Gloucestershire is an area particularly known for its Roman villas. Some of these were impressively large and luxurious, such as Chedworth (see CA 393) and Great Witcombe, but – as was the case with both of those sites – many were discovered by 19th-century antiquarians, meaning that our understanding of their remains is sometimes limited. Previously undocumented villas are still being brought to light by current archaeological work, though, allowing us to use modern techniques to tease out their stories. One such example emerged during Cotswold Archaeology’s excavation of land on the northern outskirts of Bristol.
The Stoke Gifford site had previously been home to pitches used by Dings Crusaders RFC (our investigation was undertaken ahead of its redevelopment for housing by Redrow Homes South West), and during Cotswold Archaeology’s work, the entire outline of the buildings of a Roman villa estate emerged from the soil. Although some areas had been robbed of their stone later in the site’s history, sections of surviving walls, floor surfaces, and hypocausts have given us detailed insights into the villa’s layout, including ancillary buildings and a large walled courtyard or garden. Post-excavation analysis of the finds has enabled us to piece together some of the villa’s story.
It is a story with fairly humble beginnings: the first settlement comprised a simple enclosed farmstead that was probably established at around the time of the Roman conquest in AD 43. There, a single domestic roundhouse – west-facing, with an external wall formed from vertical split timbers – sat within a curved boundary, beyond which lay further ditches and fields that may have served as stock enclosures. This initial settlement was modest in scope, with a typical mixed farming economy. Charred cereal grains testify to spelt wheat being grown there, while a possible four-post structure identified to the east of the roundhouse may have been a small granary, raised on stilts to keep stores dry and safer from pests.
During the 2nd century, the site was
remodelled with rectangular fields and trackways – though the boundaries of the earlier curvilinear enclosure and its associated paddocks were incorporated into this new arrangement. Similar reorganisation of rural sites was a common phenomenon in this part of Britain during this period. The roundhouse was also rebuilt at this time, now facing to the east and on a slightly larger scale, with a central ring of post-holes that were probably needed to help support the weight of the now-bigger roof. At around the same time came the construction of a rectangular building, measuring 10m by 4m and with at least two rooms. The excavated evidence points to the presence of wooden sill-beams that supported a timber frame, and, while we do not know if this was a domestic building, it was positioned in what became the heart of the villa complex.
Contemporary with the reorganisation described above, there was a big increase in the number and range of goods being used on the site – as indicated by a notable swell in the number of recovered artefacts for this period. The settlement was increasing its trading activities and accessing new markets, importing products including fine Samian pottery from Gaul (modern France) and large storage amphorae from Gaul and Hispania (modern Spain/Iberia). We have also found a number of brooches similar to examples from the port and associated settlement of Abonae (modern Sea Mills), just to the west of Bristol, which was probably the nearest major market. The types of brooches and proportionate numbers in which they were found is very similar between the two sites, which is notable given that one is a rural settlement and the other a trading centre. Might the presence of the brooches at Stoke Gifford reflect an increasing desire to dress appropriately when meeting people from further away?
Another indication that the inhabitants of Dings were engaged in the wider economy was the presence of cash: a total of 264 coins were discovered during our excavation, the vast majority of which belong to the period spanning the mid-3rd century to the end of the 4th century, which is quite typical for Romano-British rural settlements. As for how the villa residents came by this income, it is possible that the settlement was by then producing a surplus of goods. Most of the traces of the site’s economy throughout its life are of the domestic sort, including the remains of livestock and crops, as well as quernstones and other processing tools such as a hammerstone, whetstones, and a possible pestle. However, it is probable that the products of the surrounding land were traded. There are hints, in places, of some value being added by processing foodstuffs or working textiles, which could have provided more tradable and transportable goods. We also know that small-scale metalworking went on throughout the life of the villa, and although the smelting of iron was probably only for local use, there is some evidence for the use of coal during blacksmithing, which would have been traded for.
By the mid- to late 3rd century, the field enclosures were gone: levelled for a new structure with masonry foundations. This building was another simple rectangle in plan, measuring 18m by 5.5m. There were four rooms, with a narrow passage running from the front to the back of the structure, forming a ‘row’ or ‘cottage’-type building with no evidence for an upper storey. Its entrance opened on to an informal courtyard area, and there was another ancillary building, also with masonry foundations, which provided a single large room. Inside were several pits lined with roughly coursed sandstone and limestone slabs that probably had a craft or industrial function, possibly involving crop-processing. The presence of a drain suggests that water supply or the drainage of liquid was important: possible activities include a laundry, processing fabrics or leather, or brewing.
