Fieldwork: Summer Excavation 2003
Interim Report by Stephen Young
The 2003 season of 'digging' at Whitehall was the largest and most logistically complex period of fieldwork undertaken on the villa site during the last four years of open area excavation. On average 70 to 80 people a day were actively involved in the many aspects of recording the emerging archaeological story of the site.
The project team had established several demanding research targets, notably to investigate in detail the Post Roman structural timber phase identified in 2002 and its relationship to the surviving late Roman stratigraphy. Work also needed to continue on exploring the overall layout of the villa complex and particularly the plan and development of the pavilion or wing elements of the main range.
In addition the team continued last years systematic excavation of the materially-rich sealed contexts located in Room 3b of the bath house. Further effort was also focused on investigating the water and drainage systems immediately to the north and east of the bath house.
Post Roman Timber Building
This years work is enabling several strands of evidence to be marshalled together, such as the development of the Post Roman timber phase, the late reconstruction of the bath house, the continued late and post Roman occupational activity around the water tank and the related timber revetting of the hillside slope, all of which are beginning to reveal their secrets. The archaeological story of late 4th century AD Roman Whitehall and its 5th century Post Roman development has become significantly clearer, highlighting the continuity of occupation and the impact of social and economic change which are the hallmark of these periods of British history. It is fairly rare to find firm archaeological evidence of the era between the fall of Roman Britain and the emergence of Anglo Saxon England and correspondingly this raises the importance of the research undertaken at Whitehall in its regional context.
Careful and painstaking cleaning of the metalled surfaces associated with the villa courtyard and the levelled base of the timber structural phase has clarified the overall plan of the timber building. The excavation confirmed that the edifice was a post and timber framed structure but not an aisled hall as had been previously tentatively postulated. Although some of the post pits holding the timbers of the structure had been subject to intense heat from a fire at the end of the buildings existence no internal hearth was located in the interior of the structure to suggest domestic occupation. The remains are more likely to reflect a more utilitarian agricultural purpose for this timber building.
Water Management System
Further investigation of the chronological development of the drainage and water management systems to the north of the bath house established that there was more than one phase of activity. Beneath the final phase of features associated with the clay lined header tank and drainage channel, partially excavated last year, the team found an earlier phase of stone lined culverts related to the construction and development of the bath house in the mid to late 3rd century. In addition a third set of drainage channels immediately outside the east wall of the bath house were located and excavated. These had been truncated and reconstituted in the Victorian period with reused ornamented and worked sandstone blocks whose original provenance may have been the gable end of the bath house. The carved and faced stone elements are illustrative of the buildings architectural embellishment and sophistication.
In the latest surviving levels of the final phase of the water supply system the timber lined drainage channel produced coins dating to the very end of Roman Britain. These finds in conjunction with a previously retrieved scatter of Dark Age pottery in the adjacent area are indicative of continuous occupation. The association of these finds and features are important because they point to a much more complex interrelationship between the late Roman and Post Roman structures and the character of the occupation of the site during this time. The dating evidence clearly implies that the water supply in the area was maintained and functioned in the early to mid 5th century at exactly the same period as the timber structure was erected and utilised to the south of the bath house. It should also be noted that the buildings share a parallel alignment, which could be interpreted as being consistent with a concurrent usage. In the wider regional context Whitehall is not unique in providing evidence of this transitional period in British history and a similar response to maintaining an organised water supply in the 5th century AD is known from excavations in the Roman City of Verulamium (St.Albans, Hertfordshire).
The Bath House
The major reconstruction of the bath house in the late 4th century and the apparent substantial period of utilisation before the eventually dilapidation and deterioration of the structural fabric suggests at the very least a mid 5th century abandonment of this area of the site. It is possible that the bath house was sufficiently robust to be adapted to act as the focal point of domestic occupation for the surviving Roman population after the desertion of the main villa range whilst the timber structure functioned as a barn to house the estate produce. A desire to reuse existing structures should not be underestimated as a means of meeting new social or economic challenges and realities. At the neighbouring Horestone Brook Villa, in the same parish, excavation revealed that a corndrier had been inserted into one of the pavilion wings late in the history of the site. The impetus for such action evidently balanced changing social priorities and the growing importance of food production, processing and safe storage as against the needs of display and status. Unfortunately the relevant 5th century contexts from the interior of the bath house have not survived archaeologically and it will be difficult to prove beyond any reasonable doubt the possibilities outlined above.
