This article appeared in the Summer 1970 (Issue #20) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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Ash Romano-British Villa --
An Interim Report.
The site (NGR TQ 608650) lies 450 feet above OD at a point just below the red clay -- with flint capping to the chalk and is built on a sandy outcrop. This area was well served by natural springs until pumping lowered the water table, but even now the small pond just to the north-east of the site is never completely dry -- even in the recent dry summer.
The Villa was originally found in 1913/1914 on the farm owned by Mr G Day when a chestnut coppice, which projected awkwardly into a field, was being grubbed out -- the stumps being removed with gelignite! (See letter from Mr Ralph Day in Review Number 19). Excavations were carried out under the guidance of the Dartford and District Antiquarian Society represented by Mr S Priest and assisted by Mr Day and others.
Efforts have been made to locate the notes relating to the 1914 excavations but have been so far unsuccessful, although various leads are still being pursued as it is known that several museums have selections of the finds from this site. A plan was, however, published in VCH and also reproduced in Archaeologia Cantiana, but with very little description.
In 1964 the Group learned of the plans to build New Ash Green and as the Villa was located near the centre of the proposed village, the Group communicated with Span, the owners and developers, who kindly gave their permission for excavations to be carried out.
During 1965 and 1966 trial trenches across the field successfully located the site, established the exact size and found several features previously unknown.
Very little work was carried out in 1967 and 1968, during which sections of the new village were being erected, as other sites in the area assumed a higher priority and also the rate of growth of the new village was not as fast as expected. Nevertheless, rumours of works affecting the site were in circulation and early in 1969 the Group, supported now by many new members resident in New Ash Green, agreed that the site should be treated as an emergency. Operations were planned to obtain as much information as possible before the site was destroyed. The original 1965 base line was easily relocated and a 12 foot grid set out over the area of the East Wall (Figure 1). Work commenced by excavating in individual squares but later the baulks were removed, leaving an open area excavation.
The north-east and south-east corners were quickly relocated and a floor of blue clay, average 3 inches in thickness was found within the south-east corner (See U) terminating in a much plough-disturbed line of flints. Within the Villa a coin (2) of Tetricus (?) was found on the surface of the clay, but as the level of this floor was barely 9 inches to 10 inches below existing ground level the upper stratification had been destroyed. A stake hole, also near the corner, pierced beneath the floor to a total depth of 10 inches, but this could have been driven in at any subsequent period, possibly may even have been a datum-peg for the 1914 excavation. With the exception of a few foundation courses in the north-east corner the wall had been completely removed (possibly during the 1914 excavation in order to facilitate later ploughing), however, the foundation trench was at least 6 inches deeper than the robber trench and easily followed.
It was hoped to find the position of the gateway in the East Wall shown on the earlier plan (Figure 2) but as the foundation trench was of uniform width, depth and filling, this could not be proved. Areas of flint metalling outside the villa (which also sealed Pit 4) and the foundation slot of a strengthening pier tended to support this as the position of the entrance.
It would appear that the East Gate was a subsequent alteration to the original plan and two items of evidence point to this.
- The foundations for the pier were 4 inches shallower than those of the adjacent wall.
- The wall foundation-trench was continuous and of uniform in-fill. It is extremely unlikely that the previous excavators would have dug out an identical trench across the threshold of the gateway and the only reason the disturbed in-fill was uniform would be if flints were also removed from this section.
The East wall was 29 inches wide and built of flints with a few chalk blocks bonded in mud and brown clay. The North wall was again 29 inches thick and of similar construction and thickened to 33 inches for the last 6 feet measured internally from the north-east corner. The South wall was 36 inches wide.
It was also hoped that the plan of the substantial buttresses shown on the earlier plan would be revealed, but no trace of these could be found. It can be inferred that either the buttresses were constructed, like the gateway, after the original Villa, because the foundations did not penetrate the subsoil at all, or the 1914 excavators inadvertently mistook fallen masses of flint walling for the outlines of buttresses.
