Revealing the Romano-British countryside

A Roman farmstead at Great Glen, Leicestershire, was investigated by Albion Archaeology. The reconstruction
drawing by Cecily Marshall give an idea of how the site would have appeared in the mid- 3rd to late 4th century). The farmstead does not appear to have an Iron Age predecessor and instead emerged in the 2nd century AD. (Image: Albion Archaeology (drawings by Cecily Marshall)

Roman villas have an enduring appeal but, glamorous as they are, such complexes and their attendant lifestyle should not be taken to represent normality in Roman Britain. A newly published monograph on rural settlement seeks to redress the balance and illuminate the experiences of the majority of the population – as Chris Catling reports.

This is a guesstimate rather than an established fact, but in the 1970s it is thought that archaeologists excavated a lot more high-status Roman villas and grand townhouses than messy and insubstantial rural sites. Even so, the individuals who dug those stonewalled villas were well aware that they were looking at the structures of a particular moment in time, built for and inhabited by a particular class of individual. Increasingly, however, archaeologists have wanted to know about ‘everything else’ – the bits in between the villas, such as farm buildings and workshops; the fields and the houses of the ordinary folk; and the invisible lives of the people whose hard work created the wealth that the villa owners enjoyed.

It has taken a long time to get there. When ring roads and housing estates were being built in the 1970s and 1980s, excavation committees were able to raise the funds to explore a fancy villa because the public loved to see mosaic floors emerging from beneath the turf, along with a wealth of small finds of the kind that feature in newspaper reports and end up on show in museums. Only with the onset of developer-funded archaeology in the 1990s has it become possible to excavate landscapes in their entirety and glimpse the wider picture. Despite this new scope, these wider investigations often ended up in grey literature, produced to fulfil a planning condition. As grey reports are not themselves published, information about many of these sites simply languished unused in archives.

Excavating archives

Individually, such grey literature reports might not seem very exciting, but added up they amount to a huge body of potential information about the countryside that was not easily accessible. There was a rich vein of knowledge waiting to be mined, but it needed someone to draw the data together, to map it and look for patterns, and to analyse the information for regional differences or changes over time. Contracting units are not paid to do this kind of analytical work and academics seemed for a long time to be intimidated by the sheer quantity of new data facing them. Richard Bradley’s 2006 paper in The Antiquaries Journal (see ‘Further reading’ box on p.29) lamented the lack of partnership between academics and the commercial sector, with the result that works of national synthesis that should have been based on all this new evidence failed to engage with it.

Iron Age and Romano-British farmsteads at Fingland, Solway Plain, Cumbria, photographed on 7 July 1984. (Photo: Bob Bewley)

This was set to change, however. Richard went on to secure a major grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to undertake a five-year study of grey literature relating to British prehistory, and this demonstrated that there was far greater diversity in this period than the textbooks admitted. It was a revealing moment, and some of the lessons learned from Richard’s research were subsequently adopted by Mike Fulford (University of Reading) and Neil Holbrook (Cotswold Archaeology) and applied to Roman Britain.

Their study, entitled ‘The Evaluation of PPG16, “Grey” Literature, and the Rural Settlement of Roman Britain’ (funded by English Heritage and the Leverhulme Trust), launched in March 2012, and the first of three volumes presenting its results has just been published (see ‘Further reading’ box on p.29). This book is concerned with the current state of knowledge about rural settlement in England and Wales, focusing on regional diversity in settlement form and location, and the architecture of their constituent buildings. A second volume, on the rural economy of Roman Britain (agriculture, industry, transport, and markets) is in the pipeline, and a third will look at the people of Roman Britain themselves: their regional identities, religions, rituals, and burial practices.

At the core of the first report is the classification of rural settlement into three main types – farmsteads, villas, and nucleated settlements. The number of such habitations known to archaeologists has exploded in the last three decades – over 80% of those examined in this study have been excavated since 1990 – something that has transformed our understanding of the ways in which the Romano-British countryside evolved. In particular, we now know that farmsteads dominated in England and Wales at this time, typically accounting for between 65% and 82% of all the settlements in any particular region.

