The Villa Story

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Text from THE CROFTON ROMAN VILLA AT ORPINGTON,
©Copyright Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit, 1992.

THE CROFTON ROMAN VILLA AT ORPINGTON.

Brian Philp


INTRODUCTION.

Discovery.

Although part of the Roman villa was destroyed by a railway cutting in the 19th century, it was discovered in 1926. Then, workmen constructing driveways for new council offices (now Lynwood House) cut through several rooms of the villa. A partial excavation by Mr E Erwood was soon abandoned and apart from limited excavation by the Orpington Historical Society in the 1950's the site remained buried and overgrown.

The full excavation of the site was carried out by the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit in 1988 when the villa was due to be destroyed for a new car park for the extended Civic Hall. This work revealed the surviving extent of the building, identified five major periods of construction, discovered important details and recovered an interesting collection of finds.

The Preservation Scheme.

By the end of the 1988 excavation the importance of what survived became clear and the Kent Unit asked the London Borough of Bromley to consider shortening the car park and thus save the villa. This was readily agreed and the various options for the future of the site then considered. Bromley Council eventually approved an outline preservation scheme, whereby the Unit provided the cover building, internal and external services, all the graphics and conservation work in 1990-1992. The cost was about £80,000, though the full value of the scheme has been estimated as over £200,000.

Acknowledgements.

The huge task of excavation, the building programme and the overall presentation, required a massive effort by many people. The overall programme was carried out under the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit with the constant support of members of the Bromley and West Kent Archaeological Group, all work being directed by the writer. He wishes to thank Maurice Godfrey, Maurice Chenery, Barry Corke, Derek Garrod and Gerry Geradine for their extensive work, ably supported by Audrey Button, Pat Crozier, Sue MePherson, Christine Pegram, Peter Grant, Alan Morley, Mike Bennett, Len Johnson, Will Foot and some 40 other members of the teams who joined in at various times. Their help is here gratefully acknowledged.

 

ROMAN VILLAS IN KENT.

Roman Britain.

The arrival of large Roman invasion forces on the Kent and Sussex coasts in AD 43, resulted in the creation of the province of Britannia which was to continue through nearly four centuries. A network of major arterial roads was soon established across the province and numerous towns, both large and small, were founded. Ports, industrial and religious centres developed as part of the general economic progress of the province. All of this was superimposed over the pre-existing lands and customs of the Celtic Britons.

Countryside Villas.

In the countryside the good soils were rapidly exploited by organised Roman villa estates and also large numbers of family-run farmsteads. The villa estates ranged in size from small farmhouses to palatial mansions, farming either hundreds or thousands of acres. These estates included arable land, pasture and woodland.

The villa estate consisted of a main villa-house, adjacent barns and outbuildings and many related features such as paddocks, ponds, tracks and ovens. Refinements often included tessellated floors (some mosaic), elaborate under-floor heating systems (hypocausts) and sophisticated bath-houses.

In West Kent the largest villa was at Darenth which had nearly a hundred rooms covering about six acres. The most fully excavated and understood villa in West Kent is that at Lower Warbank, Keston where a 24-year programme of work has been carried out by the Bromley and West Kent Archaeological Group and the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit and is now published.

 

THE CROFTON VILLA.

The villa was constructed in an elevated position overlooking the River Cray and its valley. It was built on Thanet Beds below the crest of the hill, just above the present position of Orpington Station. In Roman times it lay about 11 miles from Londinium, the provincial capital, which probably formed the focus of this and other local sites. The villa occupants probably made regular visits to the capital, reached in an hour on a good horse, to purchase goods in markets there. The whole area from Crofton to the Thames would have been covered by woods, or open fields and crossed by small clean streams supporting fish and woodland animals. Today the whole area and beyond is covered by urban and sub-urban development!

Due mainly to the modern buildings and roads, only the site of the main Roman villa-house is known. The positions of barns, outbuildings, a bathhouse and a burial-ground (all known at the nearby Keston villa) are not known at Crofton.

The Crofton site seems to have been established late in the first century AD, probably as a rural farmstead, of which only a small boundary ditch has been found.

(Refer to the villa plan.)

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Period I.