Any alteration to a mud-bonded wall would be extremely difficult without complete rebuilding, but if a gateway were cut through and a pier formed it is not impossible that buttresses, without foundations, could be added. The writer is at present inclined to accept the evidence of the previous excavators, although their plan does illustrate several errors.
Internally, a very shallow foundation impression was found running parallel to the North wall only 4 feet away and of approximately 1 foot 3 inches width. This seemed to correspond to the line of flints running parallel to the South wall and may indicate that this end of the Villa, with an internal width of 44 feet 9 inches, was an enclosed open courtyard (V) with a continuous lean-to structure on both the North and South sides (See U and W). The foundations would have supported timber framing which, in turn, would have borne a thatched roof and, assuming the eaves projection was about 1 foot 6 inches to 2 feet, this would have been adequate for storage and stabling, or even servants' quarters. Adjacent to the North corridor was a shallow depression, filled with flints (see Pit 7) which could possibly have been a post hole. Almost exactly along the central axis ran a shallow U-shaped gully, 1 foot 6 inches wide and 10 inches deep. This continues outside the Villa and appears to have been an early attempt to drain the courtyard, but which quickly silted up and fell into disuse. No dateable sherds have been recovered from this feature so far.
Externally, Pits Number 3, 5 and 6 represent the root-areas of trees, of which Pit 3 could possibly have been a flourishing tree in Roman times, whereas Pits 5 and 6 are relatively recent, having remnants of decayed roots and probably these trees formed part of the chestnut coppice prior to 1914.
An extremely interesting feature was found on the outside of the East wall. During excavation two arcs appeared, somewhat resembling the foundations of bay windows. The soil in-filling of the trenches was however completely sterile and in places this trench was almost obliterated by the 1914 trench. The most likely explanation of this feature is that it was the dug foundation for some form of decorative hedge, possibly planted at the same period as the East gateway was formed; certainly at a later date to the gully. At an even later period the lean-to outhouse 2 was constructed 14 feet long by 8 feet 6 inches wide internally, the walls of which were 9 inches thick of flint bonded with clay. These foundation walls must supported a timber superstructure, but as no tile fragments were found nearby, a thatched roof may have been employed. The eastern wall of the outbuilding had been considerably damaged by ploughing and the whole area was liberally strewn with flints.
Under a flint-paved area adjacent to outbuilding 2, a 3-foot pit was located (Pit 4) but shortly after it was apparent that this was a kiln or oven which had subsequently been used as a rubbish pit (containing an abundance of pottery sherds) prior to being sealed by the flint paving.
The finds at the east end of the Villa were very sparse, but as this was the menial end of the Villa and the wall had been previously excavated, this is not surprising. The coin of Tetricus in the Southern corridor and the pottery from the kiln/oven were valuable dating evidence which is dealt with in the conclusions.
After completing the East wall, attention was turned to the West End of the Villa, which we knew contained a complex of small rooms. Work at this end of the Villa was considerably facilitated by a generous grant from the Kent Archaeological Society, which enabled the use of mechanical assistance to strip off the topsoil and also to back-fill the previous excavation.
As before, the excavation was executed on a grid basis working from North to South. At the northern edge of the site the soil changed abruptly from yellow sandy clay to thick red clay mixed with small pebbles. In this area another outbuilding complex was discovered (see Figure 1, number 3 and 4). No trace of an occupation layer was discernible and no reliable dating evidence was found, although the type of construction was similar to outbuilding 2. Outbuilding 3 measured 15 feet long by 6 feet wide internally and there appeared to be an entrance at the west. A recent tree (Pit 10) had, together with the 1914 excavations, destroyed any traces of a junction with the main North wall, although the second junction with the North wall between outbuildings 3 and 4 was still apparent, even though the flint walling had been robbed. The flint walls to outbuilding 3 were, on average, 15 inches wide and barely cut into the subsoil in some places. Outbuilding 4 has a width of 4 feet 3 inches, but the length is at present unknown. Adjacent to the north-east corner of outbuilding 3, a 3-foot diameter pit (Number 8) was found 15 inches deep, containing much carbon dust and many small calcined flints.
