Back in CA 370, we described Oxford Archaeology’s excavation of the rare remains of a Romano-British temple-mausoleum associated with an early villa at Priors Hall, near Corby, Northamptonshire. The ceremonial structure was intriguing in its own right, but during the 2nd to 3rd century AD the site’s story had taken an unexpected turn: the mausoleum and surrounding landscape were transformed into a thriving manufacturing centre, whose abundance of kilns produced huge quantities of tiles, brick, pottery vessels, and lime mortar.
These features (dubbed Area A during our research) lay some 200m to the west of the villa remains, which spanned the 1st to 4th century in date and had first been discovered in 2011. It was clear that there was much more to learn about the wider estate – what had happened on the northern and eastern sides of the villa? In the snowy January of 2021, we returned to Priors Hall to find out.
Iron Age beginnings
Our new investigation covered an area of 4.75ha, and within this, on a south-sweeping slope c.100m to the north of the main villa (in what we call Area B), we found evidence of occupation that long pre-dated the known Roman remains. This was a small group of roundhouses clustered in an enclosure, which had begun its life during the Middle Iron Age (c.350-100 BC). This settlement had expanded steadily over time, reaching its peak during the Late Iron Age (c.100 BC-AD 50) as a small but prospering cluster of six to eight roundhouses and a smattering of other post-built buildings. These were enclosed by a large, sinuous ditch, while a metalled trackway bisected the internal area of the settlement, no doubt created to facilitate the movement of its inhabitants and their animals. Pottery and metalwork recovered from the final fill sequences of the settlement indicate that it was closed down and abandoned between AD 40 and AD 100 – around the same time that construction began on the villa site. Had the Iron Age community been displaced or, as we suggest, had its members been the builders and owners, or managers (perhaps as stewards) of the new estate?
During the 1st and 2nd centuries, the construction of (mostly small) villa complexes forms a discrete settlement pattern across Roman Britain, with clear regional concentrations visible in the archaeological record. For local parallels to Priors Hall, the development of the villa at Itter Crescent in nearby Peterborough was similar, as was that of sites even closer to home, such as the villas at Little Weldon, Stanion, and Harpole – all close neighbours in Northamptonshire, and all preserving evidence of earlier Iron Age settlement or associated activity.
An ongoing challenge in interpreting sites like these is that, except in unusual circumstances, it is difficult to determine the relative status of Iron Age settlements or to unpick why some evolved into villa estates, while others did not. The traces found at Priors Hall were not dissimilar to other Middle-to-Late Iron Age settlements within the region and beyond, and other than the subsequent development of the villa there is nothing to mark this site out as anything exceptional. We did uncover large amounts of metalworking waste, but there were no distinctive finds assemblages or features to indicate an ‘elite’ status.
The Iron Age settlement did not exist in isolation, however. A significant Late Iron Age iron-smelting site, boasting a set of nine iron-smelting furnaces along with a high volume of features, had already been excavated around 1km to the south-west of Priors Hall back in 2006. It is likely that this dedicated production site and the Priors Hall settlement were linked, possibly even belonging to the same community. Perhaps, then, one of the reasons behind the subsequent construction of the villa may have been the rich iron-producing potential that had already been established.
Approaching the estate
The land immediately to the east of the villa (Area C) would have formed its frontal aspect, through which visitors would have made their way to the estate. The lack of any ditch systems that might indicate pastoral management or agrarian production during the Roman phases, together with the suspiciously quiet archaeobotanical record, suggest that – within the immediate hinterland at least – agrarian production was not a priority. Instead, we found surprising evidence for a bucolic, wooded landscape, through which an arrow-straight metalled trackway ran, cutting a dominating swathe through this scene for around 300m. This routeway (which we named ‘the Avenue’) was clearly the approach to the villa itself, bringing visitors and goods from the main road, which was located 500m to the east (of which, more later). As you made your way towards the complex, you would have moved through a tree-shaded area that would have nicely framed the villa before the landscape opened out quite suddenly. This visual experience was surely contrived to draw the focus of the visitor.
The ditches flanking the Avenue were relatively sparse in terms of finds, with only sporadic pottery and animal bone attesting to its relative isolation from domesticity. None of the recovered pottery post-dated the 2nd century AD, and the small numbers of brooches and coins that we found there date to the 1st-2nd centuries AD. There were more numerous pottery finds further down this route, however: halfway along the Avenue we found the isolated remains of a single circular pottery kiln which – as is usual for Roman pottery kilns – had been cut into the ground. In this case, the kiln had begun life as a small quarry pit (presumably dug to obtain materials for constructing the Avenue), which was later expanded for its new purpose. It had produced a diverse range of wares dated to AD 70-150, including ring-neck flagons, lids, jars, and some unusual carinated bowls.
The kiln had also been used to create mortaria – grinding bowls that were very popular in Roman Britain and were used to prepare a variety of foodstuffs. Those made at Priors Hall seem to have been copies of types from around Verulamium (Roman St Albans), and their rims bore ghostly stamps identifying the potter who had produced them. These had been executed quite poorly and are difficult to interpret, but they appear to read something like ‘CINIRYIS’. Could this be the name of one or a group of itinerant potters who worked for the early villa estate?
Tracing a Roman road
As mentioned above, around 1km east of the villa site (Area E) we were excited to uncover the well-preserved remains of a 25m-long stretch of Roman road running NNE to SSW. Along with the establishment of towns, smaller urban developments, and villas, the construction of (generally) straight roads that were usable in all weather conditions lay at the heart of the Roman imperial project in Britain – and the discovery of one at such a good level of preservation, associated with a villa estate, makes the Priors Hall road an extremely important discovery.
