Villas and vineyards? Excavations on the route of Lincoln’s eastern bypass

A new newsletter detailing the progress of excavations along the route of Lincoln’s Eastern Bypass (downloadable here) has revealed that the project is turning up some exciting new evidence of Roman activity in the Washingborough area. Some of it has the potential to turn our understanding of the hinterland of Roman Lincoln on its head.

The new bypass will stretch from the Wragby Road roundabout down to the Sleaford Road roundabout south of Bracebridge Heath (see the route map on the newsletter). The current excavations, however, being carried out by Network Archaeology, relate to the area immediately south of the River Witham at Washingborough. Anyone with any knowledge of the archaeology of the Lincoln area will be aware of the huge significance of this stretch of the river, as the site of many amazing discoveries, not least the Witham Shield and the Iron Age votive causeway and all its associated finds just downriver at Fiskerton. Excavations at a site nearby in 2005 were the subject of a Time Team special, such is the potential of the area. The recent work has produced interesting evidence of Mesolithic and Neolithic use of the river and its environs for hunting. Bronze Age barrows, some of which will have to be excavated in due course, and flint tool finds have also been identified. The hugely significant Iron Age activity in the area means that later prehistoric finds are likely to be encountered, and a possible roundhouse has already been uncovered (though these are found well into the Roman period so should not automatically be assumed to be Iron Age without closer dating). This blog of course will focus on the Roman material, but the newsletter is definitely worth reading if you want to find out more about the prehistoric discoveries made so far.

The area under investigation has produced many Roman finds over the years, including hundreds of coins, suggesting the presence of structures. Preliminary excavations of the site in 2003 (Rylatt 2004) unearthed quantities of pottery and tile along with small to medium sized limestone rubble. The ceramics date from the 1st to the late 4th centuries, suggesting a long period of occupation on the site. The presence of tiled roofs, the suggestion of columns (through semi-circular bonding tiles) and flue tiles (indicative of hypocausts) combine to suggest high status structures. The suggestion has been made that the site may be a ‘villa’, but I feel that that specific (and overused) term should be reserved until more is known about the nature of the buildings. This is particularly due to the scale of the complex. The 2004 report suggested, from the combined results of geophysical survey and the spread of building remains, that the complex covered an area approximately 4,600m2. If it was a private dwelling, this means that it would rank among the largest known in the East Midlands, almost twice as large, for example, as the villa at Scampton. The 2004 report postulated that the location of such a high status complex so close to a river with a known history of votive deposition might mean that the site could have been a riverside shrine complex. The current excavations have not yet reached the Roman building deposits, so any new discoveries will hopefully shed more light on the form, function and dating sequence of the structures, as well as whether they were public or private in nature.

Two Roman human inhumations have been discovered, though the dating of them and any potential relationship to the structures is not reported. Both are north-south orientated and contained grave goods. The newsletter stresses the ‘Pre-Christian’ nature of the burials based on the orientation and the presence of grave goods, but these on their own do not necessarily indicate any specific religious belief in late Roman Britain. The statement in the newsletter that ‘Emperor Constantine formally converted the Romans to Christianity in 313AD’ is one so pregnant with misunderstanding that I don’t have the space or willpower to unpack it all here. Nevertheless, any discoveries of new burials in and around Lincoln are of huge interest (see for example my earlier posts here about recent burial discoveries and here about infant burials in Lincoln).

bypass-skeleton

Romano-British inhumation. Image copyright Network Archaeology

One of the grave goods is a ceramic jar (positioned, it would seem from the images, close to the head of one of the inhumations – see the image above) which has a large spall taken out from one surface.  The very regular oval appearance of this spall has led to the suggestion that it might once have held an organic image of the deceased – perhaps akin to the mummy portraits used in Roman Egypt. Although this is a lovely idea, it is one that I have a little bit of trouble believing, as it would be unique in Britain and there seems to be nothing in the image to suggest any traces of pigment or glue.

bypass-pot-with-spall

Jar with spall. Image copyright Network Archaeology

The site has also produced evidence of industrial activity in the form of a lime kiln and two pottery kilns, the physical and chronological relationship of which to the high status structures will hopefully be revealed in due course. The lime kiln may have been associated with the construction of the buildings on the site, so it will be interesting to see if it was a long or short lived structure. The well-preserved pottery kilns may have been in use for a longer period, and piles of waster vessels close by attest to their active use, and to the trials and tribulations faced by potters trying to make a living.

bypass-lime-kiln

Lime kiln. Image copyright Network Archaeology

bypass-pottery-kiln

Pottery kiln. Image copyright Network Archaeology

bypass wasters.jpg

Pottery wasters. Image copyright Network Archaeology

The potentially most fascinating discovery is the one that is currently the most tentatively interpreted. A series of irregular parallel channels and several large pits have been suggested as possible evidence of a vineyard, perhaps associated with the high status structures. If confirmed as such (hopefully some environmental evidence will be preserved), it would be a stunning discovery. Evidence for vineyards in Britain is much debated, and the best current evidence for them is from further south, for example in Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. Without solid evidence of grape seeds, however, interpretation of a vineyard is dangerous, as other types of crops may have been grown in very similar beds (asparagus for example is often cited as an alternative). There is, however, an interesting reference in classical literature to vineyards in Roman Britain. The Emperor Probus (reigned AD276-282) is recorded as granting ‘permission to all the Gauls and the Spaniards and Britons to cultivate vineyards and make wines’ (Historia Augusta, Life of Probus, 18.8). It has been suggested that this permission specifically revoked an order of Domitian (reigned AD81-96) which banned new vineyards being planted in the provinces.

bypass-well-feature

Large pit, possibly connected with viticulture. Image copyright Network Archaeology

The site has of course also included a number of significant post Roman finds and features, including some evidence of Anglo Saxon activity, a stone Medieval tower (perhaps dating to the Anarchy and controlling those using the river) and a bakehouse, a well and a previously unknown cemetery, all associated with a grange. Overlying the Medieval grange was a Post Medieval farm called Sheepwash Grange, known to have been in use until at least the end of the 18th century. As with the prehistoric finds, check out the newsletter for more details of the post Roman discoveries on this fascinating site.


 

References

Rylatt, Jim. 2004. Report on a programme of Archaeological Trial Trenching: Lincoln Eastern Bypass, Lincolnshire. Pre-Construct Archaeology (Lincoln)

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4 thoughts on “Villas and vineyards? Excavations on the route of Lincoln’s eastern bypass

  1. Pingback: Roman stone floor unearthed at Lincoln’s Eastern Bypass excavations | Roman Lincolnshire Revealed

  2. Pingback: Animal print tiles at Lincoln’s Eastern Bypass excavations | Roman Lincolnshire Revealed

  3. Pingback: Media coverage of the Lincoln Eastern bypass excavations | Roman Lincolnshire Revealed

  4. Pingback: Roman archaeology at Grantham’s Southern Relief Road | Roman Lincolnshire Revealed

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