This article appeared in the Autumn 1972 (Issue #29) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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The Discovery and Preservation of the Roman Villa at Horton Kirby.
The dramatic discovery of a hitherto unknown Roman villa at Horton Kirby was briefly reported in the last issue of the Review (KAR Number 29, page 281). The discovery came as the climax to six months non-stop rescue work in the Darent Valley by the CIB Archaeological Rescue Corps on behalf of the DOE. The work of watching, survey and even extensive excavation ahead of a large new sewer being laid from Dartford to Farningham had required work by day and night. Without this intensive work much of great archaeological importance would have been destroyed without record including 11 sites. In the case of the famous Darenth Roman villa the sewer trench was due to pass right through the west range of the villa complex. Indeed, but for the last minute negotiations with the Sewerage Board, Department of the Environment and CIB Corps, which resulted in the main sewer being moved 50 yards, much of this scheduled site would have been lost too.
During May our watch had extended on the line advancing through the village of Horton Kirby. On its journey across the local football pitch members recovered several sherds of Roman pottery and tile and the presence of a nearby site was indicated. On Saturday, 27th May, the writer and his wife left the Annual General Meeting of the Kent Archaeological Society early to continue the urgent work. It was then that the new site was discovered. A fresh piece of ground had just been stripped of topsoil for the laying of a linking branch sewer and faint patches of mortar showed through. These were associated with 19th-century debris and it was not until trial excavations the following day that a building at least 80 feet in length indicated a major Roman structure.
The first problem was that the sewer trench was due to be dug right through the new (unrecorded) building the following morning at 10 am. Thus by the end of the day there were only 15 hours in which anything could be done. Officials at all levels were immediately notified of the situation. Instant support came from the CKA through its secretary Jenny Lock and from Rescue through Phil Barkers. The sewer engineers readily agreed to consider an alternative route, but explained that the cost of this extra work would be about £1,300. The second problem was how to raise £1,300 in a matter of days! The CKA instantly agreed to sponsor an appeal and the response was at once immediate and heart-warming. First among the subscribers was the primary school of Horton Kirby and also that at Sutton-at-Hone. Then the children from another eight junior schools from the London area put in their pocket money and others followed. Of particular note was the effort of two seven-year-old girls, Kim Wall and Michele Woollett who raised £1.33½p by going around local houses in the rain with a "guess the doll's name" competition! With such spontaneous support from the young (and their teachers) the balance soon came in. The DOE promised another £500, through the positive support of Dr A J Taylor; the Dartford Rural District Council agreed to put up another £500 mainly through the determination of local councillors, then Joseph White Ltd., put up another £100, Rescue £50 and the CKA £25 more. An absolutely splendid effort by so many worthwhile people. The site was saved and the branch sewer moved 100 yards! In addition to this support help also came from the Horton Kirby Parish Council, in the form of £50 towards the rescue-work, which is here gratefully acknowledged with thanks. In addition the Parish Council then called a meeting of all those interested to discuss the future of the site. The meeting, in the village hall, was packed, and there followed a lively discussion on rescue archaeology and its implications. The outcome was the following, passed unanimously: that the CIB Rescue Corps be invited to return to Horton Kirby again in 1973 to run an archaeological training school and complete the excavation of the villa.
Whilst the negotiations and fund-raising were being continued work on the site could not be allowed to stop. This aimed at determining the nature, extent and plan of the structure. There was not even time to send out the usual cryptic postcards to our army of volunteers all over Kent. Nonetheless many had already heard and help soon flooded to the site and none was refused. One Group came from Sussex, another cycled in from Essex and nearly all the Kent groups rallied to the cause. The work of excavation was largely supervised by Ralph Mills, assisted by Howard Davies when he had finished his work on the Darenth villa and also by Gerald Clewley when free from the Dover road-works. The team was working simultaneously on four major Roman sites spread over an area of 1,500 square miles. Rapidly the plan of the building was uncovered for all to see and more than 6,000 people visited the site and many were given lectures. All were clearly delighted with the results and happy outcome and many contributed direct to the appeal, or when this closed, to our rescue-fund. Of all the thousands of visitors, only one person refused to co-operate with our rescue-work; every society has its brainless fool.
By the end of five weeks the main outlines of that part of the structure on the sewer-line had been largely excavated. What was revealed was the greater part of a Roman granary of large size in excess of 100 feet in length and more than 60 feet in width. A series of rooms was found along at least two sides and there was evidence to suggest various periods of construction. The main block contained a large number of transverse sleeper walls designed to support the great weight to be stored above. Clear evidence of a plain tesselated floor was found at the east end and the presence of additional rooms is suspected nearby. There is also evidence of a later timber-framed structure over part of the Roman granary and medieval pottery was also found.
One of the many school parties being given a guided tour of the site. The discovery of this great granary, with its attached rooms, proves for the first time the existence of a Roman villa complex at Horton Kirby. Thus the history of the village has shot back another 300 years. In addition this new discovery adds another villa to the growing list of such sites in the Darent Valley. Equally important it fills a long standing gap between the known villas at Darenth and Frank's Hall, Farningham. Exactly how this building has remained undiscovered for so long less than ten inches beneath the football-pitch of Horton Kirby is a puzzle. Even some air photos failed to show any trace of outlines, walls or pits.
The successful outcome of the excavation and preservation (the site was back- filled on completion of the excavation) of the site was due to the efforts of many people. Particular thanks are due to Ralph Mills, Gerald Clewley and Howard Davies for their non-stop work and 24-hour watch. Also to John Drew, Jackie Sofio, Ann Houhton, Pat Ray and Mike Rugman for their hard work on the site for extended periods. Of local groups who spontaneously helped the work of the Dover, Cray Valley, Faversham, Canterbury University, Reculver, Sittingbourne, Upchurch, Springhead, West Kent Groups and Fawkham Historical Society is greatly appreciated. So, too, is the help of Mrs Gardner, Mrs S Broad, Mr K J Harris, Mr F Wiseman, Mr L Reeves, Mr Gaylor and Mr S James. Finally, our thanks to official and private bodies, private individuals and societies who gave to the appeal which the CKA so readily sponsored. Well done, Kent!