Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Roman Villa Site at Keston.
by Edna Mynott.


The 1976 excavation at Lower Warbank, Keston proved the most successful since the Group began work on the site ten years ago in 1967. Thanks in part to the best weather for years and financial aid from the DOE it was possible to completely excavate a very large area threatened with destruction by a new farming scheme. Of the hard-working team of more than 70 diggers special thanks are due to Pat Crozier, Jeanne Newbery, Wally Fairhead, Jack Leslie, Peter Grant and Maurice Godfrey for extended periods of work. Thanks also to the continued support and interest of Mr Lockley Cook of Keston Court it was possible to open the site to the public in September, although the area is otherwise strictly private.

The Excavation Programme.

The aim of the 1976 work was to completely excavate a large unknown area in the north-west corner of the Lower Warbank field. The area bordering the northern edge of this was excavated by the Group in 1967 and found to contain the Roman cemetery and tombs (KAR Number 11 (1968) page 10). The land to the south-west of the new area was excavated by the Group in 1969 and was found to contain the villa- house (KAR, Number 21 (1970), page 21). The area to the south-east contained the fine Anglo-Saxon grubenhaus found in 1970 (KAR, Number 25 (1971), page 131). It was hoped, therefore, that the 1976 excavation would link all these earlier areas and thus produce a complete picture of the northern half of the site. So often in the past excavations on Roman villa sites have been confined to the rooms of the main house in a search for spectacular architectural features. Seldom have excavations been carried out well beyond the house to pick up all the ancillary features and structures which are such a vital part of the villa-complex. Indeed seldom have the associated cemeteries ever been located, when clearly they too form an important part of the complete picture, a Roman villa being the centre of a busy agricultural estate. By October, 1976 the work had successfully been completed and the results fully justified the large amount of work involved.

The Corn-drying Ovens (Figure 1).

Of the many features and structures discovered at Keston in 1976 the most de- tailed and visually spectacular were several very fine corn-drying ovens of unusual form. As the excavation progressed the outline of a totally new Roman building of considerable size began to emerge. This was probably a two-storied structure consisting of a massive timber-frame enclosing aisles and a main hall. It was clearly a major element in the villa-complex and its discovery makes a notable addition to our knowledge of the site. Its width was greater than 30 feet and its length more than 40 feet though its east end lay buried, almost predictably, under the main spoilheap! At the west end of this structure, occupying the 'hall' of the building, were three elaborate and connecting corn-drying ovens. The main ovens consisted of two long parallel structures fed from stoke-holes at the east end. A rather unusual third oven was fitted in between the others close to the source of the heat. In detail each of the long ovens consisted of a set of three parallel-sided channels, the central one of which was longer than the other two and received the direct heat. The heat passed from the main channel into the side chambers by means of lateral vents spaced along the walls, several of which still survived. The whole elaborate structure was built of chalk blocks, flints and fragments of tile and survived to an average height of at least a foot. The sides had been baked by the heat and a long ragged trench through the northern one showed where a much later treasure-hunter type trench had been dug on some unrecorded occasion.

DRAWING: Plan of Roman Corn-Drying Ovens  found at Roman Villa Site,  Keston in 1976.

Plan of Roman Corn-Drying Ovens found at Roman Villa Site, Keston in 1976.

The superstructure of the ovens, now missing, would have consisted of an extensive floor supported perhaps two feet above the parallel channels. On this the corn would have been spread out to be dried by the heat circulating in the channels below and passing up through appropriate vents. No doubt the heat was carefully induced in much the same way as the hypocaust system of a Roman house which was designed to heat hollow floors and walls, such as the elaborate hypocausts to be seen in the Roman Painted House at Dover, just opened to the public (KAR Number 47 (1977), page 165).

The newly discovered ovens at Keston are broadly similar in concept and function to the two very large ones found by the West Kent Group in 1969 at the Roman villa at Darenth (Excavations in West Kent, 1960-70 (1972), page 129). The Darenth ovens were also in a great aisled building which formed an important part of the third century estate. It may be that the Keston ovens date from about the same time.

Public Open-days.

Ever since 1967 the Group has tried to hold public 'open-days' on its various sites and frequently in the Keston area. Large numbers of local people have visited the site and in this way the work and aims of the Group are better known and more widely supported. The 1976 'Open Days' were clearly the best yet. More than 2,000 people were given free guided tours of the whole site and at one time about 800 people were being shown round at the same time. More than 30 members of the Group acted as guides and stewards and in spite of generally poor weather the whole event proved a great success. The Kentish Times and the Beckenham Advertiser both carried long illustrated accounts of the work and the Groups newly reprinted amenity booklet (A Walk Through Keston: priced 30p. post free) sold in large numbers. It is hoped that it will be possible to resume work on the site in 1977.

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