Graffiti, Southwell style, on the Church Street villa site
MBArchaeology are launching a new Community Archaeology project to investigate the Roman settlement of Southwell, Nottinghamshire and the surrounding landscape. Researching Roman Southwell starts in January 2014 and will look at documentary and archival sources, old maps, Historic Environment Records and past excavations as well as carrying out new work including landscape surveys and test-pit excavations in and around the town.
Although we know there was a definite Roman presence at Southwell – testified by the large villa site on Church Street – the extent of this remains unknown, although there are other hints through early maps, chance finds and wider landscape features.
For example, the area known as The Burgage abuts a known Roman road, early Ordnance Survey maps mention a Roman Camp, and Roman artefacts have been found in several gardens within the town, including a large amount of pottery on Farthingate, and the head of a stone statue on Westhorpe.
Roman pottery discovered during test-pitting at Southwell
(©University of Nottingham)
The Roman villa at Southwell was first discovered in the late 18th century by the antiquarian archaeologist Major Hayman Rooke. Subsequent work on the site by Charles Daniels added to Rooke’s discoveries, yet little is known about the form and purpose of the villa. Although we know it was of considerable size (Daniels suggested at least 180ft x 220ft – 55m x 67m) and had tessellated (mosaic) floors and a bath house with painted wall plaster, we still don’t know if it was used as a ‘country retreat’, an administrative center or had some form of religious purpose. Nevertheless, renowned Roman specialist Martin Henig has described the wall painting of a cherub from the bath house as ‘one of the very best from Roman Britain’ (British Archaeology, Issue 119, Jul / Aug 2011).
Mosaic floor from the Southwell Roman villa
Large, stone-built Roman wall from the Church Street site
Also discovered was a large, stone-built wall that was remarkably well preserved, surviving for at least 20m in length, and three courses high. Roman specialist Dr. Will Bowden from the University of Nottingham has commented that ‘this wall, with its massive sandstone blocks, recalls urban Roman public building and is highly unusual in a villa. It runs at a slight angle to the villa’s east wing, with an apparent return running eastwards away from the villa. Despite speculation that it relates to a temple or other major monument, its purpose remains unclear’.
Earthworks on the opposite side of the road at Edgehill House, comprising bank and ditch and running northwards towards The Burgage, have been linked to a possible Saxon defensive burh by archaeologists, but these could equally be Roman in date.
We also know that there were several Roman defensive camps or forts within a five-mile radius of the town, and that Southwell was located on a road network that stretched from Ad Pontem, just to the south of the Trent, right through to the fort at Cestrefeld (modern-day Chesterfield in North-east Derbyshire). Yet, so far, no defensive structures or military occupation is known of at Southwell. The fact that there is a suggested Iron Age hillfort at Southwell (the focus for the ongoing Burgage Earthworks project undertaken by Southwell Archaeology and MBArchaeology), and that it is located right at the side of the Roman road, may well suggest that there was a Roman defensive site somewhere in that vicinity (and indeed that is where the early OS maps suggest it to be).
The Researching Roman Southwell project aims to further investigate the known archaeology in the town and local area and attempt to put forward a more cohesive picture of what the landscape looked like in the Roman period.
Phase One of the project will run between January and April 2014, starting Friday 17th January. For more information or to register your interest, contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org