The Northamptonshire town of Corby lies in a region well-known for the richness of its natural resources – including limestone and iron ore – meaning that this area’s history has long been entwined with industry. The county is also rich in Roman villas, with over 40 examples known (including, close to Corby, at Little Weldon and Stanion). Both of these characteristics came to light during our excavation at Priors Hall, which has added another site to this tally, as well as compelling evidence for industrial activity. The extensive villa remains were first identified during trial-trenching in 2011 and 2016. Nestling within a sweeping stream valley, its surviving limestone walls still bore traces of painted wall-plaster, and recovered pottery fragments suggest it was occupied in the 1st-3rd centuries AD.
More recently, between summer 2019 and spring 2020, a hardy team of archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology East carried out the excavation of a 1.3ha site adjacent to the villa. These works, undertaken as part of a wider scheme of archaeological investigation ahead of the Priors Hall Park development (a mixed-use urban extension to Corby that includes the construction of 5,000 new homes by Urban&Civic plc), revealed that this area was far more significant than previous excavations had suggested. Shedding dramatic light on the site’s Roman roots, our discoveries have been nothing short of spectacular: a panoply of features providing breathtakingly rare insights into the construction and economic life of a Roman villa, and reflecting a phenomenon that occurred across wide areas of Roman Britain during the 3rd to 4th centuries AD. At the heart of it all, the key discovery was a stone-built Romano-Celtic temple-mausoleum, probably associated with an earlier phase of the villa – though this ceremonial structure later had a rather more worldly function, repurposed to house a complex of tile and pottery kilns. This subsequent industrial activity may have continued well into the 4th century and perhaps formed a commercial arm of the estate. Before we explore these industrial aspects, though, what can we learn from the temple-mausoleum itself?
Romano-Celtic temples and mausolea both represent fascinating Roman architectural phenomena. They share a relatively similar basic plan – a squared wall (ambulatory or precinct) enclosing a smaller structure usually known as the cella – though with variations in the size and placement of certain elements, as well as the terminology used to describe them. At Priors Hall, the building’s location adjacent to a Roman villa, together with its orientation facing west (as opposed to the common east-facing aspect of Romano-Celtic temples), suggest that it is likely to be a mausoleum – although the term ‘temple-mausoleum’ will be used in this article with affectionate ambiguity.
Mausolea of this period are rare nationally, though there is a comparable example at Lullingstone Villa in Kent, which is strikingly similar in size and arrangement; other generally similar sites include another Kentish example at Stone-by-Faversham and, closer to home, the temple-shrine at Irchester in Northamptonshire. These buildings vary in ground-plan: square examples tend to be more common, but hexagonal forms are also known, for example at Colchester. The Romans called these funerary constructions monumentum, and they were physical embodiments of the need to perpetuate the memory of the high-status people who built them. Rather than meeting the spiritual needs of a local population, they represent testimonies to the successful acculturation of those Romano-British elites.
The temple-mausoleum at Priors Hall stood on a prominent ridge at the uppermost western point of the site. Constructed from local limestone, it consisted of a well-built single-celled square building, set within a rectangular courtyard bounded by stone walls that formed a square precinct. Two of the precinct walls – the southern and eastern walls – survived, standing between one and four well-dressed courses high and comprising a 0.8m-wide foundation with a narrower wall built on top. The precinct that they enclosed measured approximately 14m × 17m (subsequent activities had obscured the line of the western wall and the probable site of the entrance to the courtyard) and its floor was surfaced with compacted natural limestone.
At the heart of this courtyard stood the cella. Three of its original four walls, 1m wide, survived in varying states of preservation, suggesting that the small chamber had an interior space of c.4.1m by 4.6m. The cella, crowned with a limestone-tiled roof and clearly standing at a considerable height (as indicated by the width of its walls), would have stood proud in the local landscape, an impressive commemoration to the memory of its financier. Interestingly, 600m directly to the west of the mausoleum lies an Early Bronze Age henge monument, which was excavated in 2012. Might this much-earlier feature provide an intriguing temporal link in monumental architecture? Links between Roman and prehistoric monumentation and funerary landscapes are known, but not fully understood.
