Just 10 miles west of Central London, a Roman service station has been excavated at Syon Park, near Brentford. Just what would a Roman soldier expect to find when he dropped in on his journey to the west country?
It is a familiar feeling. You have been on the road for hours and fatigue is setting in. A break is needed – a chance for rest and refreshments before pressing on. Today we simply pull off the road and join the crowds in motorway service stations. But weary travellers have always provided an economic draw, and recent excavations at Syon Park, Brentford, have shown that modern facilities have nothing to teach the Roman traders that set up shop along the country’s first integrated transport network.
Official travellers on these Roman highways could count on bed and board, or at least a fresh horse, at the posting stations set up along them. For everyone else, relief came from a hotchpotch of small settlements strung out along suitable stretches of road. Despite their ubiquity, these roadside villages were generally clusters of modest buildings that have only rarely attracted archaeological attention. Yet sites whose fortunes depended on the road network can reveal much about the vitality of Romano-British transit. Now Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) excavations at the new London Syon Park Waldorf Astoria hotel site, on the Duke of Northumberland’s Brentford estate, have provided a cross-section through one such settlement and its rural landscape. As well as astonishing preservation, this work has produced finds that are a far cry from the plastic bags and greasy burger wrappers strewn across their modern successors.
Park and ride
Syon Park lies 10 miles from central London – about half a day’s march for a Roman legionary – just west of the river crossing at Brentford, and immediately north of the Thames. Here the modern A315 overlies the Roman road from London to Silchester (see CA 250). As well as connecting two of the province’s most prosperous towns, this key thoroughfare formed part of the main access route to the West Country, and the major military and civilian sites in southern Wales. It was one of the most important roads in Britain.
The existence of a roadside village has long been known. The distance from central London, the River Brent crossing, and the proximity to a major Thames ford provided three drivers for a settlement to develop. Prior to dredging, this was one of the lowest points where the Thames could be negotiated on foot, and local folklore has it that Julius Caesar battled his way across the river here. In the 1960s Roy Canham, then at the London Museum, investigated an area at the heart of modern Brentford. The surrounding area had grown into an industrial centre during the 1930s, attracting an aerial pounding during the war. As elsewhere, 1960s renewal and redevelopment provided an opportunity to examine hitherto inaccessible archaeology.
Prior to 2001 it was assumed the focus of the Roman settlement Canham discovered lay, like the modern town, to the east of the Brent. Yet subsequent investigations, first by Preconstruct Archaeology at Park Tavern, and now by MOLA at Syon Park, have nearly doubled the known length of the village – from 500m to 900m – and demonstrated that it spanned the river. For the first time we have sufficient evidence to examine the settlement’s buildings, reconstruct its rural hinterland, and chart its shifting fortunes.
Although both road-builders and settlers were greeted with a virgin site at Syon Park, there are traces of prehistoric activity nearby. Apart from a few residual flint flakes, the Late Bronze Age gold bracelet was the only certain relic of pre-Roman activity found during the excavations. Structures to go with it remain elusive, but high-quality metalwork and human skulls fished from the Thames at Brentford signal an important focus of some kind. Often seen as offerings from votive and funerary rites, a counter-argument casts them as detritus from a Bronze Age settlement being eaten away by the river. This would certainly explain the hoard of metalwork found eroding from the river bank at Syon reach, and the presence of Bronze Age pottery on the foreshore.
Whatever the nature of Bronze Age activity, the arrival of the Roman road brought more tangible evidence for human impact on the local landscape. Although its complete width was not uncovered, the new thoroughfare was of classic type. Bordered by a substantial drainage ditch, the carriageway itself was originally a pebble and gravel surface that petered out to little more than a thin spread at the edges. Thoroughly compacted, it was still solid enough to make mattocking through it a thankless task.
Neronian pottery (AD 54-68) recovered from the road ditch in central Brentford would fit construction within a decade or two of the invasion. Once in commission, the commercial potential of the Brent ford was quickly grasped, with mid- to late-1st-century brooches and glass indicating that the earliest settlers at Syon Park arrived hard on the heels of the construction teams. Yet for all its length, the village they founded was a simple one. The cross-section provided by the excavations shows buildings lining the Roman road, with workspace behind them. Beyond lay a patchwork of fields, bordered by ditches and divided by a track that led down the gently sloping side of a shallow valley. Created by silted-up channels of the Thames, the valley was first carved out 50,000 years ago, with the river temporarily returning to it 12,000 years ago.
While there is ample evidence that the fields were laid out in the 1st century AD, the homes of those who worked them have yet to be detected. Assuming they lay within the excavated area, this may well be a consequence of the area between the road and the fields not being dug down to 1st-century levels. Situated under the new hotel driveway, modern soil cover was deeper here, protecting the archaeology from damage by the new development. Yet two exceptionally well-preserved Roman buildings were uncovered during the excavations. Dating to the late 2nd century AD, the striking position they occupied means that their predecessors’ houses are more likely to occupy the ground behind, not underneath, them.