Barcombe Roman Villa
Project type: Excavation
Following survey work (geophysics and fieldwalking) and trial excavations undertaken by the Mid Sussex Field Archaeological Team (MSFAT) in 1999 and 2000, and in advance of continued plough damage to the site, in 2001 the UCL Field Archaeology Unit and MSFAT began a joint programme of archaeological excavations designed to more fully investigate and record the Roman settlement at Barcombe.
By 2002 the site of the main Roman house had been excavated, at which time the following interim observations were made by the excavators of the site.
The earliest features appear to date from the Bronze Age, and comprise a circular ring ditch, some 20 metres in diameter, possibly originally surrounding a barrow, together with two shallow linear features, running east to west across the site, which may be field boundaries. The barrow ditch, which is over a metre deep, has produced a few sherds of pottery and some pieces of flintwork.
The next phase of activity at the site is represented by a roundhouse (roundhouse 3) which provides the first evidence of settlement. It is located on a terrace cut into the slope immediately in front of the later villa, and partly lying over the by then filled-in Bronze Age ring ditch. The terrace had been filled in and covered over with almost half a metre's depth of domestic refuse, comprising broken pottery, animal bone and seafood shells, together with later building debris, discarded and broken metal and bone tools, and at least two hob-nailed boots. This material appears to have accumulated from the 1st century through to the final abandonment of the main villa building. The roundhouse, which is some nine metres in diameter, comprises an outer wall made of wattle and daub, of which the stakeholes survive for much of the circumference. In places larger posts supplement the stakes, with a further internal group of larger posts that presumably provided support for the roof. A concentration of stakeholes on the south-west side of the roundhouse probably indicates the presence of a doorway. There is no evidence of a central hearth, but later activity may have removed this. Inside the roundhouse terrace, five shallow linear gullies were found running parallel to one another from north-west to south-east. It is not clear what these were, but it is possible that they may be internal divisions.
Part of a second terrace immediately to the south of the roundhouse, appeared to be occupied by another roundhouse of similar type and size (roundhouse 2), but the majority (three-quarters) of this structure lies outside the investigated area.
A third roundhouse was built in a later phase of occupation (roundhouse 2). This building was found in 2001 underlying the main villa building. In 2001 it was thought that a burnt clay area within the roundhouse was part of the structure, but its archaeomagnetic date of 140-210AD (at 95% confidence) would have made it an extremely late roundhouse for southern Britain (see Current Archaeology 179 (2002), 487). After further work this year, it is now clear that the burnt clay area is stratigraphically later, as a number of post- and stake-holes that belong to the roundhouse were found scaled below the burnt clay.
An enclosure ditch, thought to be associated with this roundhouse, was traced to the eastern edge of the site. A ditch running north to south and turning to the west in the south-east extension could be a continuation of this enclosure ditch. On its west and north sides, the ditch, has a line of large postholes spaced approximately two metres apart along its outside edge. It is possible that after the ditch had been filled in it was replaced by a fence on the same alignment.
Other features may be associated with this phase, including a hearth or oven found in a pit just to the north of the enclosure ditch a north-south aligned ditch, and the large pit in front of the villa, found last year. An extensive area of flint metalling, which respects both the enclosure ditch and roundhouse (1), may also belong to this phase.
This next phase of occupation was represented by a simple rectangular flint building. This building, which measures 10 x 9 metres, has narrow footings of flint bonded in clay, possibly originally supporting a timber-framed structure. It only survives as a flint footing on its west and north sides, with a possible robbed out eastern wall. There is no evidence for a south wall, and only one possible internal dividing wall, also mostly robbed out. It is possible that some of these walls were rebuilt during the next phase and incorporated into the later building.
The fence line referred to above appears to have subsequently been purposely dismantled, as the resulting post-pipes we all filled with a similar mortar-flecked fill with the occasional pieces of Roman tile. A shallow gully running north from the building also has a similar fill, suggesting it was filled in at the same time. It is likely that this happened when the rectangular building was demolished to make way for a larger building in the next phase.
There are various features that appear to be contemporary with the first masonry building phase, or at least pre-date the construction of the later winged corridor villa, some of which are industrial, and perhaps connected with the construction of the final building villa. These include a possible lime kiln and associated pit, the latter sealed beneath the burnt clay area dated to 140-200AD, and various quarry pits that were perhaps dug to provide clay for daub walls, and then filled in with rubbish and soil. These pits all seem to have similar dates of circa late 2nd/early 3rd century.