Based on trends in the construction of known Roman mausolea, and viewed through the prism of its villa neighbour, it is probable that the Priors Hall temple-mausoleum dates to the late 2nd to 3rd century – it is hoped that forthcoming radiocarbon dates will clarify this. The structure appears to have fronted directly on to a road or track, which was represented by two parallel drainage ditches that ran north-west to south-east, bisecting the wider site. Although no road surface survived in situ, some of the raised agger and metalling material was excavated from the fills of its ditches.
Not surprisingly, the later reuse of the building and its precinct had removed any architectural embellishment, such as painted wall-plaster, that related to its life as an ancestral monument. Nor were any human remains or artefacts associated with its ceremonial function recovered, though this is not wholly uncommon. A small set of notches along the southern and northern faces of its interior cella walls may hint at its former life, however, perhaps reflecting suspension attachments for ossuary cubicles, or beam slots for a raised floor.
From tomb to tilery
At some point in the later 3rd to early 4th century, the Priors Hall landscape underwent a dramatic evolution from a bucolic villa estate into a hub of industrious activity, populated by dozens of workers and animals. The earlier temple-mausoleum building, which was probably semi-dilapidated by this point, was chosen as a suitable site for a tilery, with two kilns being constructed, the larger of which utilised the rather sad shell of the former cella.
The reuse of sacred or funerary architecture is not altogether uncommon during this period: tombstones were often recycled in the construction of town walls, while small-scale industry within temple structures is also known. Across the wider Roman Empire, graffiti tells us that mausolea were used as toilets, for illicit sexual encounters, and even just as a bed for the night. However, the scale and intensity of evidence for the fundamental change in function of a large funerary monument – as we observed at Priors Hall – is extremely rare. While it will never be known for sure, the repurposing does not appear to reflect any concerted effort on the part of the tiler-builders to eradicate or deface the memory of the original owner, but simple, prosaic opportunism, seizing on a stone shell suitable for a kiln.
In this new guise, the walls of the precinct were no longer required and were extensively robbed during this initial phase – the material was reused as trackway metalling, as well as in the construction of various kilns. Similarly, three of the four outer walls of the central cella structure were levelled and its stone recycled. Its western doorway was bricked up using tegula and thick mortar, and a squared pottery kiln built immediately outside it. Meanwhile the cella’s eastern wall was partially demolished to facilitate the construction of a new entrance, and a small tile kiln was constructed parallel to the line of the eastern wall. This smaller kiln mirrored the construction of the cella-kiln: it was orientated north to south, and utilised the lower dressed courses of the earlier wall as its western edge, while its internal infrastructure had an arched pilae system. Both kilns were fired from the same stoke pit – the eastern one of the two described below – and, while it is unknown whether they were in use at the same time or in succession, the proximity of both may suggest a relationship of production, perhaps for different types of tile or brick.
The remaining interior surfaces of the cella walls and other exposed surfaces were lined with a thick layer of clay to seal them, with particular focus placed on the small notches along the faces of the walls. This activity left the small interior space conveniently exposed and the original floor level, probably originally of opus signinum, was dug out and lowered by approximately 0.8m. A foundation of reused flat building stones and tiles was then constructed to build the floor level back up, and atop this new surface, a network of between 16 and 18 mortared pilae stacks (columns of tiles) were placed, each 0.4m tall, acting as the framework of the kiln. The pilae were spaced exactly 0.16m apart, with narrow mortared vents positioned on a 45º angle between each one, allowing the air to circulate efficiently during firing. Overall, the pilae formed an arched configuration above a large, deep linear clay-lined flue that had been cut east to west, bisecting the floor.
As mentioned above, the pottery and tile kilns were powered by two enormous stoke pits – each measuring between 3m and 5m wide and up to 1.5m deep. These were dug through the courtyard against the western and eastern walls. A network of more than 11 sub-square post-pads, again constructed out of whatever the builders could find, were laid out flanking the cella structure on its northern and southern sides. These would have provided the footings for large posts that once supported a wooden roof, protecting the tile kiln from the elements. Two substantial squared blocks, hewn from sandstone and certainly linked to the entrance of the original temple-mausoleum, had been utilised for this purpose on the southern side of the cella. There was clear evidence that the old roof for the cella had been demolished or had simply collapsed, since the original Collyweston slate tiles were dotted all over subsequent rebuild elements. The presence of numerous other posts around the courtyard suggests that large parts of the area were enclosed, perhaps at different times of its industrial use.