Environmental and Artefactual Evidence from Bath House Room 3b
The deposits removed from Room 3b in the bath house, because they are so materially rich, were systematically excavated and the entire deposit stored prior to wet sieving. Currently a vast range of environmental and artefactual evidence is being recovered. The variety of assemblages retrieved from this area of the site is exceptional and is providing a level of information seldom encountered on Romano-British sites in Northamptonshire.
Bath House, Room 3b
The quantity of pottery recovered from Room 3b will enable several vessels to be reconstructed. A predominate form amongst the assortment of vessels retrieved are fine ware colour coated drinking beakers. Many are folded or indented beakers of different sizes but all demonstrate the importance of drink within the social context of life on the villas estate. In contrast the collection of late 2nd to mid 3rd century Samian fine tableware vessels from the same layer, although containing cups, reflects a broader range of forms in daily use. The preponderance of fine ware vessels as against courseware forms from these sealed bath house contexts, should also be interpreted as being representative of a selective material deposition. In reality the collection is consistent with activity associated with entertaining, socialising and hospitality as opposed to general daily activity and routine.
(2005: Click here for some of the pots which have been reassembled.)
A tray of pots ready for assembly
- Animal Bones
At present two students from Southampton University are undertaking an analysis of the animal bones recovered during the excavation. The assemblage is extremely exciting and reflects a wide dietary choice. Fare from the sea such as flounder, mackerel and sea bass were as welcome on the Whitehall dinner table as salmon, chub or eel were from the River Nene. Venison and hare appear to have been particular favourites although the amount of eggshell recovered indicates that some of the occupants of the villa enjoyed a good boiled egg or omelette. The variety of wild animals identified is rich and includes badger, wolf (possibly) and deer, whilst the appearance of domesticated dog could imply an interest in hunting or stock management.
Possibly a wolf's jaw bone
Main Villa Range
An important development emerging from the continuing excavation on the main range of the villa enabled the team to establish a clearer understanding of the overall layout and size of the corridor entrance and porch way (see photo on right).The distance between the buttressed foundations of the porch suggests an impressive entrance way into the villa. Low pedestals either side of the entrance way probably supported columns holding an entablature and pediment projecting out from the corridor roof line.
At the south-western end of the corridor a matching apse (see photo on right) to that located previously at the north eastern end was identified and a sequence of phasing was established between the construction of the corridor and the addition of the wing. Further work in this area should reveal the internal structure of a suite of rooms and the dimensions of the individual rooms.
Reinterpretation of the surface matrix directly opposite the porch entrance but situated along the rear wall of the main range intimates that there was a smaller doorway which gave access into the principal apartments from the rear of the property. The robber trench that had been dug to remove the building stone did not cut into or disturb the compact surface constituting the doorway nor did the stone foundations of the wall continue across the proposed threshold, indicating an opening was in existence.
The north eastern pavilion or wing is still difficult to interpret. Indeed the careful excavation of the structural debris from the courtyard demonstrated that the layer of faced and worked building stones, although evidently from a building, had no structural integrity but represented leveled debris. Unfortunately excavation has been unable to locate to any meaningful degree the eastern wing of the villa and work on this particular aspect of the villa is unlikely to progress until the metalled platform surface supporting the Post Roman structure is removed.
The gap for the entrance porch
(roll cursor over image)
The south-western apsidal end of the corridor (roll cursor over image)
The north-east wing area
At the very end of the excavation the project team were very excited to find the first Romano-British burial discovered on the site. The burial was located about 50 metres to the south east of the main villa range and lay under the courtyard. The body had been laid face down in a shallow pit without any grave goods or apparent sign of ceremony and ritual. The skeleton was analysed by Northants Archaeology and is thought to be of a middle aged male of above average height. The individual was well built and appeared to be well nourished, although examination of the vertebra indicates an individual who was no stranger to physical activity. Unfortunately the inspection of the skeleton was unable to reveal the cause of death. Initial interpretation of the grave might suggest a type of deposition know as deviant burial but the lack of ritual involvement points to a less complicated solution. At least the stratigraphy of the burial can be shown to predate the erection of the main villa range as the body was buried beneath the gravelled courtyard associated with that building. The date of the skeleton is more likely to accord with the occupation of the roundhouse that occupied an enclosure in this area before the development of the villa. The skeleton will be carbon dated in the near future and a 2ND century date would not be expected. Future excavation will enable the team to find out whether this is an isolated burial or part of a larger cemetery grouping.
