Remains Of Large Roman Building Unearthed In Cambs

By Richard Moss | 24 January 2007
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a photograph of three men in a woodland

Brian Armstrong of Peterborough City Council, Frank Inglis of the Forestry Commission and Ben Robinson with plans of the site.

A historic woodland just outside Peterborough could hold the key to finding out more about the area’s Roman past as archaeologists prepare to lift the lid on 2,000 years of history.

Funding has been made available for a study of the 208-hectare woodland of Bedford Purlieus in Cambridgeshire, which archaeologists believe contains the remarkably intact and undisturbed remains of a large but hitherto unknown Roman structure.

“There was some indication of Roman building in the area,” explained Paul Malcolm, Forester with the Forestry Commission. “The site is marked on the OS map but we didn’t know this was going to turn out to be the size that it has. I think the extent of it was a surprise.”

Measuring an impressive 80 metres by 30 metres with several rooms arranged in two ranges by the side of the building, archaeologists believe the hidden structure could possibly be the remains of a villa, or a mansio, which is a kind of Roman way station.

a photograph of a woodland in wintertime

Q: What lies beneath? A: A very large Roman building. Picture © Northamptonshire County Council/ Forestry Commission

The ancient wood also contains two other sizeable structures, which could also date to the Roman period.

The finds came to light after the Forestry Commission conducted walk-through surveys of the land under the supervision of archaeologist David Hall. The larger building was found later once they started clearing the scrub.

A follow up survey in February 2005 turned up Roman mosaic tiles, tegulae roof tiles and shards of pottery comprising a grey Nene Valley colour body - all dated to the Roman period.

“It could be a villa – but it’s almost too big for that,” said Mr Malcolm. “The outline of the building is very large and within it are several component cell buildings."

All around the site are Anglo Saxon iron workings and one theory has it that the Romans may have took on the iron working and built a structure to oversee operations as the site is also situated next to two Roman roads.

a plan showing the outline of a building and tracks

A plan of the remains has been mapped out by Northamptonshire Archaeology. Picture © Northamptonshire County Council/ Forestry Commission

Peterborough City Council historic environment officer, Ben Robinson said: “It could be incredibly important because being in woodland it has been protected from the ravages of ploughing, which is what has happened to most other villas in the area.”

“The tree roots may have caused damage but we have what appear to be some reasonably high walls. It depends on the depth of woodland soil, but if we’re lucky we’ll have several intact pieces of walling and interior.”

The problem for archaeologists will be to not disturb the delicate eco-system that the wood contains. Declared a National Nature Reserve by English Nature in 2000, Bedford Purlieus is home to more plant and insect species than most other woods in the UK.

“We’ll be treading very carefully,” added Mr Robinson. “There are some very important species in the woodland and although any archaeology involves moving soil, we simply can’t go in and start whipping soil out of there like you might do with a dig on open pasture land.”

Archaeologists might attempt a limited geophysical survey, but this could be very difficult because of the sheer depth of roots and scrub so they are hoping that, with guidance from English Nature and the Forestry Commission, they will be able to undertake some carefully controlled test pitting.

a photograph of a woodland in wintertime

Picture © Northamptonshire County Council/ Forestry Commission

“We’re lucky in that the Forestry Commission are very supportive,” added Mr Robinson. “They take a very holistic approach towards their holdings.”

The Forestry Commission has managed Bedford Purlieus since 1933 and the fact that it has been continuously wooded means the archaeology it contains has survived the ravages of 2,000 years.

Mr Robinson said the area boasts a surprisingly varied array of archaeological remains from a variety of time periods, with evidence of later stone structures, medieval boundaries and ditches. “There are even WWII remains including shelters and hut bases," he explained.

“If a massive Roman building could lay undetected it makes one wonder what else there could be in there that hasn’t been spotted. The amazing thing about the site is that you could be standing five metres away and you wouldn’t know it was there.”

Work on the site is due to begin during February or March 2007. “The timing of the dig will be down to agreeing a window with the Forestry Commission, but within a week or two on site we should have a much better idea of what we’re looking at,” said Mr Robinson.