Review by Simon Esmonde Cleary.
Excavations in 2012-2013 on the north-eastern edge of Bristol revealed an area of landscape with evidence of human activity from the Neolithic to the recent past, but the most-plentiful evidence – which was excavated in four main areas and forms the focus of this volume – was for the very late Iron Age and Roman period. This publication is explicitly not presented as a conventional final report, with detailed presentation of stratigraphy and structures, artefacts, and environmental evidence, but rather as an opportunity to synthesise, placing Lyde Green in the context of other south Gloucestershire Roman rural sites and villas. That said, the full chronological sequence is outlined, focusing on the Iron Age and Roman developments and the Roman pottery and artefacts. The story is fairly conventional: the creation of a D-shaped enclosure at the end of the Iron Age; the laying out of a series of largely rectilinear land-divisions through the earlier part of the Roman period, with agrarian structures such as a corn-dryer; the construction of a ‘winged-corridor’ villa in the second half of the 3rd century AD; its abandonment a century or so later; and its robbing then or later. Other than the main building there was a probable bathhouse, a possible byre or stable, and – most unusually at a villa – what seems to be a latrine. In addition to arable and pastoral agriculture, there is evidence for iron-working. A survey of the Roman-period archaeology of south Gloucestershire shows that Lyde Green was one of a number of villas of the ‘middling sort’, though nearby sites such as Box and Keynsham (and one might add the weirdo twin-villa at Bradford-on-Avon) show elaboration comparable to major late villas in the north Cotswolds, Somerset, and Dorset.
So far, so good. But then there were problems. The main villa building has a large, projecting room in the centre of its rear range. The authors suggest this housed a staircase, which is unlikely since the axial position of this, the most-substantial room in the building, would normally suggest it was the main reception room. Even villas more modest than Lyde Green have a mosaic in such a room. The authors state that there is no evidence for a mosaic in this room or any other; indeed, that none of the rooms has surviving floor surfaces. Here we have to face up to a major problem with the site: post-Roman land-use has severely truncated and disturbed the stratigraphy. So, does that explain the lack of floor-surfaces, or is it that there never were any in the first place? Is it possible that the building was never completed? Are the reconstruction illustrations a tad over-optimistic? How do we test this? And what about other building materials – are they present on this part of the site in sufficient quantity to support a structure carried to full height? There is mention of demolition material: some ceramic roof-tile, quantities of stone roofing-slabs, and some painted plaster. But the format of the report means it is not possible to pin down where this was found, though some seems to be from all four main excavated areas. An old-fashioned excavation report would probably have allowed this to be resolved.
There are a couple of noteworthy features of the finds assemblage. One is the coin profile: extraordinarily for this region, there are no coins minted in the period AD 364-378 (and few thereafter). The pottery shows a similar profile. So the main complex may not have survived beyond the middle of the 4th century, even if there is sporadic later material. Had ownership or the focus of activity shifted away from this site? The other is that there are quite a few brooches of 1st- and 2nd-century types, but from late Roman deposits.
The report is an interesting synthesis, but a major crux of the story remains unsolved – something that might be better addressed with a more- traditional format.
Lyde Green Roman Villa, Emersons Green, South Gloucestershire, Matthew S Hobson and Richard Newman (eds), Archaeopress, £38, ISBN 978-1803270463.