Forms of farms

The oldest settlements to be found within the Romano-British countryside, the report argues, consist of unenclosed farmsteads – those without any apparent boundary bank, fence, or ditch surrounding the domestic core. Typically they are characterised by a track or droveway leading to a series of roundhouses set around a number of pits and enclosures. They are relatively few in number (although it is always possible that the lack of a ditch makes them less visible in cropmarks and aerial photographs), but they nevertheless have a wide distribution across England and Wales.

Unenclosed farmsteads are interpreted as being almost exclusively a late Iron Age phenomenon, reflecting a mid- to late Iron Age pattern that fell out of fashion with the arrival of Roman influence: one in three was subsequently abandoned, while towards the end of the 1st century AD the others evolved into one of two other types of farmstead: ‘enclosed’ or ‘complex’. Nor was that the only change taking place; where continuity of use can be seen in a farmstead from an unenclosed site to an enclosed or complex one, there is also evidence for a complete reorganisation of land-use, with new field boundaries being laid over the old.

Enclosed farmsteads, as their name suggests, are defined as those in which all of the domestic activity is contained within one or two boundary ditches, without much further subdivision of the internal space. This is the most widespread type of all, present across all of England and Wales, but especially common in the north, in coastal Wales, in Cornwall, and on the southern chalk downland, with particular clusters on the Hampshire Downs and the Yorkshire Coal Measures. By contrast, they are relatively scarce in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Gloucestershire, and Somerset – all areas of otherwise dense occupation.

This bar chart shows the average number of buildings per settlement, by settlement-type. Unsurprisingly, the larger categories of rural settlement have the highest average number of buildings: villages, roadside settlements, and vici. Even here, though, the numbers are quite small, reinforcing the picture of a Romano British countryside of small, dispersed settlements. (Image: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies)

If this settlement pattern shows great variation in distribution, there are also distinct regional patterns in the form its eponymous enclosures take: we find rectilinear, curvilinear, irregular, and D-shaped ones. Although every region that has enclosed farmsteads has at least some examples of all four varieties, small local concentrations of a particular type are discernible. Thus rectilinear enclosures characterise the South, Central Belt, and East regions; as well as in the North East and Central West (but with higher numbers of irregular enclosures). The North, along with Wales and the Marches have a more mixed group, with higher proportions of curvilinear and irregular enclosures, and in the South West, curvilinear enclosures (‘rounds’) are dominant.

‘Banjo enclosures’, consisting of a circular enclosure and a funnelled entrance (see CA 281), are generally thought to be a chalkland phenomenon but are also found in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, while more and more examples are turning up in other parts of Britain, such as in Gloucestershire and in West and South Yorkshire. They are conventionally dated to the Iron Age, but examples have been found spanning the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD, and possibly continuing in use into the 4th century. Such findings challenge our desire to categorise enclosures discretely by region and date – more research is needed to consider whether the different forms of enclosure represent distinctive lifestyle and farming practices, and whether they result from cultural transmission or are examples of independent invention.

Picking out patterns

There are further regional patterns to be found if you look at differences in how stone and earth were used to construct enclosure embankments. This partly reflects the local availability of materials, but while Cornwall and Wales both have numerous earthen-walled enclosures, they also have some very distinctive ones with dry-stone walls. The few of these latter sites that have been investigated in detail appear to be very long-lived – typically extending from well before the 1st century BC and through to the 4th century AD and beyond: here is evidence of life in the countryside truly changing little from one generation to the next.

The jury is out on whether double and triple enclosures, found mostly within the Southern region, are a security measure and a response to a perceived defensive need, or an expression of social status or aspiration – perhaps they are both. As for the so-called ‘irregular enclosures’, the report suggests that they could simply reflect local preference, but they might also reflect topographical elements no longer visible in the archaeological record, such as hedge lines or land boundaries.

Complex farmsteads are those with internal subdivisions, or a number of conjoined enclosures. Such subdivisions tend to reflect the desire to keep livestock, storage, processing, industrial, and domestic activities separate from each other, and often appear to be the result of careful planning. By contrast, linear settlements made up of linked enclosures appear to have developed more organically, so that the multiplication of enclosures represents different developmental phases in the life of the settlement. They often incorporate trackways, field systems, and funnelled entrances, which are interpreted as evidence of livestock herding – though the presence of corn dryers in many of them suggests a mixed agricultural economy.