Dings at its peak
The mid- to late 4th century saw dramatic changes at Dings. The stone-built domestic building was refurbished and expanded with the addition of wings to the north and south, and a portico at the front that opened on to a courtyard. It is at this point that the building became what we tend to imagine as a villa. The outer courtyard was flanked by ancillary buildings to the north and south, while the southern wing of the main dwelling included a room with a hypocaust, and the northernmost wing held a small bath suite. This building was refurbished again in the latter part of the 4th century, with the addition of a heated room at the rear of the southern range.
When we think of Roman villas, we tend to imagine opulent living, although such residences actually came in a range of sizes and styles. The Dings villa was closer to the ‘affluent’ rather than ‘spectacular’ end of the scale, but the provision of the courtyard complex, heated rooms, and a bath suite show that the villa’s owners were investing in a comfortable lifestyle. It was also about displaying their wealth, taste, and status to others – as well as, possibly, their alignment to the Roman way of life.
While this was not a palatial estate, the main building was well-constructed, with its walls standing on pitched limestone foundations laid within construction trenches on to which several courses of roughly squared sandstone blocks had been placed. We recovered a carved limestone finial which would have adorned the roof, indicating that at least one of the buildings at Dings had a certain degree of architectural sophistication. A small amount of window glass suggests that some of the more important rooms had clear openings rather than shutters, while the presence of fragments of white, duck green, and red painted plaster points to colourful frescoes adorning at least some of these spaces.
On the other hand, there was limited evidence of clay roof tiles, so they may have only been used in prominent locations, with stone employed elsewhere. We only found two tesserae, too, suggesting that (unlike its neighbours at Chedworth, Great Witcombe, and Spoonley) this villa never achieved the installation of elaborate mosaic floors, though in places there were traces of substantial and neatly laid flagstone surfaces. Moreover, unlike the most impressive villas, Dings’ bath suite was fairly rudimentary, comprising a small, integrated set of rooms rather than a large separate building (more on this below). While the villa’s occupants were undoubtedly wealthy and locally important, they were probably not among the uppermost elite in society.
At this point, the villa’s economy may have had a greater emphasis on grain: the two ancillary buildings were probably used for processing crops, and the southernmost of these contained corn-dryers. As for animals, sheep/goats, pigs, dogs, cats, and horses were all part of the picture – but, as was frequent in this part of Britain, cattle had become the most common domestic animals, probably not only contributing to the local diet, but also pulling ploughs and carts.
Under the mid-4th-century renovations, other amenities added to the villa included underfloor heating. One room in the new south wing gained a subterranean channelled or ‘labyrinth’ hypocaust system that was heated through a flue connecting to a furnace outside the south wall. The presence of a hypocaust suggests that this was an important space in the house, possibly serving as a reception room. Another heated room at the rear of the south wing used a hypocaust system of stacked tiles of pennant sandstones, forming more than 20 individual pilae.
Over in the north wing was a room that appears to have been a kitchen, as it had an oven built into the southern wall, with a base of scorched sandstone slabs. Within the main floor there was also a rectangular hearth made of limestone blocks, where charred plants and wood suggest oak, blackthorn, and cherry or plum wood were used as fuel. As for evidence of food preparation, charred cereal remains included barley, spelt wheat, and emmer wheat, and there were several eggshell fragments.
As well as the ‘kitchen’, the north wing included a small bath suite with a curved interior wall providing a typical apsidal shape to this part of the villa. One room, with heat-resistant surfaces, tiled flooring, and a mortar finish to the walls, might have been the hot room, and there were other clues to how the suite’s interior may have looked, in the form of fragments of plaster (of both the decorative painted and the heavy-duty water-resistant variety). Fragments of tufa may derive from a vaulted ceiling, and some of these retained a type of waterproof cement known from other villa bathhouses. The one at Dings was probably heated using a channelled hypocaust system, supplied with water from one of the nearby wells.
The people of Dings
Almost everything we know about the people who lived at Dings comes from the artefacts excavated on the site. These finds were dominated by pottery, ranging in date from the late Iron Age/early Roman transitional period to the late 4th/early 5th century, and their fabrics were quite standard, generally of British types. There was only a fairly small amount of Samian ware, a higher-status, imported ceramic, but given its rarity at rural sites, particularly in the Bristol area, even this small quantity is of note. The tableware was supplemented by glass vessels, although these were not numerous: the dinner table would have been well dressed but not ostentatious.
