Kent Archaeological Review extract

Excavations in Dartford and the Darent Valley 1973.
by Alison Borthwick and Howard Davies.
(CIB Archaeological Rescue Corps.)

In 1972, work by the CIB Archaeological Rescue Corps had revealed eleven archaeological sites along the Darent Valley during the watch on the construction of the Dartford Farningham sewer. (KAR Number 29 (1972), page 281, also KAR Number 30 (1972-73) page 301). Of several major sites the newly discovered Roman Villa complex at Horton Kirby and the unknown site of a castle at Farningham were among the most interesting. Accordingly, in order to consolidate the rescue-work in 1972 the Corps agreed to carry out training excavations at these two sites in 1973. Invitations sent out to students at Kent schools brought an immediate response and the project began in July.

PHOTO: Medieval Fortifications and Manor House Site, Farningham.

Medieval Fortifications and Manor House Site, Farningham
Detail of the Medieval stone foundations of the fortifications with the brick wall of a later Manor House above.

PHOTO: Horton Kirby Roman Villa.

Horton Kirby Roman Villa.
Some of the students of the training excavation working on the site.

Just as the training excavations were about to end the Corps was notified of a threat in the centre of Dartford. There a large new central development was already underway and several thousand tons of soil were being extracted for the foundations in an area very close to known Roman buildings. The contractor confirmed that no archaeologists had been anywhere near the site and he agreed to allow excavations providing this was done in a responsible and businesslike manner. In the following weeks important Roman and Medieval deposits were excavated and a constructive working relationship obtained.

17th century stoneware bottles and a 16th century bronze token found at Farningham 1973. (drawn by Alison Borthwick)


This site lies within the playing-fields at Horton Kirby close to the River Darent. Prior to its discovery by the Corps in 1972 nothing of Roman date had been recovered from the immediate area and indeed the presence of a villa at this point now fills an obvious gap in the line of villas known in the valley. The story of the dramatic discovery of this site just hours before it was due to be destroyed by bulldozers, and the subsequent CKA Appeal for funds will long remain an epic of Kentish archaeology. In fact the intended branch sewer was moved 100 yards to the north and the site was saved. Work at the time had exposed the south side of a fine Roman granary and the suggestion of a second Roman building further east.

The 1973 training excavation revealed a large part of the north side of the granary and also most of the east front. As before narrow transverse sleeper-walls were found across the main block where they served as supports for the floor. The sides of the main hall were flanked by a series of smaller rooms some with clay floors and at least two with tesselation. The north-east corner room had part of a plain tesselated floor intact and a number of coloured cubes found nearby hint at the possibility of a mosaic. Another room had part of a quarter round moulding in it and several hearths were also recorded. The rooms yielded domestic rubbish including pottery (samian and coarse ware) of the second and third centuries, a bronze pin and a large millstone.

It is now clear that this fine building was a major element in the villa complex. Its main hall constituted the granary and the flanking rooms provided both additional storage space and modest accommodation for the farm workers. It forms a highly interesting variant on the aisled building familiar on Romano-British sites, such as was found by the West Kent Group at Darenth in 1969. (KAR Number 18 (1969), page 18). It was more than 100 feet in length and about 60 feet in width and the massive foundations, often as much as eight courses deep, suggest a building 20 or 30 feet in height.

At Darenth the aisled building was associated with a main villa-house found nearby in 1894-5. Indeed the same broad arrangement must also have existed at Horton Kirby. Traces of a flint wall and a damaged tesselated floor had been seen by the team at Horton in workmen's trenches in 1972 and this probably represents the site of the main house. The training school did spend some time in excavating a trench in the same general area and again located a wide area of plain tesselation at a shallow depth associated with flint masonry. This proves beyond all doubt the presence of another important Roman building to the south east of the large granary. It is hoped that more work may be possible on this interesting site at a later date.