Both types appear to be a Romano- British phenomenon, largely concentrated around the Fens and along river valleys, especially the Ouse, Nene, and Upper and Middle Thames. They also occur widely, though not densely, across the lowlying areas of Yorkshire, but are absent from the rest of the North, from Wales and the Marches, and the South West, as well as from the chalk downland. The increasing number of linear settlements in the later 1st and 2nd centuries could reflect an expansion in pastoral farming, or the opposite – the restriction of animal management to particular places because of increasingly intensive use of land for arable production. In either case, the report argues that this type of settlement, unlike other kinds of farmstead where the emphasis was perhaps more on self-sufficiency, may well have been producing surpluses to supply various markets (civilian and military).

Villa visibility

Much debate continues to surround the question of what role villas played in the Romano-British countryside. Some are perhaps best thought of as summer retreats or places for entertaining guests, performing a social and cultural role as much as an economic one, and consuming resources rather than producing them. Others, however, are simply family dwellings that reflect their wealthy owner’s preference for Roman-style rectilinear and stone architecture over the older mode of circular structures made of timber and thatch; some of these undoubtedly sat at the centre of a productive agricultural estate.

This chart confirms that it is the most overtly Roman-style types of settlement – the villa and the vicus – where rectilinear buildings are dominant, while circular buildings remain the dominant form in farmsteads and hillforts and in some parts of the country, such as the South West. (Image: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies)

Because of their long history of excavation and their archaeological visibility, villas are somewhat overrepresented in the archaeological record: they form 18% of excavated settlements in the South and 13% in the Central Belt, though some subregions have higher levels (up to 40% in the Cotswolds and the Wealden Greensand). Clearly this is not the whole story – it is highly unlikely that nearly half of the population of the Roman Cotswolds lived in a villa. In fact, we know enough about villas and the size of their associated estates to be able to predict their location and distribution with some accuracy, and it has been estimated on this basis that Roman Britain has some 2,000 villas, accounting for an estimated 1% of late Iron Age and Romano-British settlements.

Even so, the concentration of villas within certain landscape zones hints at a more hierarchical society in these areas, with greater accumulations of wealth and differences in land tenure and agricultural practice. In truth, though, we do not know how the inhabitants of many villa settlements generated their wealth – whether from official office, industry, agriculture, mercantile activity, quarrying, mining, building, military service, moneylending, crime, or corruption… or a mixture of all of these. The list of possibilities is very long, and the report says that we need more villa research, not less – but focused on wider ‘villa landscapes’, rather than on the main domestic buildings. Where such studies have been undertaken (for example at Roughground Farm and Harnhill, both in Gloucestershire), interesting landscape elements have been observed, including enclosures, trackways, and buildings that could be described as associated ‘estate villages’.

The overall distribution of villas is similar to that of complex farmsteads, so it is wrong to think of some landscapes as being entirely dominated by villas. At least half of all the villas built in each successive century from the 1st to the 4th developed from an earlier settlement, and often they reflect long periods of prior activity. The 2nd century sees an increasing number of new builds, however, perhaps representing the trophy houses of the nouveau riche, while the focus of villa construction moves over time from Kent and Sussex to Gloucestershire and Somerset.

Village people?

Nucleated settlements are another topic of heated archaeological debate, not just in the Romano-British period, but for prehistorians and medievalists too, with some arguing that settlements large enough to be called hamlets or villages do not exist in England and Wales until the Middle Ages, and that until then the norm in Britain was the standalone farmstead, home to a family unit and its dependants, which was usually located within the land that it managed. This is only partially true: Roman Britain clearly had large urban centres, including civitas capitals and coloniae (though many now question how successful these ever were, how densely populated, and how genuinely ‘urban’ in character), as well as so-called vici: civilian settlements that grew up outside military sites and were economically dependent on them.

Excavations by Albion Archaeology as part of a flood-relief scheme at Eastcotts, Bedfordshire, revealed two Roman rural settlements. One may be a planned village. (Photo: Albion Archaeology)

The majority of the nucleated sites that are considered as rural for the purposes of this report consist of distinctively ribbon-like roadside settlements or clusters of occupation located around the intersections of two or more roads or a river crossing. The report laments the lack of evidence for the plan and extent of such sites, though that is perhaps understandable given that later towns (Staines and Brentford, for example) now sit on top of their Romano-British predecessors – perhaps not evidence of continuity of settlement so much as the longevity and usefulness of the roads, fords, and bridges. Many of these roadside settlements lie within 10km of a defended town, and it is probable that they had a mixed economy. The settlements at Bainess, North Yorkshire – located along Dere Street, 2km south of the major walled town of Cataractonium (modern Catterick) – and that at Dringhouses, 3km south of York, for example, both had evidence for industrial activity, but the associated field systems show that this was combined with small-scale farming.

