins of the late 3rd to later 4th century were discovered, and a horse’s head was even deposited in the corner of one room. The team called it the ‘soup-kitchen phase’, envisaging that food was being supplied from kitchens in the ruins to feed workers on the surrounding estate. This type of occupation  continued right down to the end of the 4th century.

The excavation of the main villa has now been completed, but work has been continuing on three adjacent areas. Here the team has been engaged in finding the villa’s garden, and extending the range of occupation from the late Iron Age down to the 5th century AD, when the last occupants, a small group of Saxons, were buried in the ruins of the villa’s 3rd-century north wing.

A wealth of objects, including these Roman brooches, now on display in Piddington Museum, has been recovered from the site.


Before the Romans

In the century before the Conquest, there must have been quite a substantial late Iron Age settlement at Piddington, with evidence for at least eight to nine roundhouses. The latest (and best preserved) roundhouse, recently excavated, produced a considerable amount of associated late Iron Age pottery, datable to c.AD 25. It was built of a single row of postholes, little more than 10cm in diameter and no more than 10cm apart, between which were probably woven withies, which were then covered with daub. Roy argues that these were so tightly packed together that they would have formed a very substantial wall, held together by a ring beam around the top to take the strain of a conical shaped roof. A curved gully ran around the uphill side to keep surface water away from the roundhouse.

There may even have been a ‘ritual’ area to the village: at the eastern end of the excavated area, a semicircular drip gully enclosed three cone-shaped pits, each with a ‘structured deposit’  (a currently fashionable way of saying ‘ritual’ evidence). Within the base of one of these pits was the bottom half of a glass vessel that may have been a ritual offering — given the early date of the pottery within the drip gully, the glass vessel, almost certainly imported from the Continent, must have been regarded as something rather special.

Discovering the proto-villa

All this was swept away at the Roman Conquest, with a number of pieces of army equipment reinforcing the significant body of evidence for military activity in the area — in Roy’s view, almost certainly a fort, as discussed below. But the military occupation did not last long, and around AD 55-60 a three-roomed timber structure was erected, later developed into a seven-roomed  timber building: the beginnings of a ‘proto-villa’ in which the inhabitants lived before the main villa was constructed in c.AD 100.

One of the late Iron Age roundhouses, found below the earliest phase of the proto-villa, is shown bottom left.

Fifteen to twenty years later, further timber-walled rooms were erected in the middle. The doors are marked by ‘doormats’, several rectangles of limestone cobbles placed at strategic points just outside the walls, where a door might be expected to be. Nevertheless, it was a building of some pretension. Within the foundations of the Phase 1b wall was found a quantity of painted wallplaster rubble, which must have been taken from the nearby remains of a military building that had fallen into disrepair and was being demolished.

Looking across a room within the villa identified as a workshop because of the line of bowl furnaces discovered within it.

When the main villa was constructed further up the slope to the west, a workshop with small bowl furnaces and two tile-built hearths was built over Phases 1a and 1b of the proto-villa. The neck and handle of a ‘pinch-neck’ flagon, of  the type made in the kilns around Verulamium, came from one of the furnaces and provides a date of around AD 130-150 for this workshop activity. In a final phase, the end timber-built rooms were demolished, and the original tworoomed house was surrounded by new rooms on three sides (rooms A, D, and E). But it was not long before this was cleared away to make way for the grand new garden that was laid out towards the end of the 2nd century.

The team has been keen to find evidence of Piddington’s Roman gardens. Their search took them to the villa’s courtyard, where they found rows of small pits or postholes, which must have been dug for planting fruit trees or supports. These were of two sizes. On the outside, there was a single row of larger pits that have been traced around all four sides of the garden. Roy argues that these larger ones were for espalier apple trees — Pliny, in his description of his seaside villa at Laurentum, notes that the apple trees were planted round the edges, and Cunliffe’s work at Fishbourne in the 1960s also identified likely espalier apple trees within the courtyard.

Inside this outer larger row, there are five rows of smaller post pits, which could have been for supports for soft-fruit bushes. Samples of the soils were sent away for pollen analysis but, sadly, the results were negative, as Piddington’s soil is highly alkaline. The garden was irrigated by water from the well, running through timber-lined channels leading from a tank.

Entrance, fort, and a mystery

While excavations have been continuing on the proto-villa, the garden, and courtyard, further excavations have been looking at an area in the  next field. At the bottom of the villa enclosure there is a ditch, today marked by a hedgerow and ditch dividing the excavators’ field from its neighbour to the east.

Volunteers work on Building 16, identified during recent work on the site.

In this field, on the other side of the ditch, three aspects have so far been investigated. First, geophysics surveying has revealed two rectangular features side by side, with a roadway between, which line up exactly with the main porch and doorway of the villa on the other side of the valley. Current thinking is that they were probably the twin gatehouses of a formal entrance to the villa.

