Kent Archaeological Review extract

Excavations on the Roman Villa at Folkestone 1989.
by Brian Philp.
(Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit.)

The rescue-excavation on part of the large Roman villa site, on the cliff-edge at Folkestone, was started in early July 1989 (see KAR Number 98, page 169) and completed by the end of September, as agreed. This was an exciting new venture jointly by the Shepway District council, the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit and the Kent Archaeological Trust. The site stands over 150 feet above the sea and has some of the finest sea-views anywhere in Britain.

The villa was first excavated in 1924 when over 60 rooms were uncovered. Two main ranges (Figure 1, Blocks A and B) were then identified, but it is now clear that a building at the south-east end of the site was in fact a detached bath-house (now shown as Block C). The original excavation attracted a great deal of public interest and as a result the site was left open for about 30 years when many thousands of visitors were able to see it. A mosaic in one of the central rooms was covered over by a protective cover-building, built specifically for the purpose. The site was filled in again about 1957.

The 1989 excavation aimed at locating the precise positions of the various Blocks; to study how much of the buildings had fallen over the cliff in the past 60 years; to check on the condition of the surviving walls and to study the basic archaeological relationships. All of these objectives were completed in the short 12 week excavation, carried out in blistering heat, when some 200 tons of soil and backfill had to be removed by hand and stacked within a tightly fenced compound.

The excavation proved very rewarding for several reasons. Both Blocks B and C were located on the first day of the excavation and the whole of Block A could be seen as a clear crop-mark, thanks to the heat-wave causing the grass to die-off above the buried walls. The cliff-edge was found to have advanced about 30 feet, suggesting an annual loss of about six inches. The smaller rooms of Block C had largely gone, it seems and also a small section of Block B, but Block A remains totally intact.

PHOTO: Detail of hypocaust arch in Room 8.

Fig.2. Detail of hypocaust arch in Room 8, Folkestone Roman Villa, 1989.

Of special interest was Room 8 of the bath-house, for upon excavation it was found that the main outer wall of the apsidal end still survived to a remarkable height of about 8 feet (Figure 2). The apse contained a very large firing-arch which had fed the hypocaust which had heated the plunge-bath above. The arch had been constructed with two large rows of bricks forming voussoirs and in many ways looked like sections of the pharos at Dover. The adjacent walls of Room 10 also survived to a height of about 6 feet and together these rooms constitute one of the best surviving sections of Roman masonry in Britain. Indeed taken with the nearby Roman Painted House at Dover and the Roman light-house in the castle grounds, Kent is very well placed indeed for major Roman masonry.

Elsewhere in Block B the walls survived to varying heights of between one and four feet. Some of these had suffered damage, perhaps during the Second World War and showed signs of repair. What was clear from the excavation was that a war-time slit-trench had been dug across Room 12 and several of the internal piers, which must originally have supported a raised floor, were then removed. Similarly, the top of the furnace arch in Room 12 had been removed then and broken parts of it were found in the slit-trench. Presumably this was done to allow access into the slit-trench area for troops guarding the cliffs and Channel.

Careful examination of the walls showed that phases of construction could be identified and clearly the basic plan produced in 1924 by Mr Winbolt is a one-period plan that needs revision. Similarly, too, pre-Roman deposits were found beneath the villa and these add substantially to the knowledge of the development of this site.

About half way through the excavation, it was possible to allow in groups of visitors and in all some 5,000 people watched the excavation. These included dozens of parties, many from Kent schools, who were given special half-hour lectures on the site. Most appropriately, the very first party to visit was a large group from the Folkestone Local History Society, with its vice-chairman Mr A Rooney giving the introduction. Many members had actually made visits to the site when it was open before 1957 and some even recalled seeing the original excavation in 1924 when they were young children. At the end of this particular tour a vote of thanks was given by the Rev Alan Gibson. Another large party to visit was from the Friends of CKA. Here many Friends from all over Kent stayed for about an hour enjoying the site, the discoveries and the splendid views.

The success of the excavation was due to hard work by many people. Particular thanks are due to John Willson and Peter Keller who together supervised most of the excavation and also carried out a major part of the heavy digging. Next Paul Molenkamp, Jo Alpin, Darrell Pavitt, Barry Corke, Philip Smith, Stefan Setchell, and Andrew Richardson, all of whom worked for many days. In addition a special squad of female students, including Karen Dobson, Laura Grimoldby, Jo Sherringham and Helen M-Sacher, all worked extremely well in very difficult circumstances. Thanks, too, are due to a flying-squad of members of the Bromley and West Kent Group who made the 150 mile round trip on at least six occasions. To everyone concerned the writer extends his sincere thanks.

On completion of the excavation at the end of September, such was the interest generated by the excavation, that Shepway Council asked the Kent Unit to carry out first-aid repairs to the walls. All the wall tops were treated, in consultation with English Heritage staff, and several large sections of crumbling wall repaired. This work took the whole of October and when this was completed the walls were covered with plastic sheeting and sandbags and the site backfilled for the winter. Arrangements are being made for the site to be opened again in 1990 when it is hoped that another section of the villa can be excavated. Visiting parties will be welcomed and it is hoped that given more notice than was possible in 1989; organised site-tours will be available. Details will be announced in the KAR.

GRAPHIC: Plan of the Folkestone Roman Villa.

Figure1. Plan of the Roman Villa, Folkestone, 1924.