WHITEHALL ROMAN VILLA AND LANDSCAPE PROJECT
Fieldwork: Summer Excavation 2006
Interim Report by Stephen Young

(see also Aerial Photos at the end of the 2006 dig)


STRATEGY

This year the focus of the excavation season centred on investigating the range of rooms situated on the lower slope immediately adjacent to the bath house at the east end of the site. Our priorities were to recover more of the plan of the newly revealed range and to explore its relationship to the previously excavated bath house.

Some further work was also undertaken to explore the stratigraphy below both the villa courtyard surface and the metalled flooring of the Post Roman phase of timber buildings. It was also important to establish the nature of earlier phases of the site that survive beneath the courtyard in order to develop our understanding of the site in the pre villa era.

Much to everybody's delight we were also able to keep the level of weeding and clearance to the absolute minimum!



THE LOWER SLOPE BUILDING

The first major task was to clear the extensive layer of building debris that lay above the remaining structural elements of the new range of rooms. A considerable amount of tile and building stone had to be removed before those features identified last year began to reveal themselves more fully.

It is evident from the remains and the associated stratigraphy that the site had been demolished and 'robbed' during the Roman period in the course of a redevelopment of the villa complex during the 4th century AD.

The floor plan of the two rooms, initially discovered last year, has demonstrated that part of the building was constructed on a terrace aligned along the contour. This finding has helped us to reassess the current interpretation of the development of the features across this area of the site. It demonstrates that the north south ledge cut across the general slope of the field was not as thought part of a revetted edge for the metalled platform on which the Post Roman timber phase was constructed. Instead, the considerable amount of re-deposited building stone covering this part of the site should be viewed as relating to the demolition of the superstructure of the original building range. However this interpretive change doesn't undermine the evidence for the archaeological sequence previously established for the Post Roman development further up the slope to the west. In reality it just highlights the complexity of the stratigraphic record of the features and buildings associated with the lower slope.

The virtual absence of the original floor level combined with robbed out sections of wall and the existence of a pit cut through the remains of a heavily mortared re-deposited layer, containing tesserae, indicated a systematic clearance of the building. Several tesserae and glass fragments suggest a level of structural sophistication that not only hints at the existence of a mosaic pavement but also that the building had been extensively fenestrated.

Many of the tesserae are made of chalk, a material which is neither available locally nor found any where else on site. The chalk may well come from further south in the Chilterns, indicating the employment of expertise and materials from outside of the local region during the initial construction of the villa complex.

An important omission amongst the debris encountered was the almost total absence of wall plaster. Obviously the systematic clearance of the site might account for its removal but the complete lack of this material amongst the remains is rather perplexing.

Underneath the general debris significant remains of a hypocaust system in the second room had been left in situ. It is larger than the previously excavated hypocaust located in the bath house and its relationship to any further rooms to the south waits to be discovered. Although the real purpose of the rooms may be open to interpretation the burnt stone and the charcoal associated with ventilation channels means that Room 1 served as a stoke room or praefurnium during a phase of its development and provided the heat for the large hypocaust system in Room 2.

Stone and tile roof tiles were recovered during excavation as well as many fragments of boxflue tile. Unfortunately none of the boxflue tiles where found in situ so it was impossible to reconstruct the type of system utilised for distributing the heat up through the walls from the hypocaust. The roof appears to have been constructed of stone roof slates as opposed to ceramic tile. Those ceramic tile roof tiles that have been retrieved appear to consist exclusively of tegula without any examples of imbrex in the assemblage; although this may be evidence for selective reuse. The utilisation of stone roof tiles appears to be in line with our previous findings both at Whitehall and in the neighbouring villas that this building material is exclusively used in bath house construction because of its fire resistant properties.

These discoveries suggest we are dealing with a structure that is associated with the earliest phases of the bath house and the development of the first elements of the villa range. Undoubtedly materials from different sources are being used to manufacture both the tesserae and the ceramic fabric boxflue and roof tiles found in relation to this structure as opposed to the latter phases of the bath house and the residual materials found associated with the villa range.

The provisional dating of the pottery also supports an earlier date range for the construction and utilisation of this range of rooms compared with the other extant structural elements. Indeed the construction of the rooms is more in line with the mid to late 3rd century date envisaged as the starting point for the development of the villa complex.



Tesserae


Tegula - roof tile


THE VILLA COURTYARD SURFACE

It was important to ascertain the depth of stratigraphy across the villa courtyard and to establish whether there was archaeology from an earlier period surviving below the gravel surface.

A two pronged approach was adopted to resolve this issue, the most important of which was the excavation of a trail trench, aligned west - east and located centrally in the courtyard area, to cut right down through the courtyard surface to expose the natural ground level below.

The second strategy was to clean and widen the post medieval ditch that runs across the courtyard from north to the south.

It didn't take long to establish that the gravel spread composing the courtyard had no great depth and that little of archaeological interest lay beneath most of the courtyard area. This also confirmed that there were no other inhumations in the area and that the previously excavated skeleton was a lone burial.

However we were able to investigate a substantial ditch feature previously identified through surface subsidence which traverses the courtyard diagonally from the northwest to the southeast. The ditch was sectioned in several places and from one of these in a sealed context a pottery assemblage containing several forms and types of vessel from the late 1st to early second century AD was recovered. It would appear that the ditch is associated with the earliest of the field systems created on the site.



The East-West trench


The North-South ditch


THE METALLED SURFACE UNDER THE POST-ROMAN TIMBER PHASE

Once the remaining floor surfaces of the Post Roman building were removed and the platform surface of levelled building debris was cleared away it became evident that a drain had been constructed beneath the large timber structure. The drain is stone lined and is aligned east - west under the centre of the Post Roman building. Further excavation indicated that the drain joins an earlier Roman drain that crosses this area of the site from north to south.

The construction of the drain is indicative of the level of thought and building skill exercised in the development of the site after the end of the villa complex as a recognisable Roman estate.

The removal of elements of the levelled platform also demonstrated that archaeology related to the courtyard of the villa and even pre villa levels have survived which will enable us to explore the evolution of the eastern end of the main villa range and possibly help explain the absence of the wing we would expect with a winged corridor villa.



The junction of the drains


POST EXCAVATION FIELD WORK

A metal detecting survey to the east of the current excavation after the 'dig' by PAST members and some of our volunteers confirmed that the site extends further down the slope to the east of the bath house.

The survey not only recovered more coins of Roman date, including a near mint denarius of Septimius Severus, but also retrieved the top of a ceramic roof finial. The latter is a significant find as it is the first evidence of finials from the Whitehall villa, although they quite common at other Roman villas such as Piddington. The purpose of roof finials is disputed. Possibly they were for embellishing the architectural look of a roof line or they were used as vents to disperse fumes and smoke from the hypocaust system or indeed to act as a nesting site for song birds which were a delicacy during the Roman period.

We have also started to examine the large ceramic tile assemblage from Whitehall in greater detail and currently volunteers are recording tegula profiles for the different fabrics and wares. Some of the tiles are being used in a larger collaborative study of Roman roof tile using neutron diffraction in conjunction with Dr Gerry Swallow, University of Loughborough and the CCLRC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at Didcot.


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