Plan of villa -- period one

Sometime in the 2nd century the site was developed when the first masonry building was constructed, with flint walls built on chalk foundations. It consisted of a west corridor and a range of at least five rooms (Rooms 1-5) facing south-eastwards across the valley. The rooms were probably all about 6 metres square (20 feet) and the corridor over 2 metres wide. The whole structure appears rectangular, rather unpretentious and covering an area at least 10 by 30 metres.

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Period II.

Plan of villa -- period two

Some years later modest alterations took place. The outside wall of the west corridor was replaced to give it increased width and at least one new wall was inserted across it to create Room 7.

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Period III.

Plan of villa -- period three

At about AD200, or just after, a major rebuilding programme took place. A massive new range, at least 9 by 17 metres was attached to the south end of the Period I house, including a passage (Room 11) and several new rooms (Rooms 12-15). Further new rooms (Rooms 8 and 9) were inserted in the west corridor of the original house and it may be that a new east corridor was also added (shown as undated). Room 5 seems to have been subdivided to create another room (Room 6). These major alterations increased the area covered to about 40 by 15 metres, double that of the Period 1 house, A corresponding north range, or wing, could have been added at the same time, but this end was destroyed in the 19th century.

These alterations created seven new rooms including a wide east-west passage (Room 11), that was provided with a tessellated floor. Two of the original rooms (Rooms 3 and 4), which contained similar floors, may have had these inserted at the same time. This major expansion of the villa probably reflects greater prosperity.

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Period IV.

Plan of villa -- period four

Sometime in the 3rd century minor alterations took place on the Period III range at the south end of the villa. The projecting south-west room (Room 15) was abandoned and a new wall inserted. Other internal changes took place at the same time nearby, but these were cut away by later building work.

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Period V.

Plan of villa -- period five

Later in the 3rd century another major structural programme was carried out. This time the whole northern half of the villa-house seems to have been abandoned. Much of the southern end was rebuilt to create a complete suite of five heated rooms (Rooms 6, 10, 13, 14 and 16). These contained hypocaust systems, either channelled or of pillar construction and included a new stoke-hole cut through the floor of Room 9. The drastic reduction of the building seems to reflect declining prosperity and is matched by similar reductions in the villas at Darenth and Farningham.

The new heated rooms suggest the need here for heated apartments, certainly for the winter months. There is no suggestion that these rooms included baths.

The site continued to be occupied during the 4th century and it is likely that the estate had failed by about AD400. The roof tiles slid off the roof on the west side and the walls gradually collapsed or were robbed. The ruins of the villa slowly became buried under deep layers of soil washing from the slopes above. By no later than about AD800 the site was lost and forgotten and it remained undisturbed until the 19th century.

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THE FINDS.

The early damage to the villa, coupled with the abandoned 1926 excavation, meant that most of the rooms had been cleared of any finds. However, the 1988 excavation covered areas to the west and north of the main villa-house and also located two new rooms at the south end. As a result a useful collection of finds was eventually recovered.

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Coins.

Only 25 Roman coins were found in the villa and this is a very low number, clearly reflecting the excavation circumstances. One of these is second century and the rest date between AD270-400, when coins were more prolific. The emperors Constans (337-350) and Valentinian (364-378) are represented by two or more coins as is the House of Theodosius (379 onwards).

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Pottery.

Several thousand sherds of pottery were eventually recovered. These include a little samian ware, a fine red slip ware imported from Gaul in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Pottery from the Rhineland and fragments of Mediterranean wine-storage jars were also found. British products include Patch Grove ware (mostly from West Kent and East Surrey), Thames-Medway wares and those from the Nene Valley (Northants) and Farnham (Surrey). This pottery was used inside the Roman villa at different times during its long history and discarded when broken. It may have been purchased at local markets, such as London, Dartford and Springhead, set along the principal roads.

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Building Materials

The whole of the villa would have been covered with a substantial tiled roof and large numbers of broken roof-tile, were found along the west side. These follow the standard forms of tegulae (flanged tiles) and imbrecies (curved tiles). Some small fragments of window glass were also found and show that some of the windows in the villa were glazed. In addition several fragments of painted wall plaster, including a large fallen section, were found and these show that some of the rooms had been brightly painted, either in rectangular panels or in open designs.

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Animals Bones and Shells.

Most Roman sites produce quantities of animal bones, mostly representing meat eaten on the site and the bones discarded. These include bones of sheep, pigs and cows which must have been raised on the villa-estate. In addition discarded oyster shells also represent food, having been fished from oyster beds in the Thames Estuary.

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