Built along a ridge at the bottom of a small valley bounded by steep hills, the road measured 17m wide from drainage ditch to drainage ditch, with a 6m-wide running surface in between. This had been constructed from built-up clay that still survived to a height of 0.7m-1m above the natural level, laid on a bottoming layer of local limestone. Building the road would have been a major undertaking, and we can also see that it had required the removal of at least 20 trees along this stretch alone, their remains and charred fills testifying to deliberate clearance. Once the work had been completed, it is possible that flocks of sheep or other animals were herded along the new route to ensure an even, compacted surface – the modern world still employs very similar methods, albeit in a mechanised version.
How does the road relate to the villa? Dating the construction of individual Roman roads is a challenge, but there may be a clue in the quality of the Priors Hall example – it was built to an extremely high standard, almost to the point of being over-engineered. The Roman army is the likeliest candidate for this level of workmanship, something that might indicate an early date. The fact that the villa had been built just 1km away by the end of the 1st century is persuasive, too – and we were further aided by the discovery of a single grave that had been deeply dug between the agger and the eastern drainage ditch: the inhumation burial of a woman aged 35-45. Radiocarbon dating of her remains returned a range between 43 BC and AD 126, and further analysis indicated that a later 1st-century date is most likely. The overlap in dates between the proposed construction of the road and the later phase of occupation of the Iron Age settlement in Area B suggests that the local inhabitants may have witnessed the road being built – might they even have been involved in its construction?
This section of the road appears to have served the landscape faithfully for some time, its deep wheel ruts attesting to thousands of journeys undertaken along it. Considerable investment was made into maintaining it: around the 3rd century AD (probably linked to contemporary expansion of the villa and the growing manufacturing centre to the west), the surface of this stretch was fully repaired, with its ruts filled in and efforts made to improve drainage. This included spreading thick layers of metalworking waste, identified as a distinctively Roman type known as ‘tap-slag’, over its surface, while the western drainage ditch at the lowest point of the valley floor was also filled in to create a large bank to stop the ingress of water down the slope. A new inner ditch was created on its eastern side, cutting through the top of the woman’s grave in the process.
It is not clear how long the road continued to operate after the 4th and 5th centuries: we found little discernible evidence of later use, no field boundaries appeared to respect it, and the ceramics and metalwork recovered from this area were exclusively dated to the 1st to 3rd centuries. Even when still buried under rain-washed soil, though, we did find that the line of the road provided a better driving surface than the rest of the field – and for the villa owners it would have represented an invaluable link with other sites. To the north, it gave access to the important iron-working sites at Laxton and further to Great Casterton. To the south, the road has been observed during excavations at Little Weldon villa and Stanion villa, and can be traced further still to the important developments at Kettering and Irchester. Infrastructure was a key part of the imperial project and, indirectly, this road formed part of an enormous and complex network of roadways and riverways that connected this small part of the province with an empire that stretched from Britain to the Euphrates.
The villa in context
The various excavations around Priors Hall have provided a great opportunity to study the origins and environs of a Romano-British villa. It is rarely clear who was directly responsible for building the villas in Britain, but at this site we have evidence to suggest the successful early acculturation of local elites: the small, perhaps familial, Iron Age community identified in Area B may well have been active in the construction and management of Priors Hall villa. This was not the only villa built in the vicinity during the late 1st century, however. The example at Little Weldon, located just 2km directly south, is believed to have been constructed in AD 70-80 and, in a notable contrast to Priors Hall, the Weldon site seems to have been mostly concerned with agrarian cultivation, with little evidence for other industry.
The wider rural economy was wholly grounded in agriculture during the Iron Age, but subsidiary industries (such as iron production) began to gain considerable momentum under the Romans. Recent estimates have placed the population of Roman Britain at c.3.6 million people, suggesting that perhaps 5,400 tonnes of iron may have been produced annually across the province, with around 150,000 people being involved in its wider production. It is clear, even on conservative estimates, that the landscape around Priors Hall represents a significant investment in this industry alone, while the tileries and potteries also represent a diversification of intensive production during the later Roman period. It seems possible that the villas at Priors Hall and Weldon may have worked in tandem to control the rural production of crops and iron, as well as the local workforce. If this was the case, the process appears to have developed from the older Iron Age systems already in place.
The road that we excavated in Area E certainly suggests this kind of interconnectivity. The villa at Stanion, 2km south of Little Weldon and 4km to the south of Priors Hall, also lies along this route, and may have formed another part of the connected network that we are considering here. A similar pattern can be traced elsewhere – contemporary villas in the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire display a similar spacing, and some of the remaining villas in Northamptonshire seem to co-exist in the same way. This close proximity may add further evidence to argue against the traditional view of villas as being mostly built at the centre of large estates: a picture that has been challenged for some time, not least because of the huge variability in sites that are termed ‘villas’ in Britain.
As for the final episode of the villa’s story, as the relatively stable 2nd century gave way into the tumultuous 3rd century, Priors Hall was reorganised and its focus shifted to the west. The earlier associated temple-mausoleum site, whether a focus of sacred dialogue or an ancestral monument, was deemed surplus to requirements and began its new industrialised life, producing goods well into the final decades of Roman rule in Britain. Surviving traces like these are fascinating and complex, and these preliminary observations are only part of an ongoing project that aims to place this villa in its appropriate regional context, illuminating such activities and the landscape in which they operated.
All images: Oxford Archaeology East
Paddy Lambert is a Project Officer for Oxford Archaeology East; he ran the excavations at Priors Hall.