Keynsham Roman villa could be king of them all
As more archeological remains are uncovered on the Cadbury’s site, Gerry Brooke takes a look at little known Roman Keynsham
Despite the fact that they occupied Britain for 350 years, we know surprisingly little about Roman life in our area.
True, we have some written evidence, but most of our information has come from the farmer’s plough and the archaeologist’s spade.
In the Avon valley, between Bristol and Bath, a half-dozen villas – some big, some small – were built, but not until two centuries after the Roman invasion.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Sunday, June 30 2013
It’s been suggested that, before this, the area was kept under imperial, rather than private, ownership and control, just like the lucrative Mendip lead mines. Just why this was so – and who the later villa owners were – is still open to speculation.
Overall, Somerset had about 50 villas, with others, no doubt, waiting to be discovered. The one nearest to Bath, at Newton St Loe, had a fine mosaic depicting Orpheus surrounded by animals.
Five miles downstream, at Keynsham – where there was once a ford – two villas, one of which was of very high status, were uncovered in the 1920s. The biggest and best, unfortunately, now lies mostly hidden and inaccessible, under Durley Hill cemetery and the A4 road.
In the late 19th century, a sexton digging graves had stumbled upon some tesserae, the small coloured blocks which make up mosaics. A smaller villa, which when excavated was then moved to what was the main gate, was discovered on the actual site of Fry’s (Cadbury’s) factory in the 1920s.
Another villa at Brislington, discovered in 1899, had projecting wings and eight rooms, as well as mosaics and a bath house. The villa at King’s Weston, discovered in 1947 and once standing near to the marshes bordering the Severn shore, was probably central to an agricultural estate.
Despite these finds, however, it’s the Keynsham villa which stands out as something grand, something really special.
Archaeologists think that it may have been one of the best in the whole country, home, possibly, to a retired high-ranking army officer or top civil servant. Perhaps they favoured the country life but still wanted to be near to Bath, a thriving centre of religious and cultural life. A bit like today, really.
It’s possible that this was the most important villa in the Avon valley, a central hub with the others, more agriculturally based, belonging to it.
The Keynsham villa had literally dozens of rooms – some of which were heated, as was the custom, by under-floor flues (hypocausts) – and paved with expensive, expertly executed, mosaics.
The spacious rooms were connected by a covered veranda supported by a colonnade which ran around three sides of a courtyard.
Like other high-status villas, this one probably contained ornamental gardens and gravel walks. The building contained evidence of emperor worship, and of the country god, Silvanus.
It was a good site. Good quality building stone was available nearby and the flat Keynsham Hams, with their regular flooding, provided excellent pasture for horses. There is also evidence of some commercial metal-working on the site, but on a small scale.
Whether or not it was the Roman town known to scholars as Trajectus is still debatable. That could, like the walled Roman town recently discovered near Thornbury, still be awaiting discovery.
In 367 AD, after regular troops had been withdrawn to fight a civil war, raiders – possible Saxons or Irish – attacked many of the villas in the Avon valley.
At Keynsham there is evidence of burnt roofing from around this time. There is little doubt that the villa suffered a serious fire sometime in the 4th century, during which a wall collapsed.
It’s not clear to archaeologists whether a skeleton found under the wall was already lying there or if it was someone killed when it collapsed. What really happened in Keynsham we will never know, but by the time peace was restored the villa had been re-occupied by poor farmers or squatters, who built a new hearth in the rubble.
After AD 443, as plague decimated the West, sophisticated Roman life seems to have finally came to an end. As Saxon and other raiders swept in, some Romano Britons, such as the mythical Arthur, fought back by re-fortifying the hill forts of their ancestors. But after AD 577, as the chronicles make clear, any remaining vestiges of civilised life were lost as the Saxons beat the West Britons at Dyrham and captured Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath.
The villas and towns – even Roman Bath with its magnificent temple, baths and other buildings – tumbled and then crumbled into centuries of ruin.