Unearthing South London: A place in the country

By adam corsini on 13 Oct 2014

Roman horse head  found down a wellEarly Roman glass beadRoman ceramic jar found down a well

Our current Unearthing London project is taking a look at the history of Beddington, which straddles the border of Croydon and Sutton. In my previous blog, we saw evidence of prehistoric activity; we went back 10000 years to a time when all that was there was a river channel; back 3000 years when settlers were engaged in animal husbandry; back 2000 years when Iron Age residents were building houses and living the domestic life. It’s time for the Romans…

Or is it?

The Roman hinterland

Because, history doesn’t always work like that. Rarely is there a clear date where one period ends and another starts. The archaeology from Beddington certainly doesn’t show a quick transition from Iron Age to Roman. Indeed, being a fair trek away from the newly founded city of Londinium, our 1st century Iron-Age Beddington-Britons are neither Londoners nor Roman.

What we seem to have at our site is a continuation of life, slowly being influenced by Roman activity. Coins from this time spanning the entire 1st and 2nd centuries suggest that trade with the city is occurring. Pottery is now coming from other Romano-British cities such as flagons from Verulamium, storage pots from British kilns such as those in Highgate, and imported vessels such as Gaulish samian and colour-coated wares from Lyon. Interesting, domestic life is still prevalent, indicated by the needles, loom evidence and butchery marks on animal bone assemblages. But perhaps the nicest artefacts are the jewellery; hairpins, brooches and in particular a polychrome bead, described as ‘an exotic bead of the early Roman period’.

Early Roman glass bead

Yet, what doesn’t seem to be happening, is mass agricultural exploitation of the land. Unlike the series of Roman villas that crop up the south-east Hinterland, where villas are built with corn drying ovens, at Beddington, structurally something else is going on.

The Roman Villa at Beddington

Around the end of the 2nd century 4 large buildings are erected; the first contains living quarters, the second is a bathhouse complex and the third and fourth are timber barns (buidling 6 & 7 above). Object wise, it all pretty much stays the same; brooches, beads, hairpins and weaving implements. Further developments to these structures take place in the late 3rd century as Londinium starts to decline, with additional rooms being built, extensions to the bathhouse and one large timber barn replacing the previous two. A vast amount of pottery dates from this period. But little conclusive evidence for agriculture akin to the industrial scale grain production at other villas. Even the abandonment of the villa appears to be gradual, although interestingly some sort of ritual closing of a well seems to have taken place, involving complete pottery jars and a decapitated horse’s head!

  Roman ceramic jar found down a well   Roman horse head  found down a well

So what was the purpose of our Beddington villa? One suggestion is that it could have been a rural retreat, perhaps even with some military association. This is backed up by three things; objects relating to horses and hunting such as terret rings and spearheads, the suggestion of wealth such as glass items and perhaps most interesting the discovery of a chicken bone – a very rare bird for the roman period, again suggesting wealth and some degree of luxury.

Perhaps we will never know, but I for one, would have liked to have experience life at Roman Beddington. Instead, I get to look after these items and share them with others. In my next blog, find out how you can get closer to these artefacts.

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