A new masonry building seems to have been constructed sometime in the mid 3rd century. It seems likely that the first phase comprised the rectangular series of rooms on the north side of the building. Large wing rooms (Rooms 1 and 4) were then added, together with a corridor. At the east end there is no rear corner room to match Room 5 at the west end instead there is a smaller room (10) with a small square structure tacked onto its north side. At a later stage the west wing room (1) was reduced in size by the addition of a dividing wall at its north end, which also seems to have extended the corridor right to the west boundary of the building. It is possible that other dividing walls were added later, such as the wall between Rooms 6 and 7 which appears to butt onto the north wall of the corridor.
Where wall footings have survived, they have been constructed of irregular flint nodules (from the South Downs) bonded in a chalk mortar. Below the flints there is sometimes a basal layer of chalk blocks that have been set into the natural clay. Between the bottom footing layer of chalk or flint and the mortared flints there is often a thin layer of re-deposited natural clay which seems to have been purposely deposited here to create a flat surface above the basal layer onto which the bottom layer of mortared flints were laid. Where underlying features such as filled in ditches or pits occur, the builders went to great lengths to ensure that they did not cause subsidence of the villa walls. The wall footing trenches were dug deeper, in some cases right into the bottom of the pit or ditch, and were packed with flints to ensure stability. In the south-cast corner of Room 9, an earlier pit was partly emptied of its original rubbish fill, and the empty pit was then packed with flints that interlock with the wall footings to reinforce this load bearing corner.
There is very little evidence for the structure of the villa above the wall footings, but finds in a few of the rooms and the corridor suggest that these areas may have had a flooring of plain red tesserae. In Rooms 1 and 8 small white, grey and red tesserae suggest the former presence of mosaics. Fragments of the painted wall plaster recovered from the backfilled robber trenches also indicate the presence of painted walls and perhaps ceilings in at least some of the rooms. It also suggests that at the time the villa walls were robbed they may have stood to a height that meant that plaster was still adhering to them. Apart from the finding of fragments of box-flue tile, there has been no evidence of a hypocaust heating system in this building However, the box-flue tile fragments that have been found (including some re-used as tesserae) have included some in constructional phases of the building, suggesting that nearby another, demolished building, had a hypocaust system.
After the abandonment of the villa, which is currently thought to have taken place c. AD 300, there is no evidence of activity until the later Saxon period. In the corner between Room 11 and the corridor, an alignment of three postholes contains demolition material and cut through the Roman midden. Although nothing Saxon was recovered from these postholes, they were aligned with a large bell-shaped cess pit which contained a very humic fill with numerous animal bones and Saxon pottery. This group of features could be evidence of Saxon "squatter" occupation, possibly a shelter or building constructed against the remains of the villa walls.
The final phases of activity are associated with the robbing out of the flints from the walls of the villa to provide building material for the adjacent parish church and/or other local buildings. This stone robbing started in the 11/12th centuries as evidence by pottery finds from the robber trenches. Finds of clay pipes suggest that such activities continued into the post-medieval period. In the south-east extension a shallow, curving gully was discovered running from the north-east to the south-west cutting through the top of the earlier Roman ditches. This had been partly filled in with flint nodules, but the fill also produced large quantities of 11th/12th century pottery. Within the area enclosed by this gully was an oval, bell shaped pit with a narrow slot cut at each end and containing a humic fill with early medieval pottery. This is interpreted as a cesspit, with the slots supporting a seat or plank. Other medieval pottery and finds came from this area, but as yet there is no evidence for structures. The gully is not deep enough to have been a boundary ditch, but could have been a simple water channel to protect the uphill side of the cess pit from water run-off from the higher part of the site. It is possible that the gully may have enclosed a medieval encampment for workers involved in the robbing out of the walls. This may have been a major job, involving a team of labourers for many months especially if needed to provide stone, to build the parish church, and the workers may have needed temporary accommodation located alongside the villa, perhaps using simple shelters or tents which would have left traces in the archaeological record.
In subsequent seasons, 2003-2005, work extended to investigate the courtyard and surrounds of the villa. This included the excavation of various buildings including an aisled structure with a partially preserved tessellated floor and other features which flank the eastern approach to the winged corridor villa.
2005 was the last year that the project at Barcombe was used as the training excavation for the Institute of Archaeology, and the project is now being taken forward by the University of Sussex and the Mid Sussex Field Archaeological Team. Further details on this more recent work can be obtained from the University of Sussex.
Project Officer: Luke Barber
Client: Institute of Archaeology