“The completed kilns produced enormous quantities of bricks and tiles – during the excavation, we encountered over 10 tonnes of just the waste product!”
The completed kilns would have produced enormous quantities of bricks and tiles – during the excavation, we encountered over 10 tonnes of just the waste product! The original output must have been staggering. The waste assemblages suggest predominantly tegula roof-tile production, although other products, such as Bessales, Pedales, and Lydion floor tiles, were probably also produced. In the surrounding precinct courtyard, the tileries operated alongside numerous subsidiary industries, including two pottery kilns to the west, another enigmatic kiln built into the southern wall of the cella (the function of which is currently uncertain), and a small oven.
One of the backfill deposits of the building yielded a personal and individual link to one of the tilers themselves. On this inscribed tile, sadly not complete, the tiler had used a finger to quickly scratch in his name before firing. It read ‘…EN(TI) [or IT] (F)ECIT’ (‘…NENTI has made this’). Although we do not know his full name, perhaps it was Nentius and he just did not have room to complete the inscription – but we do know he was proud of his work. Indeed, this find means that while we may never know the name of the elite owner of the villa, we do know the name of one of the normally invisible workers. We also encountered several dozen tiles with both boot and animal footprints. The former examples reflect the fact that tilers checked the dryness in the tiles before firing. The animal prints show that species such as deer, fox, dog, and cat walked across the tiles as they were laid to out to dry before firing.
Digging down through the later demolition layers of the building complex, we recovered Roman pottery, iron nails, animal bone and, inevitably, hundreds of fragments of ceramic tiles and brick. Generally, finds such as coins and metal artefacts were relatively scarce, but a handful of notable finds included a heavy lead plumb bob, its iron attaching-hoop broken – it was probably used during one of the construction phases. An enigmatic and worn Late Iron Age coin seemed to have been deliberately placed beneath one of the tile-kiln roof post-pads. This coin would have already been an antique to those that placed it there: possible votive gifts are not uncommon on building projects, even today.
At the eastern side of the site, a network of large, interconnected quarry pits for the extraction of limestone covered an extensive area some 25m long and 15m wide. The pits appeared to have been created in quick succession and were eventually all open at the same time, resulting in a deep, flat-based bowl that was 1.3m deep at its lowest extent. A smaller scheme of clay-extraction pits, dug over a natural shelf of clay, was located to the north of the site and probably formed the source of the raw materials needed for the adjacent tile and pottery production. These areas of quarrying were linked by a metalled trackway that snaked along the site from north to south – it was constructed using demolition material from the nearby temple-mausoleum. A smaller trackway at the southern end of the quarry network appeared to be aligned due west, presumably permitting access to the villa.
One of the star finds in this area, though, was a magnificent keyhole-shaped lime kiln cut into the western edge of the quarry, its entrance facing east – it utilised the adjacent quarry as a stoke area. The feature was so large (measuring 4.3m long, 4.3m wide and 0.6m deep) that we managed to fit the entire site team into the chamber with room to spare. Once again, it was constructed out of reused building limestone. The kiln probably produced lime mortar by, effectively, melting quarried limestone – its size suggests that it was capable of producing tons of such material, providing a major component in the construction of the nearby villa complex. Due to the fact that it had been cleaned and backfilled at the end of its use, it is relatively difficult to estimate how many times it was used, but its hardened clay floor had at least two relining events. Further clues come from two large upright stones which had been used as pillars to form the entrance; at some point, perhaps in its early life, one of those stones seems to have fallen over, although the workers clearly continued to use the kiln.
There were three further stone- and tile-built pottery kilns, all remarkably well preserved and each of which had a different internal structure, suggesting differing methods of production. They were constructed into the bases and the edges of the quarries. We even found the iron tools of one of the potters outside a kiln entrance. Analysis is still ongoing on the substantial pottery assemblage recovered from the site, and it is not yet known what type of vessels were being produced, but the wasters hint at the production of greyware dishes. These were perhaps destined to be used in the kitchens of the villa or may have formed a commercial cottage industry. The presence of a modest quantity of scrap copper-alloy artefacts, recovered from the fills of a network of pits, suggests that small-scale recycling also took place nearby. These artefacts, which included both whole and partial coins, and armlet and bracelet fragments, all show evidence of having been cut into pieces in antiquity.
