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WAREHAM & DISTRICT DEVELOPMENT TRUST

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Wareham 'Tree of Life & Laughter Community Garden' Project 2015 and onwards

THE BUCKNOWLE ROMAN VILLA and DOORSTONES

Discovery

Bucknowle Roman villa was discovered by accident in 1975 when amateur archaeologist Tony Brown was out walking. He noticed that many of the molehills contained Roman pottery and more significantly, pieces of red roof tile. He was given permission from the landowner to dig a small trial trench, and the rest as they say is history.

The Excavations

Between 1976 and 1991 a dedicated group of volunteers returned for several weeks each summer and their endeavours culminated in the uncovering of not only a Roman villa but evidence for occupation stretching back at least 7000 years.

The First Occupants

Bands of hunter-gatherers roamed the area around 5000 BC leaving evidence in the form of stake holes perhaps from a temporary shelter and by scatters of flint tools. At this time the landscape was wooded with oak, elm and lime and alder in the wetter places.

By about 3000 BC in a clearing in the woodland a ‘henge’ type feature was constructed overlooking the Corfe River. This consisted of double ditches approximately 16m and 25m in diameter. Occupation evidence is in the form of pottery and flint tools and intriguingly part of a stone hand axe of Cornish origin. The area was used for meetings and gatherings and probably feasting.

The first farmers had comprehensively cleared the woodland by about 1700 BC and two or three thousand years later a round ‘barrow’ again overlooking the river, became the focus of small burial ground where at least two individuals were cremated then buried in pots.

Over the next millennia farming was the chief activity on the site but the Bronze Age barrow was respected by the first roundhouses on the site and an area dedicated to the digging of pits where domestic rubbish was carefully disposed of and then capped with a mound of earth.

In the century before the Roman conquest a burial of a crouched female accompanied by complete pots was inserted into the mound. Four large roundhouses stood nearby. From then up until the conquest itself in AD 43, continental imports of pottery and amphora (which had been full of wine) are evidence not only of a reasonable lifestyle but also access to luxury goods which came on to the site through trade.

The Roman Villa

The site chosen by the first occupants of the villa could not have been bettered. The buildings were constructed on a slight plateau above the River Corfe and the complex grew from two buildings in the first instance to 17 separate structures. Not all buildings were standing at the same time but over 400 years the site changed and developed with contemporary technology and fashion. Local material of limestone and chalk were used in all phases of its construction.

Early Roman (Late 1st- mid-2nd century AD)

Two buildings marked the first phase of the villa. These consisted of a large ‘aisled hall’ and a possible bathhouse.

Middle Roman (Mid-2nd – mid 3rd century AD)

The aisled hall continued in use but new bathhouse was built together with a small block which contained underfloor heating. A little distance away six flimsier, timber-framed buildings most likely associated with workshops, stores or farm buildings.

Later Roman (2nd half of the 3rtd century AD)

A number of the workshops and farm buildings were rebuilt and enlarged. In addition, a completely new domestic block of three rooms fronted by a corridor was built and eventually became the largest building on the site. One of the rooms had a red tessellated floor made from chopped up roof and box flue tiles and another was floored with large Purbeck limestone slabs.

Latest Roman (4th century)

The site was completely re-vamped by further rebuilding and alterations culminating in the presence of three large buildings plus a bath house arranged around a courtyard. The workshops further to the south went out of use at this time and were replaced by a large building which was completely separate from the other two ranges. This faced the large corridor-fronted block which was extended and heightened by another storey. On the ground floor there were 10 rooms including one with a heated floor and at least two mosaic pavements. This building was the main domestic range. On one side the building was connected to a refurbished bath house by a covered portico and another portico linked up with the aisled hall. Here, newly tessellated floors decorated three of the rooms and the building’s function may have been as an administrative centre.

