Rare investigation in Verulamium

Excavations at Verulamium Park in St Albans have unearthed the corner of a possible mansio – a stopping place on the Roman road network.

Test-pits excavated by Oxford Archaeology in Verulamium Park in St Albans during the summer uncovered the corner of a possible mansio – a stopping place on the Roman road network – as well as remains of other buildings from the Roman town.

One test-pit exposed an upper surface of Watling Street. IMAGE: Oxford Archaeology

The site of Verulamium is a scheduled ancient monument. As any work likely to disturb it requires scheduled monument consent, opportunities for archaeological excavation are rare. A chance to investigate part of the town arose when events management company Brand Events sought consent for St Albans’ ‘Pub in the Park’ event. Historic England requested test-pits to establish the depth of the uppermost archaeological layers beneath the park. Consultants RPS Group commissioned Oxford Archaeology to carry out the small archaeological investigation. Six 1m by 1m test-pits targeted buildings identified in a geophysical survey carried out by Kris Lockyear and Ellen Shlasko in 2013 and 2014.

One test-pit exposed an upper surface of Watling Street that extended through the town. As it lay just below the subsoil, the pebble and stone surface may represent a late Roman or even medieval resurfacing of the street. Two test-pits uncovered flint and mortar wall foundations or surfaces of rectangular ‘strip’ buildings, likely to be townhouses. Test-pits in another part of the town uncovered demolition and soil layers associated with other townhouses. The sixth test-pit revealed a demolition layer or wall foundation of a large quadrangular building interpreted by Ros Niblett and Isobel Thompson as a mansio.

The artefacts have limited association with the structural remains, but they are consistent with luxury lifestyles characteristic of a major Roman town: box flue tile from a heated room or bathhouse, fine ceramic tableware, olive oil- and wine containers, vessel- and window glass, a tack-like nail from a box or casket, coins that changed hands in the marketplace, and animal bones that point to the consumption of pork and beef.

This is not Oxford Archaeology’s first investigation at Verulamium. In 2018, a team from its Cambridge office carried out an excavation at St Michael’s Primary School on the site of Verulamium’s forum basilica, the town’s administrative and commercial centre.

Commenting on the project, Carl Champness, Senior Project Manager at Oxford Archaeology and director of the investigation, said: ‘This was a rare opportunity to excavate Roman Verulamium. Although the investigation was small, the results were fascinating, confirming the accuracy of the geophysical survey and opening a window on the lives of the people who lived in the town.’

TEXT: Edward Biddulph