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Washing up the Romans' plates

PETER FROST has been helping on a Roman dig near his Northamptonshire home, while nearby one of the area's biggest Roman settlements sees the light of day after 2,000 years

IT’S a very peculiar feeling. There we were, my wife Ann and I washing up — well actually much more delicately cleaning — bits of broken plates. Not just any plates, mind you. These shards were parts of plates Roman soldiers had eaten their supper off 2,000 years before.

Ann and I were helping out on an archaeological dig near our home. We had volunteered and were given the job of cleaning the finds from one of the many Roman villas and other sites in these parts.

Neither of us are trained archaeologists, but Ann often reminds me of Agatha Christie’s advice to women of a certain age. “Marry an archaeologist” said Christie. “They are the only men who get more interested in you as you get older.”

Her second husband was indeed an archaeologist, Max Mallowan. When they married, Christie was 40, making Mallowan 13 years her junior. Helping on digs with Mallowan gave the crime novelist some incredible exotic Middle Eastern locations in which to set some of her celebrated mysteries.

We have many Roman villas and other Roman settlements and remains in the part of Northamptonshire where we live, but just this week archaeologists working on the route of the HS2 high-speed railway seem to have found the daddy of them all in a vast wealthy Roman trading settlement near the villages of Chipping Warden and Edgecote.

The excavations of the new site occupy the area of over 35 football pitches (25 hectares or 62 acres), although there is no evidence that either Iron Age Britons or Roman settlers ever actually played soccer.

Today Chipping Warden is a Northamptonshire village about six miles north-east of the Oxfordshire town of Banbury. It is bounded to the east and south by the pretty River Cherwell.

The team of about 80 archaeologists who uncovered the huge new site have in fact been working here for over a year and discovered numerous artefacts, including more than 300 Roman coins and even some 2,000-year-old cosmetics.

The soil in this part of the county resembles the rich black earth of the fens, and that has given its name to the newly discovered Roman settlement: we are calling it Blackgrounds — a farm name that has passed down over centuries. The farm’s rich black soil has done a wonderful job preserving both Iron Age and Roman artefacts.

Archaeologists discovered that the site had first been an Iron Age village of more than 30 roundhouses, believed to have been established in about 400 BC.

The Romans arrived in about 43 AD, moving in and eventually developing the Iron Age site into a wealthy Roman trading town. They often did this, moving into existing Iron Age settlements where the locals took part in gradually meshing with the superior culture and technology the Romans had brought.

The newly discovered site has no military equipment or artefacts, so it seems this was a peaceful occupation by the Romans, with locals happy to enjoy the lifestyle benefits the new immigrants had delivered.

The new dig showed the settlement vastly expanded over time, becoming more prosperous during the 400-year Roman period.  Many new stone buildings and roads were built here. At its height, there would have been hundreds of people, locals and immigrants, living in the Roman town, making it a very significant settlement.

The modern dig has uncovered a 10-yard wide Roman road. That’s perhaps twice as wide as the average Roman road. “The first Roman dual-carriageway,” opined one wit.    

Also found in Blackgrounds were the remains of workshops, kilns and several wells in remarkable preservation. Also revealed by the dig was burnt and fiery-red-coloured earth indicating fire-based activities such as bread-making and metalwork had taken place here.

More than 300 coins covering four centuries and from all over the Roman Empire were found along with fine glass vessels, jewellery with delicate decoration and fine Samian pottery that had been imported from Gaul.

A tiny bone cube with numbers engraved on its sides showed the Romans enjoyed dice games or perhaps even gambling.

All those coins, along with many examples of scale weights, showed how important trade must have been here, and one exquisite weight carries a finely modelled head of a female deity.

More ominously, a corroded iron shackle may suggest criminal activity or slave labour.  

One of the most impressive aspects of Blackgrounds is the way it spans multiple time periods and the high quality of many of the artefacts found on site. Such a large and diverse site will certainly transform some of our thinking about how both the Romans and Iron Age people lived alongside each other here in Britain.

Blackgrounds, on the Northants-Oxfordshire border, lies on the route of the contentious HS2 rail network under construction between London and Birmingham. It is one of more than 100 archaeological sites that have been examined along the HS2 route since 2018 and is certainly one of the most significant findings to date.

The area that we know as Northamptonshire today was central to the network of Roman road communications.

Near Weedon Bec, close to the source of the river Nene, is a crossroads on what is now the A5. Three major types of transport run close together through the Watford Gap.

The Watford Gap is a low-lying area between two hills, close to the Northamptonshire village of Watford — not to be confused with the much larger Watford in Hertfordshire.

Civil engineers from Roman times onwards have found it to be an ideal route for connecting the Midlands with south-east England.  The A5 road (Watling Street), the West Coast Main Line railway, the M1 motorway and a branch of the Grand Union Canal all squeeze through a corridor in places only about 400 yards wide. It marks the divide between northern and southern England.
 
At one time Weedon was considered to be in the very centre of England. That is why in the Napoleonic War period, with invasion being threatened, Weedon was chosen as a defensible place as far from the sea in any direction as you could get in England.

A grand ordinance depot was built here as part of anti-invasion preparations of 1803. It was originally served by a branch off the canal that entered through a portcullis. The impressive building, complete with portcullis, still stands today.

It was Roman planning that had, long before, established this area as a major hub in England’s road system. One main Roman road ran between Marble Arch in London to Holyhead in Wales. Today we call it the A5, the Romans called it Watling Street.

At at Venonis, south of Leicester, it crossed another major Roman road that they called the Fosse Way. It runs from Cirencester to Leicester. You can tell often identify Roman towns because they end in “cester.”

The Fosse Way was built during the first and second centuries AD. It linked Exeter to Leicester and served towns such as Bath, Cirencester and Lincoln.

Locals have known the existence of many archaeological sites in our area since the 18th century, but the huge findings during the current dig surpassed even experts’ expectations.

Today they call this part of Northamptonshire “warehouse land” as huge warehouses dominate the landscape, and more go up every day.

Good communications both from the motorway network and the Daventry international rail-freight terminal makes distribution all across the land relatively easy.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Romans chose it for when they moved from narrow cart tracks to their first dual carriageway.

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