The end to this industrious activity came during the first half of the 4th century when, perhaps reflecting the finalisation of villa construction, the various kilns and quarries were shut down and backfilled with midden material and rubble, before being levelled. The debris from this episode included rubble, burnt material, and pottery, which extended across the site of the pottery kilns, lime kiln, and associated pits. The pottery kiln to the west was also infilled, with the reused roof tiles from the former temple-mausoleum being used as a capping layer. This may have been undertaken while the villa was still in use as an effort to reinstate the landscape; the enclosure ditches to the north of the site appear to be linked to this phase. The tile kilns themselves seem to have carried on spewing out tiles for a while, though, perhaps as a commercial enterprise or for repairs. However, in time both the industrial site and the villa were abandoned, and nature gradually reclaimed the site altogether. Eventually, the land was used for agriculture, a purpose that endured for centuries before the OA East team began work in 2019.
The wider view
What can we say of the site’s broader context? The villa phenomenon that occurred during the later Roman period in Britain reflects a spike in agricultural wealth, linked to changing political hierarchies and less military financial pressure, which meant more money for the elite, usually at the general expense of everybody else. The Third-Century Crisis appeared to alter the hitherto peripheral and isolated existence of the province of Britannia into a vital organ in the body politic of the Late Western Empire. More ready cash provided the desire to spend it and, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, areas of Britain saw a significant rise in the construction of masonry, or masonry-footed, buildings. Such stone construction was largely limited to the prosperous urban towns, creating private houses, public buildings, or roadside settlements, temples, and mausolea. However, into the 4th century, it was the rural villa that saw the greatest upsurge in exploitation of the natural and social environments, and becoming an architectural phenomenon over the last century of the Roman imperial project. Over 2,000 examples of villas, from palatial rarities to more-modest affairs are known in Britain, and the number identified continues to rise each year.
Villa estates are an immediately recognisable component of the Late Roman rural landscape, though how and why they were built, and who lived in them remains largely elusive. Nonetheless, interpretations have been largely based on the domestic range. They were clearly complex industrial, social, and environmental organisms; our mausoleum and its change of use attest to the ever-evolving nature of the human economic experience. The increasing construction of villas and their countless architectural elements saw the mass-production of ceramic tiles, bricks, mortar, and glass, and each of those activities are represented at Priors Hall. The exploitation of natural resources, including vast swathes of woodland, necessitated the creation and maintenance of elaborate systems of construction industries and economies relating to extraction, production, and transportation, outside the agricultural economic norm. At Priors Hall, not surprisingly given the capricious climate of Britain, it seems these activities were seasonal – the heavier work like quarrying perhaps taking place in the winter and manufacturing occurring during the warmer months.
These various economic activities included more specialisation than ever before, but both potters and tilers may have been the same community, perhaps attached to the villa estate by indenture, though they may have travelled more widely as a specialist trade. The agricultural economies were still the dominant force – and would be for centuries – but Roman occupation and its ferocious cultivation and exploitation of the natural environment facilitated more-diverse industries that could provide different, but tightly controlled, employment opportunities. The archaeology at Priors Hall provides a dramatic window into this ancient world.
Having explored the site’s past, what about its future? The villa has been designated an Archaeological Preservation Area (APA) and, as a significant heritage asset, will be left in situ, kept as a green space that will help to facilitate a shared sense of identity for the modern community who will come to call the site home. Much work is still needed on the analysis of this evocative and wonderful site, and the limitations of the evidence are as important as the questions it can help to answer. Post-excavation analysis is fully under way, and more information is coming to light almost daily. One thing is very clear: the archaeology investigated at Priors Hall is very special indeed.
Thanks to the Oxford Archaeology East field team, who are highly commended for their invaluable work; Nick Gilmour, the Senior Project Manager for OA East; and Lesley-Ann Mather, East Northamptonshire County Archaeological Advisor. Finds and records from the excavation will eventually be deposited with the brand-new Northamptonshire Archaeological Resource Centre at Chester Farm Heritage Park, Irchester, which is due to open in 2021.
Source Paddy Lambert is a Project Officer for Oxford Archaeology East. He ran the excavations at Priors Hall.