Excavation proved that all wall foundations of the main Villa (with the exception of a few foundation courses to Room Q had been completely robbed and no trace of occupation levels was found. It is very possible that this end of the Villa was subjected to complete excavation in 1914. It is assumed that Room G extends beyond our present excavations, similar to Room H at the South.
Between Rooms B and E was a shallow foundation of a "partition" wall. Rooms D and H formed part of a bath block according to the 1914 excavators and certainly Room H was excavated 1 foot 6 inches below adjacent Roman levels, indicating that the room may have been used as the cold-plunge bath. Many fragments of Opus Signinum and many yellow mortar fragments were recovered from this area, including the robbed wall sockets. The plunge bath area H was linked by a small drainage gully to a large pit or pond (Pit 12), the conjectural extent of which is shown in Figures 1 and 2. To the East of H lies the Tepidarium. and furnace area.
The gully connecting Room H with Pit 12 did not appear to be lined, although it cannot be ruled out that either a timber-lined drain existed or that a tile lined drain may have been robbed at an earlier period.
Immediately to the south of rooms D and H a further outbuilding was found (5) measuring 10 feet long by 4 feet 9 inches wide. The floor was partially made up to level and paved with crushed mortar and chalk blocks. This outbuilding immediately flanked the drainage gully leading to Pit 12. The few finds from the West End were all unstratified (with the exception of Pit 12) and included a coin (1) of Gallienus in the wall trench back-fill at the south-east corner of Room A.
Pit 12 is extensive and has already been explored in another section (see Figure 1, Pit 2) and the full extent will be explored in the coming season.
Pit 12 has a depth 7 feet below existing ground-level and contains a considerable amount of black silt and also two lines of fallen flints, the lower of which may indicate a period of remodelling and the upper layer possibly corresponding to the final abandonment or destruction layer. An analysis of the finds from this pit may give more positive dating evidence.
Conclusions to date.
Pottery sherds from the Villa area tend to give an occupational dating from between middle second century to middle-third century.
The pottery recovered from the oven/kiln (Pit 4) belongs however, to the middle-late first century and may be connected with an earlier farmstead not yet located, but probably in the immediate vicinity.
The two coins recovered belong to the late-third century and either indicate the true end of occupation or are strays, lost perhaps during a possible later Roman demolition with a view to re-using the materials.
A fair amount of iron slag has been encountered, principally in the courtyard area and could indicate that an attempt at least was made to obtain iron and make tools locally. Initially it was considered the kiln could possibly have been used for smelting, but no ferrous residues were found near Pit 4 and in any case the kiln dating is too early compared with the areas in which the slag was found.
The comparative plans in Figure 2 are self-explanatory and whilst many errors can be seen, the buttresses at the eastern end cannot be completely discounted. From the facts we have before us and having now studied the various wall thicknesses and depths, we believe the Period 1 Villa formed a complete rectangle, 89 feet 3 inches by 50 feet 2 inches overall, with the main entrance in the West (between Rooms B and E).
At a later period a complex of rooms with tiled roofs was added at the West end and a bath-block was formed. It would be at about this time that the eastern gateway was formed and the possible ornamental hedgerow planted.
The dating of the outbuildings is very difficult, owing to the lack of stratified finds, but certainly outbuilding 2 was built after the hedgerow, as the flint foundations cut through the hedge trench at one point.
It is conceivable that an existing pond to the north-east of the Villa may have been used as a water source in Roman times, but no evidence for this has yet been obtained.
Further research within the Villa and on allied external features is planned for the coming season and will be published in due course.
Note: During Operation Gaspipe a Roman ditch was exposed less than 800 yards to the east-south-east of the present Villa. This ditch contained many Roman sherds of early-second century date and could indicate the proximity of yet another Romano-British farmstead. It is hoped to carry out some research on this new site to establish its extent during this season.