The Door stones

The main entrance to the living quarters appeared to be at the ‘back’ of the building where it faced north-west. This gave entry to the limestone paved room and immediately left was another doorway into a slightly smaller room. Opposite this was a third doorway, the most elaborate and best preserved on the site. It consisted of four limestone blocks and associated paving slabs from the floors of both rooms. The larger rectangular stones contain pairs of sockets which once held upright timbers for door frames on either side of an internal wall. The doorstep threshold was made up of two stones set at right angles to the door frame stones; one of these has a small square hole for a wooden peg doorstop. Arcing grooves in the doorstep fossilise the wear and tear of the door (which was about 0.9m wide) opening and closing.

Life in the villa

Large numbers of finds illustrate the lifestyle of those people living at Bucknowle from the elite (that’s probably how they saw themselves) to the lower orders of workers.
The large number of coins found (213) indicate that a monetary economy was important and that many of the items found on the site were purchased with coinage.

Enormous quantities of pottery were recorded; this was dominated by ‘Black Burnished Wares’ which were locally made in the Wareham area at Bestwall, Redcliffe and Worgret. These sturdy kitchenwares were the pots of choice for cooking, storing and even serving foodstuffs. However, the inhabitants also acquired expensive imported pottery from France, Germany and from other regions of England. Wine came from Italy and Spain in amphora and similar vessels contained olive oil and fish sauce. Beautiful cups, bowls, jugs and bottles in glass were also used. Iron knife blades and wooden spoons were recorded.

Cereals were ground by hand using large quernstones and stone and pottery mortars were used for pulping fruit and grinding herbs.

Items such as bone and metal hair pins, bracelets, brooches, rings, tweezers, nail cleaners and mirrors suggest that the villa’s occupants were as keen on looking good as people are today. Metal fittings from long-decayed wooden boxes together with keys hint that some precious items needed to be locked away.

The presence of loom weights and spindle walls indicates that spinning yarns and weaving them into cloth took place on the site. Bone needles show that some of these fabrics were probably made into clothes. Waterlogged leather offcuts show that shoes were being made on site. The working of shale into items of furniture such as trays, table tops and legs appeared to be a cottage industry, probably quite lucrative.

The presence of iron tools illustrates that everyday household and workshop tasks could be accomplished with the minimum of fuss.

Endnote

The villa at Bucknowle was relatively modest and on a fairly small scale, but its occupants had access to some of the finer things in life hinting at a modicum of wealth. As the Roman empire disintegrated so apparently did life at Bucknowle. The buildings were abandoned, decayed and lost to view, the site ultimately reverting to farmland.

Industries in Roman Purbeck

Stone Industry

The Roman stone industry is little understood. We do not really know where the quarries were as later workings have obliterated evidence for earlier use.

Purbeck limestone was widely used as a building stone and as a roofing material and was transported long distances by sea, river and road. The limestone used as building material at Bucknowle all originated in Purbeck. It is likely that the final finishing of the stones, for example, the cutting of the inserts for the door frames and door stops, was accomplished on site. Small stone items such as mortars are found on the site.

Readily available chalk was also utilised and was used as building material. Hard heathstone (ironstone) from the surrounding heaths was also used as building stone as well as for quernstones.

The Shale Industry

By the Roman period, the shale industry which was centred in the Kimmeridge area was at its height. Although much of the shale was worked into objects at Kimmeridge, large amounts were taken to other rural sites to be manufactured into bracelets, beads, spindle whorls and items of tableware and furniture. Evidence points to a flourishing ‘cottage industry’ of shale working at Bucknowle, but whether it was for in-house or wider consumption is not known.

The Pottery Industry

The local clays had been utilised for millennia and pottery making was well-established. Local manufacturing sites at Bestwall, Redcliffe and Worgret were making pottery (Black Burnished Ware) with millions of pots being produced on an industrial scale and exported far and wide. These pots are found all over the country as well as in northern France. All local sites produce vast numbers of this type of pottery and Bucknowle is no exception.

 

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THE LIBRARY GARDEN

The Wareham Library Garden houses the threshold stones from the Bucknowle Roman Villa, from Building 1, which linked room 1.8 to the room 1.7 (the furnace room).

Click on thumbnail images below to see a larger version (opens in new window):

Above: Remains of a 200AD Roman villa threshold

THE LIBRARY GARDEN PROJECT in pictures

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