Illuminating the past – Enhancing the present – Inspiring the future

The Rocky Road to the Iron Age:
excavation at Folkestone Roman villa 2011

The second season of excavation at the East Wear Bay Roman villa, Folkestone ran between May and November 2011. The work forms part of the three year Heritage Lottery funded community project ‘A Town Unearthed: Folkestone Before 1500’(or ATU). The excavation is being led by Canterbury Archaeological Trust, working in association with Canterbury Christ Church University and the Folkestone People’s History Centre. Additional funding for the work has come from the Kent Archaeological Society and the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust.More than 130 days were recorded in the site diary – and what a season 2011 turned out to be. Things got off to a flying start with a visit by Dr Alice Roberts and the Digging for Britain TV film crew in June. This was followed by an open weekend with Roman re-enactors bringing in more than one thousand visitors in early July. The main dig started in mid-July and lasted for four months.This year’s dig took place across a piece of ground in front (i.e. south-east) of the main villa house. This was the area assumed to have once been occupied by the villa courtyard and gardens where ornamental features such as pools or statues might have been located. It is also that part of the site most imminently threatened with collapse into sea. Previously, during the original excavations of 1924, S E Winbolt and his team had looked only very briefly here and found nothing of interest.
Volunteers at work on the siteVolunteers cleaning some of the findsPhotograph taken in 1924
The 2011 area measured about 16 by 14 metres, set in the angle between the front corridor wall of the villa’s central range and its projecting north-east wing. It was found to be free from any significant modern disturbances beyond the continuous narrow trench cut around the outside of the main walls by Winbolt and a Second World War dug-out. Nothing which might be equated with Winbolt’s test pits was identified.The new season’s work re-affirmed the findings of the previous year and again demonstrated that a substantial thickness of stratified deposits exist on this part of the site. In fact, the layers here were found to be even more developed than in the 2010 area, with a recorded thickness of up to 1.75m below the base of the modern topsoil. This is a quite remarkable build-up of deposits on what is essentially a rural site. Investigation established that much of the accumulated soil derived from habitation that had occurred before the construction of the Roman villa complex.The first major feature encountered in 2011 was an extensive layer of rubble representing the final courtyard surface of the late Roman villa and this marked the start of a long stratified sequence going back well into prehistory. At the base of this sequence, the surface of the natural Gault was sealed by a succession of clay deposits producing significant amounts of struck flint, flint-tempered prehistoric pottery, animal bone and marine shell, although there were only two small associated features.

The surface of the uppermost clay layer was cut across by a sunken, metalled trackway (soon christened The Rocky Road), running north-west by south-east and associated with pottery provisionally dated to around 100 BC. An infant burial had been deposited by the side of this track at some stage. A short distance further to the north-east was a substantial sub-rectangular oven pit. These discoveries, together with a scatter of odd post-holes, appeared to represent the earliest features of a settlement area continuously occupied throughout the late Iron Age and into the Roman period.

