In Caesar’s account of his second expedition to Britain in 54 BC he writes that ‘ the number of the people is countless, and their buildings exceedingly numerous’. This picture of a well populated countryside is supported by modern landscape surveys especially aerial photography such as those of the Trent Valley which reveal a remarkable concentration of crop marks. The locations of those in the mid-Trent Valley in Thurgarton and its neighbouring parishes are shown in Map 1.
Map1 (click on all images to enlarge)The crops marks close to Gonalston, were investigated by archaeologists in the 1990s. Their excavations revealed a complex of field systems, trackways, boundaries and settlements which dated mostly from Iron Age and Roman Britain – a continuous pattern of farming over several centuries. Fragments of Roman building material were also discovered suggesting that a villa once stood somewhere in the vicinity. All these features now lie under the waters of a flooded gravel pit.
The crop marks at Thurgarton , Hoveringham, Bleasby and Fiskerton-cum- Morton show similar patterns to those at Gonalston but have not undergone such thorough investigation.
Crop marks – ancient field boundaries at Bleasby, Hoveringham and Thurgarton.This stretch of the Trent Valley was well served by major transport routes including the River Trent and the Fosse Way; goods and farm produce especially grain had a ready access to markets. Potentially this area should have yielded significant wealth but as yet there is nothing here to rival the great Roman villas and estates of the Cotswolds. However much excitement has been recently generated by new finds at Southwell; claims for a palatial villa or even a temple complex await a cool professional appraisal.
The southern half of the parish of Thurgarton, lying in the Trent Valley, was part of this landscape of intensive farming in Iron Age and Roman Britain, but what of the northern half of the parish? Here one finds rolling hills of clay soil from which drains a small stream - the Thurgarton Beck. Such heavy clay soil was traditionally thought to have been unworkable by ancient farming techniques and to have remained uncultivated as ancient woodland – but discoveries in the 1950s challenged such beliefs.
The Valley of the Thurgarton Beck
In early 1952 deep ploughing of Wood Meadow, a small field in the north of Thurgarton parish, revealed numerous Roman tiles and pottery fragments. These finds were brought to the attention of Mr C. Coulthard a keen amateur archaeologist and microbiologist at Boot’s Research Centre at Thurgarton Priory. So began over 15 years of excavation of two Roman buildings- the first in Wood Meadow ( the Thurgarton villa) and later in Spoil’s Close 200 metres to the west over the parish boundary ( the Epperstone villa).
Thurgarton (1) and Epperstone (2) villas
Numerous archaeologists, amateur and professional, were involved in these excavations including Professors Swinnerton, Barley and Revill, but no formal report of their findings was ever published. Notebooks, site diaries, photographs, catalogues and small finds are held at Nottingham University and at Boots Archives.
Members of Nottingham Field Archaeology Club at Wood Meadow 1950sThe description below of the Thurgarton and Epperstone villas is based on these records and I’m grateful to Prof Lloyd Laing of Nottingham University for his expert advice on their interpretation. In addition three further sites are considered.
Site 1 Thurgarton villa
Site 2 Epperstone Villa
Site 3 Brockwood Farm – probable villa
Site 4 Roman road
Site 5 Rectangular enclosure in Souther Wood.
Site 1 Wood Meadow -the Thurgarton Villa
The first building on this site was a 14ft wide timber building of uncertain length with earth floors. The post holes were 4-5 ft apart arranged roughly in two parallel rows. Rebuilding was evident from several post holes which had been reworked for replacement timbers and a new series of posts based on skerry stone footings suggesting the addition of a corridor to the south side.
A rectangular building 55ft by 24ft ; the lower walls were 2ft 6 in wide courses of local skerry stone topped by slabs supporting a timber superstructure.. There were three rooms, ( labelled rooms 2 to 4 in the site notes) - rooms 2 and 4 were 17ft by 21 ft with earth floors and painted plaster walls. The central room 3 was smaller, 12ft by 21 ft, and had a concrete floor (opus signum) but no evidence of painted plaster.