One of the most interesting artefacts is a 1st-century bronze lamp depicting a cross-legged figure. Its separately cast head and hands are missing, which hampers a firm identification. The closest analogues are clay lamps from Alexandria, also dating to the 1st century AD. These depict ‘genre’ figures inspired by life in the city, including comic actors, schoolmasters, and scribes, although a metal figurative lamp from Fenchurch Street, London, is thought to represent Silenus, the tutor and companion of Bacchus, who was a popular subject both in Roman art and in figurative lamps. The Dings artefact was certainly an import, probably from the southern Mediterranean, made in one of the specialist workshops operating around Naples, Corinth, or indeed Alexandria. It is an early imperial type; other examples have been found at Pompeii, and it represents a type of object that is rare in Britain outside early military and large urban contexts. Not only does it convey a sense of some sophistication and wide contacts, but it also indicates that interior lighting was important. Having access to light lengthens the day, facilitates social and other activities, and may even relate to reading and writing. While the villa’s owners were not among the elite, finds like these do indicate that the lives of some of the site’s inhabitants were not all about agricultural toil.
The site has produced an extensive array of metalwork, including a large number of items that are quite standard for the domestic sphere, such as iron nails, keys, tools, and household items. There were more personal objects associated with people’s appearance or clothing, including hobnails from boots or shoes, brooches, bracelets/armlets, and finger-rings, as well as glass beads and bone hairpins. A lion-headed mount dating to the later 1st or 2nd century may have decorated a wooden box or casket in which some of these valuables were stored. Meanwhile, in the late Roman or early post-Roman period, someone on the site had owned a buckle with possible military associations, and another unusual object was a socketed arrowhead presumably used for hunting.As for the inhabitants themselves, a small group of burials provides us with a little information about some of the people associated with the villa. The various burials were scattered around the periphery of the site, beyond the confines of the villa buildings and the remnants of the neighbouring enclosures. One of these burials was a cremation, with the ashes placed inside a domestic jar dating to the late 2nd or early 3rd century. The vessel’s contents represent only part of the probable cremated bone, a common occurrence in this period; perhaps the rest of the remains had been redistributed, buried elsewhere, or simply not retrieved from the pyre. The remaining four burials were inhumations, containing the remains of people who had all been laid to rest stretched out on their backs. These graves probably date from the 3rd or 4th century: two included hobnails, indicating that these individuals had been buried with footwear, a phenomenon mostly associated with the late Roman period. Other nails in one burial may hint at the presence of a long-decayed wooden coffin, though no other part of it had survived.
There was little to indicate that these people were of high status, so they may have been estate workers rather than the villa’s owners. Certainly the inhumed individuals seem to have led a laborious life. Although their remains were poorly preserved, they all appear to be those of adults, and one was the skeleton of a woman in her 30s who had possibly suffered from poor nutrition in childhood, and had had a physically demanding life as an adult. Two more were possibly men aged over 45: one had osteoarthritis and other indications of a physically tough existence.
The end of the villa
Analysis of pottery and coins suggests that the villa was occupied at least until the end of the 4th century, and possibly into the 5th. Later finds included a buckle plate of a type that dates to c.AD 350-450, as well as coins of the House of Theodosius (r. 379-457), including one post-dating 395, that were found beneath floor surfaces in the rear range of the villa – it seems that the main building was still being adapted and lived in after this date. Another illuminating find was a rare cylindrical bead decorated with a trailed feathered pattern in a distinctive pale blue/turquoise colour, which is similar to beads that came into use in the very late 4th and 5th century.
Precisely how long the villa stayed in use is unclear, but at some stage it fell into disrepair and many of its walls were plundered for their stone. This was not the end of the site’s life, however: a broadly sub-rectangular rubble and stone surface, which reused building materials including pilae fragments, was created to form a platform for a new structure, of uncertain date and purpose.
It may be significant, though, that an early medieval cemetery known to have been in use between the early 5th and the mid-7th century was located just 400m to the east of the villa site. The creation of post-Roman cemeteries near ruined but still visible Romano-British buildings is a common phenomenon, and, as these burials did not contain any typically Anglo-Saxon grave goods, it might be that there was some continuity of population in this area in the immediate post-Roman period. The people of Dings did not just disappear but seem to have continued to live nearby, although not leaving such extensive traces as they had in previous centuries and, wherever they built their new homes, avoiding the now-abandoned complex of buildings and the ghosts of generations past.
Clare Randall is a Post Excavation Manager at Cotswold Archaeology.
The fieldwork was managed for Cotswold Archaeology by Laurie Coleman, and led in the field by Mark Brett and Tim Havard, with support from Cotswold Archaeology staff. The post-excavation analysis and programme of publication were managed by Dr Tom Brindle. The programme of archaeological investigation was funded by Redrow Homes.
Further information The Dings Crusaders villa will be published in 2023 as Evolution of a Romano-British Courtyard Villa: excavations at the former Dings Crusaders Rugby Ground, Stoke Gifford, South Gloucestershire, 2016-18, by Tom Brindle, Mark Brett, and Jonathan Hart. In the meantime, you can explore the site – including 3D models of some of the features – online by visiting www.cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/dings.
All images: © Cotswold Archaeology