Larger nucleated settlements do also occur away from roads, such as the celebrated linear settlement in the Vale of Pickering that has produced ‘the world’s longest geophysical survey’, extending for several kilometres (the settlement, that is – not the survey printout) along a central trackway. Other examples include the settlements at Chisenbury Warren, Wiltshire; Chalton, Hampshire; and Mucking, Essex (see CA 322), all of which comprise an agglomeration of farmsteads extending over several hectares.

The shape of the past

Surely one of the best indicators of how much ‘Roman’ culture influenced Iron Age Britain is the big question of whether people continued to live in single-room roundhouses, or adopted the newly fashionable rectangular styles of dwelling. The current study looked at 6,175 buildings from 1,563 sites, ranging in date from the late Iron Age to the late Roman period, and it tells a far from simple story. On a national level, only 43% of the buildings are circular or curvilinear, and there is a steady reduction in the number of sites with circular architecture over time, though there are significant regional variations. Rectilinear is the dominant form in the Southern region by the later 1st century AD, while the South West remains a region of circular, oval, and boat-shaped buildings throughout. The major period of decline in the frequency of circular buildings is the 2nd century in the Eastern region, but they endure until the 3rd/4th centuries in the North.

Are we even right to see circles and rectangles as indicators of ‘native’ versus ‘Roman’ cultural preferences? After all, Britain has rectangular buildings from the Neolithic period onwards, and there are plenty of Iron Age examples. It has been argued that the trend from circular to straightwalled buildings is really about the change from the single-room structures of pre-industrial societies to multiroomed buildings, with increasingly specialised use of particular rooms for different functions, and the separation of industrial and domestic activities. Clearly there is plenty of scope here for much more detailed research into the domestic and non-domestic functions of whole buildings, and even of rooms within buildings. Variability in plan could thus be a reflection of the degree to which the local economy is diversified or based on agricultural production, rather than on cultural affinity – though, as always in archaeology, there is no single explanation. The picture is very mixed, and there can be substantial variation in settlement type and building form even within a relatively limited area, with very little homogeneity.

Material world

The same is true of building materials. Developer-funded archaeology has produced a huge increase in our understanding of the range of materials and methods of construction deployed in the Romano-British countryside, sweeping away the old idea that ‘Roman’ means stone, and ‘native’ means timber. Indeed, we now have evidence for numerous Roman post-built and box-framed timber buildings, including whole settlements, such as Camp Ground at Colne Fen, Cambridgeshire (see CA 295).

Stripping away the topsoil at Burton Latimer, Northamptonshire, revealed the enclosures and trackway of a rural settlement that originated in the late 1st century. At least part of it remained
in use into the early 5th century. (Image: Albion Archaeology)

The 3,370 timber buildings (55% of the total) plotted in this study are regarded as a significant underestimate, because they leave far less of an archaeological trace: arguably timber was the main construction material used in the Romano-British countryside, and even those built with stone foundations or ground floors may well have had cob or timber walls above. We also now have evidence for some interesting types of structure that were previously thought to be medieval in origin. Some 105 examples of buildings with cellars are now known from several parts of Britain, with evidence (such as at Wattle Syke, West Yorkshire, with its 15 late Roman cellared buildings) that the basements were used for crop processing, grain drying, animal processing, cooking, antler-working, and smithing. Another type of multipurpose building is the aisled hall, with cooking and eating at one end, and agricultural and craft activities being practised in another part. Some 219 aisled buildings have been found, ranging from small buildings of 60 square metres (Yaxley, near Peterborough) to huge barnlike structures of 800 square metres (Rivenhall, Essex).