The 'rocky road' (late Iron Age metalled trackway)
Eventually, the trackway went out of use and the hollow became filled with soil and domestic rubbish.  At one point a pit had been cut into these accumulated soils to allow the insertion of a burial urn containing cremated bone. Subsequently, the levelled area became occupied by hearths and chalk floors relating to two separate timber buildings, each one rebuilt several times but neither very large or of substantial construction. Traces of a possible four-post structure, perhaps a raised granary, were also recorded close by. All these structures would seem to date from the late first century BC.
A late Iron Age chalk-floored building with remains of a burnt hearthThe late Iron Age chalk floors seen in sectionIron Age levels under excavation with a cob-walled building in the foreground
After these timber buildings had gone out of use the area was cut across by a succession of ditches, running on various axes. These probably served to delimit rectangular fields and enclosures, further traces of which had been found during trenching to the north-east of the villa in 2010. Some of the ditches were of substantial proportions and the latest ones discovered in 2011 seemed to be early Roman in date. The final ditch in the sequence had been deliberately backfilled, probably sometime during the late first century AD, to make way for the construction of the first villa.
The collapsed cob-walled buildingOne of the early Roman boundary ditches crossing the site, looking westAnother of the early Roman ditches
Once the ditches were levelled, the 2011 area was covered by more soil and clay before rough, patchy metalling was laid down as a courtyard in front of the Roman villa. No evidence of any associated garden or ornamental features was discovered and the whole arrangement appeared somewhat work-a-day and lacking much refinement. The metalling did, however, yield one important find – an engraved gemstone, found near the main entrance. This had presumably been lost by someone entering or leaving the house, becoming trampled into the pebbled yard surface without being noticed. On the north-east side, during the earlier part of the fourth century, the yard became covered by a mixture of abandonment soil, building debris and accumulated domestic rubbish. Quite clearly, this part of the courtyard was now out of use. Subsequently, a section of the villa roof collapsed onto the courtyard, followed by masonry from the walls.  It would seem that at least part of the villa was by then ruinous and unoccupied.
Roman intaglio or engraved gemstoneThe villa courtyard metalling, looking north-eastThe roof tile collapse under excavation, looking east
Later, however, the roof-fall, collapsed walling and soil and debris layers over the courtyard were all sealed by a deliberately laid rubble surface which seemed to constitute a new (upper) courtyard. Interestingly, mortar fragments and obvious building stones were scarce suggesting that much of this material did not come from demolished walls of the villa. Along the south-western side of the excavated area, closest to the main entrance into the villa, the new rubble layer occurred at two distinct levels. Nearest the building it existed as a clear platform, the outer edge of which lay some 6.25m forward of the front wall. A sloping rubble bank around 0.30m high separated this raised area from the remaining spread. As well as pottery and animal bone, the soil mixed with the stones produced eight coins. Their date indicates that the rubble cannot have been laid before the mid–late fourth century AD. It is not entirely clear what was going on then but the heyday of the Roman villa had certainly passed and the new courtyard may have been laid down as a work area after the main house was abandoned.A thin layer of dark soil accumulated over the rubble surface. This contained much broken pottery, animal bone and marine shell, together with a further nine coins, all of which are of fourth-century date, one perhaps being as late as c AD 390. The general absence of the very latest Roman coin issues reaching Britain, however, suggests that activity on the site did not continue much into the fifth century. After the villa was finally given up the site appears to have remained largely unoccupied until the present-day.A large quantity of finds was recovered from the 2011 excavation. The bulk of the material consists of pottery, animal bone, marine shell, Roman roofing tile and prehistoric flintwork. There are also more than 800 registered small finds, including coins, brooches, glass, iron implements, rolled lead weights (probably from fishing nets) and quernstone fragments. Of special interest were four pieces of a small Mother Goddess figurine, the engraved gemstone, a complete iron writing stylus, a decorated Iron Age bead of blue glass, and an important collection of thirty-six Iron Age coins.
A Town Unearthed: findsGreenstone quernstones were manufactured on the siteSmall Roman plate brooch in the shape of a hare. An unstratified find.
The two seasons of work at Folkestone have now yielded some remarkable results and show that a great deal of new information is still to be recovered from this long-known site. It is clear that the excavated Roman villa complex occupies the site of a much older settlement, which as yet has seen only limited investigation.  Intact stratification, untouched by previous excavation, would appear to survive across much of the area but the entire site is ultimately threatened by coastal erosion. Without doubt, much more work is warranted on this important Kent site.
Keith leaving the site as the sun goes down on the last day
VIDEO: A Town Unearthed

August 15th, 2011

CAT Education Service at Folkestone Roman Villa 2011

“A rare and exciting opportunity to see in action how we learn about the past”

In July over 400 local schoolchildren and teachers visited the excavation taking place on the site of the Roman Villa at East Cliff, Folkestone. The excavation forms part of the ‘A Town Unearthed: Folkestone before 1500’ community project. Visits to the site were organised and supervised by CAT Education Officer Marion Green, who was ably assisted by ATU volunteers Yvonne Hutchcraft, Pat Cocks, Roma Mortimer, David Paton, Daniel Harris and Iain Neilson.

Before coming to the site, the children had introductory talks in school which prepared them for their visit.

F16103_4768-ATU1-SF47-webVisitors portakabin

This year’s visits, which allowed the children to see discoveries made early in the second season of digging, followed the highly successful programme of school visits to the site that took place in September 2010. They were able to view the remains of the villa, see a display of finds from the site, see some of these being washed, and talk to volunteers and professional archaeologists working on the site.

A Roman key - the key to the villa....?Enjoying the villaYvonne Hutchcraft, project volunteer, with young visitors

Teachers said about the visits:

“A rare and exciting opportunity to see in action how we learn about the past”

“Excellent and informative, very friendly and interesting staff”


Children said that they had learned:

“That we are walking on history”

“About how people lived”

“Archaeology isn’t just about finding big things”

Bread made by project volunteer Pat Cocks from quern-ground flourLearning fieldwork skills on Work Experience

In addition to the school visits, a number of older school students from various parts of Kent were able to dig on the site and help with finds processing as part of their work experience placements.

Excavation takes place seven days a week and the site will be open daily to visitors until the end of August, between 10.00 am and 4.00 pm. A small display of finds and information boards can be seen in the visitors portakabin.

A Town Unearthed: Folkestone before 1500, is a three-year project of community archaeology organised by Canterbury Christ Church University, the Folkestone People’s History Centre and Canterbury Archaeological Trust. It is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust, Folkestone Town Council, Kent Archaeological Society, Kent County Council, Shepway District Council and the Tory Family Foundation.

    open all | close all