eNewsletter Winter 2019

Peterborough Environment Capital

Hot Baths for Wealthy Romans at Itter Crescent

A grand Roman villa has been recently excavated at Itter Crescent, Walton, Peterborough. For nearly 2000 years the villa had been lying under former allotments owned by Peterborough City Council.

The land is currently being developed by Bellway Homes who, according to planning regulation, have funded the archaeological excavations in advance of construction, with contributions by Peterborough City Council. The excavations have been carried out by Oxford Archaeology East.

The discovery was unexpected, as no Roman villas are known in Peterborough. In the wider area, evidence for the presence of substantial Roman buildings on the high gravel terraces have been recorded in the past, including the majestic ‘praetorium’ or palace at Castor excavated by antiquarian E.T. Artis in the 1820s and, closer to Itter Crescent, the series of buildings at Werrington (to the north) investigated in the 1960s and relatively-high status settlement remains in the Ravensthorpe area (to the south-west) known from antiquarian observations and more recent excavations.

At his site visit Roman specialist Dr Steve Upex of the Nene Valley Archaeological Trust remarked: “The villa is certainly one of the most unexpected sites that have been uncovered in Peterborough recent archaeological past, and is now the only major villa to have been excavated anywhere in the area under modern excavation conditions. The last work on villas of similar size and status was undertaken by Edmund Artis in the 1820s. Thus, the developers need to be congratulated for funding the work. Oxford Archaeology East, under the direction of Dr James Drummond-Murray (Project Manager) and Alex Pickstone (Project Officer), have undertaken a brilliant investigation, and Peterborough City Council ought to be congratulated for their input and concern over the site”.

After due consultations with Dr Will Fletcher, English Heritage Regional Inspector for the Ancient Monuments, on whether to excavate or preserve the site, it was decided that the Roman villa at Itter Crescent was worth a full investigation, its degree of preservation allowing an unprecedented understanding of layout, construction details, function and role in both local and regional contexts.

The villa at Itter Crescent consists of the remains of a substantial, high status, two-floor courtyard villa with rooms on the sides of a cobbled courtyard. The villa was built in local limestone with fine mosaic floors and wall plaster painted in bright red and green colours. Its residents enjoyed the ritual of bathing in a hot and sauna-like bath, as indicated by the remains of the sweating chambers and under-floor heating system (hypocaust). A range of lesser stone-built buildings was located to the north. These buildings were probably structures associated with farming activities carried out on the villa estate. Further buildings, also decorated with painted wall plaster, lie to the east. A small stone-built structure to the west was a tile kiln where the tiles for the roof and other parts of the villa were made. Besides the floor mosaics and the fragments of painted wall plaster, the excavations have produced a wealth of bronze finds, including coins, brooches and dress/hair pins, fine ceramic vessels for ‘special occasions’ and pots and storage jars for every-day use.

At the centre of a road network and river system, the Peterborough area has long been regarded as representing a strategic location for the movement of the Roman army and supplies and, later, for industrial production and trade. Peterborough sits on the edge of the fen, which may have represented an imperial estate directly owned by the Emperors in Rome and run by their administrators and/or military officers possibly residing at Castor ‘Praetorium’.

“Archaeologists do not find remains of imposing Roman villas on every site”, said Dr Rebecca Casa Hatton, Peterborough City Council Archaeologist.

With the exception of the Castor-Ailsworth (and Chesterton) area, Roman settlement in, and around, Peterborough has been traditionally described as consisting of a general pattern of dispersed, relatively small farms and lesser villas.

“Even allowing for damage caused by the expansion of the town, evidence for Roman occupation in Peterborough is scanty, almost giving the impression that the ‘important’ people passed through but did not want to stay. By contrast, the site at Itter Crescent indicates that some 2000 years ago Roman or Romanised members of the high class decided to make a statement of wealth and status at this very location”, added Dr Casa Hatton. “With the recent discovery of a late Roman stone-lined ‘ritual cistern’ off Bretton Way, some 2km to the west, the excavations at Itter Crescent have shed new light on the nature of Roman occupation in the Peterborough area and in the region as a whole, also offering the opportunity to fully record a newly discovered site by means of modern techniques of investigation”.

The Roman villa was probably built in the 2nd century AD but traces of earlier occupation have been uncovered, including an impressive later Iron Age settlement (c. 100BC) enclosed by a substantial circular ditch and including timber round-houses, ovens and domestic pits.

“The Roman villa is impressive, but the Iron Age settlement is equally impressive, clearly indicating the importance of the site even before the Roman period of occupation”, said Dr Casa Hatton.

The villa was abandoned in the 4th century AD and many of the walls were robbed of the stone to be re-used elsewhere.

The finds from the excavation will be deposited and preserved at Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery that will host a display in the foreseeable future. Bellway Homes have kindly donated some of the original Roman building stone to the Friends of Itter Park Association who are planning to re-use the materials in the park.

The excavation has been made possible thanks to Bellway Homes who have also kindly sponsored a series of events aimed at community engagement and school education. All excavations and events have been run by Oxford Archaeology East, with the help from local residents and students from Peterborough University Centre. “Bellway Homes were happy to assist with the funding and to work alongside the archaeological teams dealing with the excavation in what has been found to be such a significant finding within Peterborough City”, commented Gary Mills, Divisional Managing Director of Bellway Homes East Midlands.

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