During the excavation an American anthropological student who was working at Whitehall for the summer examined a variety of human bones found during metal detecting and fieldwalking survey in the vicinity of the Saxon Warrior excavated in 2000. Her initial analysis confirmed that the bones represent elements of a male, female and an adolescent. This confirms the nature of the site and that the individual buried with his sword is part of a larger number of internments that reflect a family or clanship cemetery. It is probable that the area of the field containing the cemetery will be subject to test pitting after Easter 2004 to try and ascertain the extent of the site and to establish the timescale within which burials were made.
UPDATE: The Saxon cemetery was excavated in 2004 - see here
The excavation of the Roman skeleton and the Saxon warrior along with the prospect of further burials will enable the project to begin to compare the DNA profiles of the different population sets within the survey area.
The barrel bung, a lathe plug from a wooden bowl and a leather fitment from last year's excavation are currently undergoing conservation at Leicester University and should be ready for display in the near future. Since the discovery of the original leather clover shaped fitting another one has been recovered and the exact purpose is at present under discussion. Hopefully Dr Graham Morgan from the university will also be undertaking the analysis of all the wooden artefacts from the site by the spring of 2004. The Anglo-Saxon sword recovered from the warrior burial and an iron strut from the bath house will be X rayed and the iron door key conserved and restored. The largest of the wooden stakes excavated in 2003 and some other wooden planking is to be assessed and possibly tested to see whether a denrochronological date can be extracted at Sheffield University in March 2004.
2005: Click here for the barrel bung and leather fittings
from Bath House, room 3B 9
Fragments from several glass vessels have been found and in particular elements of a splendidly decorated figure-cut convex cup featuring a gladiator have been recovered. Hopefully the programme of wet sieving should produce more fragments from which a reconstruction may be possible. The vessel has its figure cut into the glass by using a combination of wheel-cutting and abrasion techniques. Most figure-cut decoration is found on vessels of 4th century date although the Whitehall Cup appears to be late 3rd century. The featured figure is a heavily armed gladiator known as a secutor and he is dressed in a helmet, body armour and holds a Thracian sword. It is possible that the missing part of the vessel would feature the retiarius who would have been armed with a net and trident. The cup also had an inscription of which there is a single fragment with the letters ST. The range of glass vessels available was extensive and examples of cups, bowls, flagons and jars are present in the assemblage. Some forms have been produced by free-blowing methods but there are instances of mould-blown vessels in the collection as well as one fragment of glass with enamelled decoration.
A total of 350 coins have been recorded from the site between 1996 and 2003 and these are providing a good chronological range to support other sources of dating underpinning the postulated development of Roman Whitehall from the modest 2nd century enclosured roundhouse to the elaborate and ornate villa structure of the late 3rd and 4th centuries.
The coins vary from a single bronze coin of the Catuvellauni of Iron Age date and a bronze dupondius of Vespasian (68-79 AD) of the early Roman Empire to coins of the House of Theodosius (379-395 AD) and the Emperor Arcadius (393-423 AD) at the end of the Roman period.
Most of the coins are bronze or silver dipped denominations but there are several instances of silver denarii.
All of the coins are being re-examined and listed but the overall pattern of the assemblage is similar to and comparable with many other villa sites in Roman Britain
Silver denarius - House of Severus
The work undertaken over the last four years on the Whitehall Roman Villa & Landscape Project and the Lottery Heritage Initiative funded project 'Local People: Local Past' has fleshed out the nature of Romano-British settlement in this area of Northamptonshire and at last a coherent explanation of the impact of Imperial Roman on our landscape can be made.
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