Second, there is the question of the early military presence at Piddington. A number of military fittings and pieces of armour have been discovered on the site — including, most recently, several ballista bolts, together with quantities of early imported pottery. It would seem that here the Roman Conquest was forceful and dramatic, with civilian activity only resuming later in the mid 50s to early 60s. But was there a fort on the site? Or was there even more, perhaps a fortress rather than a fort, garrisoned by half a legion, even a full legion of 6,000?

The ditch that separates the two fields runs suspiciously straight for a considerable distance. Aerial photos taken by the former Royal Commission on Historical Monuments appear to show a pair of ditches turning, with a rounded corner, at right angles to the existing ditch up into the field, which could form the second side of a large fortress. Roy would like to carry out a large-scale geophysical survey within this field to see if further evidence can be obtained.

The north end of Building 16, which was located outside and to the east of the villa boundary wall, which lies immediately on the other side of the hedgerow running diagonally from left to right.

And third, there is the mystery site: a large building outside the villa boundary, which the  team has been excavating for the past 12 years. The saga began in 2002, when a tree located on the wrong side of the ditch blew over during a strong winter gale. A quantity of heavily burnt late 2nd-century Antonine samian ware, together with other Roman material, was found amid a mass of charcoal and other burnt archaeological matter from around the exposed roots. More detailed excavations were called for; a length of wall was eventually revealed. The whole building has now been uncovered, and it measures some 41m long by 16.5m wide. The date of the burnt samian pottery matched well with the date of the fire already noted in the south wing of the villa, perhaps indicating a deliberate act of arson occurring in the later 2nd century!

This building had its origins in the early Hadrianic period (early 2nd century), when the inner structure of a large rectangular building  was erected. Its foundations were heavily robbed in its later phases, and it is mostly traced from the robber trenches and the occasional stretches of undamaged high-quality wall. All four corners of the Hadrianic structure were buttressed, with further buttresses at intervals along the west wall, suggesting that it may have been a two-storey building.

At the far northern end, there is a substantial piece of wall, which looks like the evidence for an external staircase. All this points to a high-status building, as does the fact that, in the few places where the wall survives, it appears to have had a damp course made of crushed secondhand opus signinum (concrete), which must have come from an earlier building.

Some quite sophisticated wall plaster — black surfaces with green painted leaves, plus red backgrounds with green leaves and pink flowers — was found mid-way along the building, and may once have adorned a timber walled room. Was this a ‘bailiff’s house’ or farm manager’s residence, a fairly luxurious adjunct to the villa, separated from it but still using its facilities and monitoring visitors to the villa? This may have occurred after the initial clean-up, following the disastrous fire in the later 2nd century.

During the late 3rd and 4th centuries, the function of the building appears to change. Though there is a curious absence of small finds, such as pottery, the building still appears to have been in use. Roy wonders whether it had been given a timber floor, making it impossible for finds to be trodden in, and that detritus was instead swept out of the building, only to be revealed when the tree blew over.

This drone photo (top) shows the collapsed southern wall of Building 16, with the surviving traces of its gable end indicated on the lower photograph.

The team found a great deal of iron residue throughout the building, with quantities of hammer-scale, plus a considerable layer of burning over the whole inner building. This all  suggests that iron-working was now the major activity within the building, and that smithing was taking place on an industrial scale. It is almost as if this was the industrial part of the villa, where most of the necessities of the villa were being manufactured. This occupation appears to have lasted down to at least the late 4th century, on coin evidence.

Latest finds

One final recent exciting discovery was that the south wall of the early Hadrianic building (no.16) had fallen outwards in a southerly direction — and that it was almost completely preserved, with the gable end laying flat on the roadway leading out eastwards from the villa courtyard gate. This gives a height of some 10.2m for this building. At about every 1.2m, this limestone wall had a levelling course of pairs of re-used red tegulae (roof tiles); because it fronted the main entry/exit roadway, one could say that this was also the ‘pretty’ end of the building. Though the archaeology of buildings is so often two-dimensional, here at Piddington we can say that we have a third dimension.

And so the excavations continue, in considerable style. In addition to their thriving museum (where the Arts Council England have recently renewed its Full Accreditation status), the 11th Interim report has recently been published, while other specialist reports have been published or are in the pipeline.

Work progresses on the research and publication of the main report on the villa itself, together with all the other post-excavation activities. There is more to Roman villas than just the villa itself, and at Piddington some of these other aspects — the proto-villa, the workshop, the big question mark over the Roman military phase — are now being added to the original elucidation of the Roman villa. Long may the Piddington story continue!

This article appeared in issue 297 of  Current Archaeology.



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