Industrial-scale Roman silver extraction in Kent

The team also found the remains of a high-status, middle-aged woman who had been laid to rest in a lead-lined coffin.

Evidence for large-scale Roman silver-extraction, ‘the most ever found at a site in Roman Britain’, has been unearthed at a settlement near Grange Farm in Kent, together with the elaborate mausoleum of a high-status woman.

IMAGE: © Pre-Construct Archaeology.

Pre-Construct Archaeology have been analysing the site finds and records since excavations in 2005-2006 and have just published their report, which indicates that the area was first inhabited by an Iron Age farming community. By the 4th century AD, however, it was home to an ‘aisled building’, a wooden structure divided into three parts with a hearth in the middle and sections for accommodation and small-scale metalworking at either end.

Outside the building, however, the team found 15kg of Roman-era litharge (a by-product of the silver extraction process), a quantity so large that it suggests industrial-scale metalworking activity. ‘Quite why people were refining silver from silver-rich base metal alloys is a mystery,’ said Dr James Gerrard, the publication’s co-author and a senior lecturer in Roman Archaeology at Newcastle University. ‘Quite what the objects being melted down were is a mystery too. One would imagine that silver-refining – part of the late Roman precious metal economy, closely tied into the tax–military pay cycle – would have occurred within an official or semi-official context. Yet Grange Farm was a small-scale rural settlement. It is very unusual. Maybe they were making silver objects like the ingots in the Canterbury Treasure [a late-Roman hoard of silver jewellery and objects, many bearing Christian iconography, that was found in 1962].’

This was not the only unusual discovery to emerge: the team also found the remains of a high-status, middle-aged woman who had been laid to rest in a lead-lined coffin (ABOVE) in a two-storey mausoleum, a type of building more commonly associated with villas. Editor of the monograph Victoria Ridgeway, who is Director at Pre-Construct Archaeology, commented: ‘It is very unusual to find a lead-lined coffin within a mausoleum in Roman Britain, and the building and the coffin both suggest the woman was important to her community. Stable isotope analysis suggests that she may well have grown up in the local area, although we can’t exclude an origin in parts of southern and eastern England or even Europe.’

By the Medway Marsh: excavations at Grange Farm, Gillingham, Kent 2003-2006 by James Gerrard and Guy Seddon is available at