Remarkable roman villa complex discovered in Oxfordshire

Archaeologists from the Red River Archaeology Group working on a Barratt and David Wilson Homes housing development in Oxfordshire are uncovering a remarkable Roman villa complex. The Brookside Meadows site in Grove, Wantage, sits on a landscape inhabited since the Bronze Age and includes a villa complex richly decorated with painted plaster and mosaics, and […]

Mar 28, 2024

Archaeologists from the Red River Archaeology Group working on a Barratt and David Wilson Homes housing development in Oxfordshire are uncovering a remarkable Roman villa complex.

The Brookside Meadows site in Grove, Wantage, sits on a landscape inhabited since the Bronze Age and includes a villa complex richly decorated with painted plaster and mosaics, and a monumental hall-like ‘aisled building’ with hints of internal colonnades. The artefact-rich site was long-lived, with Roman activity extending from the 1st or 2nd centuries into the late 4th or perhaps even the early 5th century AD.

The finds include remarkable quantities of painted plaster inclusive of floral motifs; mosaic tesserae; hypocaust box flue tiles; a complex brickwork floor, possibly relating to a hypocaust; miniature votive axes; ‘Samian’-style red-slip tableware; hundreds of coins; rings and brooches; and a horse-headed belt buckle dating to AD 350-450. Most intriguing of all, however, is the enigmatic assemblage of tightly-coiled lead scrolls that, although blank (to date) when unrolled, recall Roman ‘curse tablets’ that, when viewed alongside the miniature votive axes, suggests a ritual/pilgrimage focus somewhere on the estate.

Roman ‘Aisled Buildings’ and ‘Winged-Corridor’ Villas

Aisled buildings seem to date from the late 1st century AD, with most constructed in the 2nd century, before declining in popularity in the 4th. After construction, these hall-like structures might then be developed into a villa, become part of a wider villa complex, or even replace the villa. To date, four huge potential column or post bases for an internal colonnade have been uncovered in the aisled building that, at c. 500m2, is one of the larger examples of its type from Britain (CA 326). This building is immediately adjacent to a ‘winged-

corridor’ villa, a high-status domestic structure with a central range and flanking wings of rooms accessed by a central corridor (O.R.). As the excavation is ongoing, the chronological relationship between the villa and the aisled building is being resolved, but it is almost certain the aisled building is later than the villa.

The Importance of Brookside Meadows

Beyond the impressive size and scope of the multifaceted complex and the exceptional volume of finds, the site is also important for its evidence of activity continuing into the late 4th or even 5th century. The best evidence for this is a horse-headed Type 1B buckle dating to c. AD 350-450, notable for being associated not only with elites who were in – or, in a form of military chic, wished to be associated with the prestige of – the Late Roman army, but also with some early Anglo-Saxon furnished burials (Gerrard 2013: 153).

Brookside Meadows also shows evidence for changes in focus, followed by systematic deconstruction of the buildings (seemingly around the end of the Roman period), with surprisingly few roof tiles and walls robbed-out to their foundations. In one former well-built room, lead has been melted in the middle of the floor using repurposed Roman building material as a base, perhaps reflecting the phenomenon of many grand Romano-British villa complexes becoming increasingly focussed on manufacturing and crop processing – as with the cereal/hop drying t-shaped ovens excavated on site – over elite display (CA 326).

The lead scrolls and miniature votive axes (and the many Late Roman coins and jewellery) continue to be researched, but there are – if on a small scale – parallels to Romano-British temple/cult sites like Uley, Lydney (both Glos.) and Farley Heath (Surrey) where this range of items are considered votive offerings. Notably, Uley’s objects included mini weapons, thought to be given to martial gods as, seemingly, the Mercury cult at Uley (CTRB). Farley Heath’s late 3rd to late 4th century date-range of copper-alloy coin offerings, paralleled at most temple sites (and more generally), also seem to match this site (SAC).

Quotations

Louis Stafford, Senior Project Manager (Red River Archaeology Group) said:

“The sheer size of the buildings that still survive and the richness of goods recovered suggest this was a dominant feature in the locality, if not the wider landscape.”

Francesca Giarelli, Project Officer (Red River Archaeology Group) said:

“The site is far more complex than a regular rural site and clearly was an important centre of activities for a long time, from the Bronze Age to the later Roman period.”

Campbell Gregg, Managing Director (Barratt and David Wilson Homes Southern) said:

“It’s remarkable to think that we are simply the latest in a line of people who have established a community on this site, dating back such a long way. It’s been fantastic to work with Red River Archaeology Group in the early stages of Brookside Meadows to develop the local historical understanding and heritage.”

Background – Brookside Meadows (Barrat t and David Wilson Homes)

Brookside Meadows, located on Denchworth Road, will deliver a collection of two bedroom apartments and three, four and five bedroom houses.

The development will feature charging points for electric vehicles, alongside solar panels on every home, as Barratt and David Wilson Homes takes pride on its energy-efficient and sustainable housebuilding.

Barratt and David Wilson Homes works with archaeologists in the early stages of its developments as best practice, allowing experts to carry out excavations in sites of interest. Not only is this a key part of the site’s progress, it enables local communities to find out valuable historical information, and intriguing finds from the past on their doorstep.

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