A 9ft, wide corridor was added to the south face of the building together with a central entrance porch 7ft. wide. Two rooms ( 1 and 5 ) were added to either end to form a winged corridor style of building. Some rooms contained large floor slabs and wall plaster. The roof was covered with Charnwood slates several of which had survived with their nail holes intact.
A hypocaust heating system was built on the east end of room 4 and the walls of room 5 were strengthened to bear the weight of an overlying bath suite. The hypocaust consisted of 28 pilae of skerry stone slabs, each 1ft square, lying on a concrete floor with a supporting cross wall. The stoke hole opened on the north-east corner of the house and the main flue had two subsidiary side branches. Typical of such heating / bathing rooms there were numerous remains of box tiles, opus signum, tufa and also evidence of a lead water tank. Room 4 contained wall plaster decorated with multicoloured stripes.
Parts of the building had collapsed and the hypocaust was in ruins. Room 3 however had a new floor and roof and in room 4 a working clay platform lay next to an hour-glass shaped furnace for metal working. Late Roman coins and pottery indicated a late 4th to early 5th century occupation- the pottery was similar to late Roman examples from Lincoln.
Two adult males had been buried in the building both in slabbed graves. One lay against the west wall of room 2 and was severely damaged but a second burial in the north-east angle of room 4 was complete; this grave was overlain by debris from the adjacent wall so the burial occurred when the wall was still standing. The building may have been in continuous occupation or may have been abandoned and reoccupied in the 5th century.
Site 2 – Spoils Close -the Epperstone Villa.
The excavation of this site was directed by Prof S. Revill from 1959 to 1966.
Phase 1 Iron Age ditches
Undeneath the Romano-British buildings were a series of ditches , 3ft across and 2ft 6in deep, which contained rather crudely made Iron Age pottery some with frilled rims typical of the local Trent Valley ware. Parts of the gullies had been packed with stones to support the overlying house. These pre-Roman ditches extended beyond the buildings and appeared to be part of an Iron Age field boundary which persisted as such into the Roman period.
Phase 2 Roman timber building
The first house on this site was a rectangular wooden hall based on 7-9in wide timber beam slots most of which had been destroyed by later phases of building. The associated pottery and coins suggest a late 1st century date for the building with occupation into the 2nd century.
Phase 3 Stone building with addition of an aisle.
A 90ft long stone building resting on stone footings and later enlarged by an aisle which was supported by a row of massive posts along the whole north-east front of the house
Phase 4 Heating and bathing system
A hypocaust was built into the south-west corner of the building and in the north-east corner a bathing suite which included a semicircular water tank paved with red and grey tiles (labrum) and a well preserved drainage system which ran outside down the slope to the east. A small wooden annexe with a lean -to roof was added to the south gable wall. There is good dating evidence that this house continued in use past 300 AD but was abandoned in the following decade.
Labrum at Epperstone villa.
Hypocaust- Epperstone villa
Small finds from Thurgarton and Epperstone villas
The pottery finds at these two villa sites were reviewed by Prof J May of Nottingham University who found that the majority of pots were of coarse grey ware and sandy calcite gritted ware of local manufacture similar to those found at neighbouring sites in the district and examples of which can be seen at Newark and Nottingham Museums. Fine quality pottery either local or from more distant kilns was largely absent – there were a few scanty fragments of imitation Samian, Black Burnished and Nene valley wares. Later period pots of the 4th century included Dales and Derbyshire Ware and Crambeck style dishes. This was workaday pottery reflecting a modest lifestyle.
Other small finds included fragments of a glass bottle (1-2nd century) and one large piece of window glass (3-4th century). Metal objects included a cleaver, a simple key, several nails, a bronze bracelet and a figurine.
Bronze figurine sphinx now displayed in Nottingham University Archaeology Museum.