This site lies close to the centre of the village near to the river Darent, in pleasant surroundings. Although the site was known to be that of the manor-house, when the sewer cut through in 1972 nobody expected such a dramatic discovery. The giant digging machine suddenly stopped dead in its tracks when it hit a 14-foot thick masonry wall, later identified as the curtain wall of a hitherto unknown Farningham Castle! This was flanked by a wide and deep moat, which was quickly recorded before the workmen filled it in.

DRAWING: 17th century stoneware bottles.

17th century stoneware bottles and a 16th century bronze token found at Farningham 1973. (Drawn by Alison Borthwick.)

The training excavation in 1973 was directed to the south-west corner of the site where the fairly distinct castle mound made a sharp turn. Here, two long trenches found the west side of the castle together with its deep moat filled with a thick mud silt. The wall at this point was just over 5 feet thick and still stood to a height of about 7 feet. It differed in construction from that on the south side found in 1972 and presented an interesting problem. The wall built of flint and chalk blocks and resting on a platform of massive sandstone boulders, was probably built in the 13th or 14th centuries. In the 16th century the brick manor house had been constructed on top of the curtain wall and later substantial boundary walls had been added. Amongst the small finds was a quantity of domestic rubbish from the mud silt outside the castle and manor house walls. These included animal bones and shell, imported stone wares, delft and tiger ware, and a bronze token all of 15th to 17th century date.

Both the training projects were successfully completed in good time and the sites restored as agreed. All the students found the hard work and exciting discoveries very stimulating and had the satisfaction of knowing that they had made an important contribution to the knowledge of the history of the Darent Valley. Indeed, of the several dozen who were involved in the projects, several were sufficiently skilled to join in major rescue excavation work at Dover in August.

Acknowledgements are of course due to the owners of the land we were excavating: The Dartford Rural District Council in the case of Horton Kirby, and Miss J Albury and the farmer, Mr Alexander, at Farningham. Thanks must also go to the various bodies who provided grants to enable us to carry out the project. These were: The CBA, the CKA, the KAS, and the KCC. We are also very grateful to the Kent Education Committee for allowing us to use the Field Study Centre at Horton Kirby for washing and marking finds and for giving lectures, and to Miss J Robinson, the Warden of the Centre, for coping with us so admirably. Mention must also be made of the members of the West Kent Group who helped to keep things in order and above all to the local residents who provided friendliness, interest and liquid refreshment in the very hot July weather. It would be fair to say that the majority of the 32 students who attended the projects were interested and hard working, but some deserve a special mention for their continuous enthusiasm and stamina! In particular Tim Allen and Jonathan Thatcher provided leadership qualities, Elizabeth Taunton and Jean Venn supplied the humour, and amongst the other students who showed particular potential were Michael Cann, Jim Grotty and Robert Titley.


In common with many British towns Dartford is now being developed on a considerable scale. The new town-centre scheme covers more than three acres on the side of Lowfield Street and involves the destruction of about a quarter of any archaeological deposits in the area. Over many decades vague reports of Roman material and structures have been made in the general vicinity. Unhappily, the bulk excavation of soil down to undisturbed natural was already started by the time the CIB Unit was notified of the threat and the contractor confirmed that no archaeologists had been on the site. Instant recording and excavation on behalf of the DOE by the Unit recovered pits ditches and foundations over the northern part of the site. The pottery dates from the late-first century and includes second, third and fourth century types. This was associated with domestic rubbish and establishes beyond all doubt an occupation-site of Roman date in the immediate area.

The medieval material dates from the 13th and 14th centuries and includes a variety of cooking-pots and jugs. Five hearths constructed of roof-tile laid on end were recorded and associated structures found. Post-medieval material was also recovered.

The rescue-work over a period of weeks was carried out with a team of volunteers under the full-time staff. The ready co-operation of Mr M D Yeadons of Messrs John Mowlem Ltd, and of the other staff who provided every help and facility, is gratefully acknowledged.

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