Exton Excavation 2017

EXTON EXCAVATION YEAR – JULY 2017

Background

In June 2016, the foundations of a Roman Hexagon and part of a bath house were discovered, which confirmed the results of the geophysical survey carried out by the MVAHG in 2015. Hexagons are rare in Roman Britain, with only three other examples found in the country; in Colleyweston Great Wood (Rutland), Abbots Ann (North Hampshire) and a site close to Canterbury in Kent. The importance of this led to a collaboration between the Professor Tony King and undergraduates of the University of Winchester and Meon Valley community volunteers to explore the site in 2016. Back in the 1980s, the well-known Roman Aisled building at Meonstoke had been excavated; the façade of which is now exhibited in the British Museum. The discovery of these hexagonal foundations close by and believed to be a shrine, also posed more questions about the Roman Aisled building. Was it a Villa or a hostelry for pilgrims?

The scene was set for this year’s dig. Site Director Professor King’s aim was to discover more about the site, exploring the centre of the hexagon, outside the hexagon in the courtyard area and extending the bath house to the east.

Week 1

Following the removal of the turf by the mechanical digger, the volunteers and students worked hard in soaring temperatures to remove more topsoil using mattocks. A large amount of soil was removed with many tesserae and CBM (ceramic building material) being unearthed. Our first significant find was a 4th century house of Constantine Roman coin with the goddess Victory holding a wreath. In the bath house area a small piece of green painted plaster was found with a trace of opus signinum (a reinforced mortar often used by the Roman to waterproof structures). This was significant as it was the first green plaster to be found in the bath house, as opposed to the (mainly) red painted plaster found last year.

Volunteers and students breaking up the soil with mattocks

The large amount of tesserae and CBM being cleaned

 Week 2

Thankfully cooler weather conditions made digging much more comfortable as we embarked on our second week. We welcomed 26 year 1 pupils to the site from Meonstoke School along with class teacher Mrs Pople, Head Teacher Mrs Coumbe and their helpers. The children toured the site, ably assisted in some cleaning of finds and dug deep to find CBM and flints in our buckets of soil. One pupil, Finn, brought along a piece of tile he had found in the school grounds, identified by Professor King as Victorian.

Meanwhile, there was excitement in the courtyard area as a pit was discovered close to the area where last year pottery and bones, thought to be of Iron Age origin and deliberately placed, had been found. The newly found, shallower pit was excavated. It contained a large number of oyster shells, numerous animal bones, including the jaw bone of a horse and various teeth from horses and sheep. The pit also revealed a large amount of pieces of grey coarse wear pottery and some beautifully decorated finer pottery. Professor King identified these as early Roman in origin.

Jaw bone of horse

Decorative pottery from the pit

 In the centre of the hexagon, there was excitement when one of our volunteers (Jim) found part of a figurine, which was identified by Tony King as a 2nd century Dea Nutrix. The head would have been deliberately broken and sacrificed, which reinforces the belief that the hexagonal foundations are indeed a temple.

2nd Century Dea Nutrix showing the back of a head. The background photo shows the complete figurine, which was made of clay from a mould

Site Open Day 15.7.17

In addition, experienced archaeologist Lesley, digging at the very centre of the hexagon, found a worked Mesolithic flint, from possibly 7500 BC, the oldest find from the site.

A busy week 2 finished with our site Open Day. We would like to thank the 150+ visitors who came to view the site in action, look at our finds and listen to Professor King’s engaging talks.

Week 3

More animal bones and pottery including parts of a flagon were found at the start of the week. Significantly a ditch was found running east-west and probably going under the hexagon. Volunteer Joan was working at a deep level in this ditch and discovered an almost complete Late Iron Age/Early Roman pot, which was extremely exciting! Also found in the ditch was a bronze ring with two twisted terminals, thought to be 1st century. Another ditch running parallel to this contained large cattle bones and pieces of tempered grog wear of Late Iron Age origin.

Joan with the almost complete Late Iron Age/Early Roman pot

Ist century bronze ring with twisted terminals

During this third the week, the outer wall of the bath house was traced. There was a significant amount of painted plaster found, covering a spectrum of 10 colours in varying shades of blue, yellow and red. A large piece of red and white striped wall plaster was discovered, with a curved edge. Tony King thought this to be part of painted wall frame for a more decorative feature. The plaster also had stucco on the outside, which showed that this had been redecorated over time.

Piece of red and white striped wall plaster with curved edge

At the end of the week we welcomed 35 members of the ARA (Association for Roman Archaeology) to the site along with representatives from the Council for British Archaeology Wessex, Hampshire County Council, Hampshire Field Club, Hampshire Cultural Trust, Historic England and South Downs National Park Voluntary Ranger Service. All were given a site tour and enjoyed viewing finds to date, despite the rain. We learnt from Jan Bristow (Chair of the Archaeology Section, HFC) that the Dea Nutrix found in week 2 was only one of four found in Hampshire, and the first of the back of a head to be discovered.

 

Week 4

Digging deeper into room 1 of this bathhouse, it became clear that a plaster wall had collapsed along with a large amount of plain tiles. Substantial amounts of hypocaust tiles and painted plaster were being unearthed and a fine piece of worked greensand was also found. Greensand was used by the Romans to reinforce corners of a structure and would have been brought in especially, possibly from the Weald area. Finally on the last day of the dig, a large piece of painted plaster was discovered showing a knee of a seated person.

Painted plaster of human knee (seated). Look closely to see the flesh coloured thigh, knee and calf

Later that morning a female form was discovered. Tony King believes these pieces to be part of a typical mythological scene, with (possibly) Venus and Mars.

Painted plaster – part of female form

Also revealed was the floor of the bath house with an Apse at one end. The floor is made up of plain brick blocks (these are known as hypocaust tiles, but according to Tony King, effectively plain brick as this was a cold room with no heating). These are thought to be made of the same brick as those from the window of the Roman Aisled building, now in the British Museum.

 

Tiled floor of bath house room 1

The removal of painted wall plaster from room 1 of the bath house was filmed by Alex Rowson for the BBC4 ‘Digging for Britain’ programme.  It is hoped that the next series when broadcast will feature footage from the past two years of excavation at our site.

Unfortunately time ran out on us and there is still much more to explore on this site. We found more evidence of ritualistic sacrifice to support the view that the hexagon foundations are a shrine, more evidence confirming the existence of a bath house and a newly discovered ditch, probably running underneath the hexagon. There are still more questions to answer and we hope to return to the site for a third year, to reveal more about this important site.

Students and volunteers working on site

Examples of decorative plaster and flue tiles from the bath house

 

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Aerial view of hexagon and courtyard (top) and bath house (below)

Aerial photos courtesy of Ian Harris

All other photos MVAHG