Site 3 Probable villa site
Site 4 Roman road
In 1940 Adrian Oswald reported a raised ridge which extended for over a quarter of a mile across the north of the valley. He cut a section across the ridge and discovered a raised gravel trackway flanked by 2ft 6in deep ditches. He thought it ‘ to be of some age and possibly Roman’.
He was of course unaware of the villa sites directly opposite on the south side of the valley. Aerial photographs taken during the excavation of the Epperstone villa show the road quite clearly in the centre of the photograph. The route of the road follows the valley contour westwards towards the third villa site by Brockwood Farm.A less obvious trackway can be seen branching from the road obliquely across the beck and directly towards the Epperstone villa site.
Site 5 Enclosure in Souther Wood
A further earthwork needs to be considered in this Iron Age /Roman landscape. 300 m south of the Thurgarton villa site in Souther Wood is a 40m by 60 m banked and ditched rectangular enclosure. It appears on aerial photographs of the 1950s when the western half of the wood was occupied by saplings.
The wood is now full of mature trees but the banks and ditches are clearly discernable especially on the north side of the earthwork where the double banks and ditches measure 2-3 meters across and over 1.5 meters in height.
This earthwork has similar features to several rectangular enclosures in the Trent Valley some of which are thought to have been fields or livestock corrals and others enclosures of hut circles. The proximity of this enclosure to the villas, roads and field boundaries presented above raise all these possibilities but at present this can only be speculation – obviously a site for future study.
This Thurgarton site also provides evidence for what happened when the Romans finally withdrew from Britain in AD 400. The survival of Romano-British life into the 5th century is most clearly seen in urban centres such as Silchester and Wroxeter; there are precious few examples of post-Roman life in small rural sites which makes the Thurgarton site all the more interesting – it merits further study.
A traveller who turned north along the Thurgarton Beck in Roman times would have found a well built track leading to a patchwork of small fields in which were set farmhouses with outbuildings. In the post-Roman period the landscape reverted back to woodland and scrub and many centuries would pass before this land was cultivated and a farmer’s plough turned up a few fragments of Roman Britain..
This article has avoided the usual Roman history of marching armies and fortified camps. Such events were no doubt witnessed by the locals working in the fields of Thurgarton, but for most of the three hundred years of life under Roman rule, the average Thurgartonian was preoccupied with the important things of life -a decent shelter, sufficient food, and when possible a sneak sip of the master’s wine and a dip in his hot tub.
Sources specific to Thurgarton
Archaeology Department, University of Nottingham. Site diaries, notes, photographs, small finds from Thurgarton and Epperstone villas.
Boots ArchivesBound volumes of site diaries, photographs and finds catalogue from Wood Meadow excavations recorded by Mr C Coulthard.
A. Oswald, ‘Some Unrecorded Earthworks in Nottinghamshire’, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, (1940) Vol.43, pp.13-4.
East Midlands Archaeology Bulletins – short reports from 1959 to 1969.
M. Todd,Short report on surface finds – East Midlands Archaeology Bulletin,Vol.11 (1969-70)
L. Elliot and D.Knight, ‘Further excavations of an Iron Age and Romano-British Settlement near Gonalston, Nottinghamshire’, Trans Thoroton Soc, 101, pp65-72.
General and regional sources
The Nottinghamshire Mapping Project , RCHM (1999) , NMR English Heritage
B. Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain, Routledge (1991)
G. De La Bedoyere, Roman Britain: A New History, Thames and Hudson, (2010)
S. Frere and J.K. St. Joseph, Roman Britain from the Air, Cambridge ( 1983)
D. Knight andA.Howard, (eds.), Trent Valley Landscapes, Heritage (2004)
M.Millett, The Romanisation of Britain, Cambridge (1990)
P. Salway, The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain, Oxford (1993)
R.White and P.Barker, Wroxeter: Life and Death of a Roman City, Stroud (1998)