Heated dining rooms and butchery: The robbed Roman villa found by archaeologists in Yorkshire

By Ben Miller | 03 April 2015

Substantial Roman villa, knives and cleavers for butchery found at site where North Yorkshire bypass will be built

A photo of archaeologists working on a brownfield site
A Roman villa has been found within the corridor of a £34 million new bypass near the North Yorkshire market town of Bedale© North Yorkshire County Council
Archaeologists say they have been given a “rare glimpse” into a vast Roman villa with winged corridors and a pavilion-style room with an underfloor heating system on the proposed site of a new bypass in North Yorkshire.

Small sections of tessellated mosaic and a concrete floor, covered by wall plaster lying face down on top of it, have been discovered in Bedale, where an excavation of the villa, launched in November 2014, has unearthed pottery from between the mid-3rd and 4th centuries and a nearby ditched enclosure from the late Iron Age Romano-British period.

The site lies comparatively close to Dere Street, a former Roman road, and within ten kilometres of the major Roman site at Catterick.

The Aiskew Roman villa

A photo of a brownfield archaeology site
Pilae stacks in the heated room were surrounded by wall robber trenches with cobble foundations© Prospect Archaeology
The villa is located on a ridge of higher land defined by Scurf Beck to the west, which flows southwards into Bedale Beck, a tributary of the River Swale, and Dere Street Roman road to the east.

Geophysical surveying indicates that the villa is of a substantial size and is set within a landscape of enclosures and field systems. The road corridor runs through the western extent of the villa and a triangular area of land has also been stripped of topsoil to the east to better understand the Aiskew villa complex.

The masonry walls of the villa have been robbed at some date, with the stones presumably used to build structures somewhere in the vicinity.

Cobble foundations upon which the masonry walls were constructed survive within deep foundation trenches, demonstrating the substantial construction of the villa.

Within the area stripped by archaeologists, a range of rooms are located on the east side of a four metre-wide north-south aligned corridor within which small areas of tessellated surface survive.

A photo of a piece of dark red curved pottery
This box--flue tile with scoring would have heled the adherance of plaster© Prospect Archaeology
An intact concrete floor surface survives in the room at the north-east end of the corridor beneath areas of painted wall plaster which had collapsed onto the floor, possibly when the villa was demolished.

A small square room with internal dimensions of around four metres appears to have been added on to the north-west side of the villa complex at some date. This was a room heated by a hypcocaust system, demonstrated by the remains of pilae stacks which would have supported a suspended floor.

Hot air would have been drawn under the floor from a fire within an external stokehole identified on the north-west side of the room. Hollow wall tiles know as box-flue tiles would have been attached to the inside of the stone external walls and the hot air would have travelled up through the tiles and out of the building through vents.

The internal surface of the tiles was covered in layers of plaster and the final layer was painted. The demolition debris excavated from this room by experts contained large quantities of wall tiles and painted wall plaster in many different colours, suggesting that this was a well-appointed room.

It may have been used for entertaining and could perhaps be a heated dining room. Stone and tile roof tiles have also been recovered from demolition deposits across the building.

A number of iron nails of varying sizes would have been used for purposes such as securing roof tiles and the timber elements of the structure. Small quantities of window glass show that some of the rooms would have had glazed windows, but this was a valuable resource and much would have been removed for recycling.

An overhead photo of a brownfield archaeological site
Charcoal deposits were found in a stokehole in the north-east corner of the heated room at Aiskew© Prospect Archaeology
An east-west aligned ditch located a short distance to the north of the villa contained occupation debris. A “substantial” quarry pit had been backfilled with material including quantities of ash which could be rakings from the hypocaust stokehole.

Quantities of animal bone have been found alongside oyster and mussel shells. Personal items including bone pins and copper-alloy brooches have been discovered, as well as iron tools including knives and a cleaver, used to butcher animals.

Site 58

This large ditched sub-square enclosure was identified as a cropmark on aerial photographs by archaeologists, who carried out a geophysical survey and trial trenching evaluation in 2009.

The enclosure measures around 50 metres north–south internally, with a narrow entrance on its west side with a ditched trackway, identified as cropmarks leading up to the enclosure from the south-west.

An outer ditch is located along the northern side of the enclosure. Sections across the ditch on its southern side have revealed it to be up to 6.8 metres wide and 1.8 metres deep. It had evidently silted up and been re-cut on at least one occasion.

A photo of various small archaeological fragments
Painted wall plaster© Prospect Archaeology
Enclosures of this type, say the team, were used for habitation and generally contained at least one roundhouse, with structures often rebuilt over a considerable length of time.

Such enclosures were in use in the region from the Late Iron Age, with the local population continuing to occupy many sites into the Roman period. The interior of the Bedale enclosure has been badly damaged by ploughing and all that survives are a few pits; there are no traces of insubstantial structures such as roundhouses.

The upper fills of the ditch have produced small quantities of handmade Iron Age tradition pottery; such pottery is not closely datable as it was manufactured in this region over a very long period and continued to be manufactured during the Roman period.

The enclosure was obviously in use into the Roman period as a small quantity of wheel-thrown Romano-British and imported samian pottery has also been found.

The ditch contains a well–preserved assemblage of animal bones which is dominated by cattle and sheep. Bones from very young calves suggest that the settlement was involved in animal husbandry. Pig and horse remains and wild species such as red and roe deer have also been found.

As well as evidence for butchery, the animal bone assemblage includes worked fragments and material indicative of waste from craft working. A “beautifully preserved” bone weaving comb has also been found in the ditch; these tools were used during the Late Iron Age and early Roman periods in textile production and are often decorated such as this example.

Soil samples taken from the deposits in the ditch have produced evidence that metal working occurred within the enclosure, along with evidence for probable iron smithing, small quantities of copper-alloy waste and fragments of ceramic crucibles which contained small globules of corroded copper alloy, suggesting that copper-alloy working took place.

The samples also produced charred plant remains with barley grains being the most abundant and wheat grains also present. As is typical for settlements in the region, this settlement would have practised a mixed arable and pastoral farming regime.

Fragments of stone quernstones which would have been used to process the crops have also been found in the enclosure ditch.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Covering up ancient sites in N. Ireland with motorways is an on going practice, so sad, sad to see this being threatened. Very interesting Ben, thanks.
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