Challenging our preconceptions even further, those aisled buildings that have been dated are late 1st century AD, and the greatest expansion in their numbers occurs in the 2nd century, with an overall decline in the 4th, undermining any suggestion that these might be the progenitors of medieval halls. As in the case of Brading on the Isle of Wight (CA 280), many of these halls subsequently developed into villa-type structures, with private suites being added, in contrast to the public open halls of the rest of the building; or they become part of a larger villa complex, with the aisled hall being supplanted by a new main villa building constructed nearby. In the long run, the villa itself shifts in function from display to more utilitarian aspects, as demonstrated by the many examples of such complexes whose hypocaust systems were converted to corn dryers or whose fine floors were later used to support industrial braziers.

Creating chronology

Looked at in broad terms, what can we now say about chronological change in the Roman countryside from the late Iron Age to the early post-Roman period? Again, villas are the villain in terms of skewing past interpretations: because of their flowering in the later Roman period, especially in the west of England, there is a view that the Romano-British countryside flourished in the later 3rd and early 4th centuries. The new report suggests otherwise: that bubbles of wealth and prosperity occur in different regions at different periods, and that while the west enjoyed its moment of prosperity as the ‘bread basket’ of Late Roman Britain, elsewhere it was the 2nd century AD that saw the maximum population, settlement density, and prosperity.

Continuity of settlement is evident at existing sites from the late Iron Age until the 2nd century, while most regions experienced a significant increase in new settlements during the same period, probably as a continuation of a longterm trend rather than as a consequence of the invasion. It was over the next century, once the borders of the Roman province had been more or less settled, that there was significant investment in frontier systems, new towns and public buildings, and a re-ordering of the agricultural landscape, all reflected in the rapid expansion of settlement numbers and in the extent of the farmed landscape. During the 3rd century there is increasing evidence of settlement abandonment and shift – some would argue that this was a natural correction to a centrally planned system, as people respond to the realities of rural life and economic opportunity and shift to those places where they can best earn a living – hence the establishment of new roadside settlements.

What happens in the 4th and 5th centuries is dogged by the so-called ‘chronological abyss’ into which archaeology falls with the decline of distinctively dateable material such as coinage and pottery, but the evidence from this study shows a marked decline in settlement numbers except in the western parts of the Central Belt, which remains agriculturally productive for a longer period of time: elsewhere, 80% or more of rural settlements in use early in the 4th century are thought to have ceased by the end of the century.

Peopling the past

Peak population density has been variously estimated in the past as between 1 million and 10 million for Roman Britain. Nobody claims that the current study is complete or comprehensive, and so the authors are cautious of estimating how densely occupied the Romano-British countryside was at any point over the 500-year period, but they think the truth lies somewhere towards the lower end of these estimates.

Excavating the graves in the cemetery of the rural settlement at Burton Latimer. Studies of Roman settlement evidence from throughout England and Wales have allowed researchers to estimate a possible population for this period. (Image: Albion Archaeology)

If settlement numbers are an indication of population size, however, there was a steady growth from the late Iron Age to a peak of perhaps 2 million in the 2nd century, when 80% to 90% of the population lived in the countryside. Even then, while the agriculturally productive areas were heavily exploited and densely populated, there was always land available to expand into: this suggestion challenges previous views that the entirety of the landscape was owned and farmed from the Bronze Age, and that there was little scope for expansion or for new settlers to gain a foothold.

Some people ask whether we need to go on digging yet more rural sites. The answer from this report is a resounding ‘yes’, but with a caveat: planners and excavators need to be aware of what has been done so far and begin to address the new research questions that have emerged. In particular, there needs to be a commonly agreed standard of excavation that goes beyond the recovery of plans and sections, one that addresses the need for better dating material and the exploitation of new scientific techniques, especially for faunal and environmental evidence. The difficulty here, of course, is that of balancing price with the best-conceived research programme. Even so, with large infrastructure projects in the pipeline, such as HS2, there is huge potential for archaeological contractors and developers to work together to fill some more gaps in our knowledge.

Further reading

Alexander Smith, Martyn Allen, Tom Brindle, and Michael Fulford (eds), The Rural Settlement of Roman Britain, Britannia Monograph 29, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, £40, ISBN 978-0907764434.

Richard Bradley, ‘Bridging the Two Cultures: commercial archaeology and the study of prehistoric Britain’, The Antiquaries Journal 86 (2006).

This article appeared in CA 326

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