This blog posts outlines a project I’ve been involved in since autumn 2019 and highlights some of the highs and lows of research excavations and working in Welsh weather!
Our story begins in September 2019 when a lead pig (ingot) marked with the name of Trebellius Maximus, the Governor of Roman Britain from AD 63 to 69 was found near Rossett, Wrexham County Borough, Wales. A responsible, skilled, and knowledgeable local metal detectorist found an impressive metal signature while out detecting. He immediately contacted the local Finds Liaison Officer based at Wrexham Museum and the object was subsequently excavated with the help of staff at Wrexham Museum and the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust.
Its unearthing raised multiple important questions: Firstly, its implications about the character of activity across northeast Wales and northwest England during this phase of the conquest period were potentially great. This is because it has not traditionally been thought that the Roman military were fully exploiting mineral resources in this area as early as this in the conquest period.
Secondly, it questioned the broader extent of Roman activity in this part of Wales. This is because to date, this part of the County Borough is largely bereft of known Roman sites with only a postulated Roman Road (Margary’s RR66b) extending south from the fortress at Chester (Deva Victrix) before heading south westwards through Ffrith and then onwards following through Bala to Brithdir near Dolgellau. Nearby Roman sites around Wrexham town such as Plas Coch indicate industrial activity (pottery production) and the production of agricultural surplus, yet a large area to the north and west remains largely absent of identified Roman sites.
This is where my part began. The pig discovery prompted Steve, my project partner from Wrexham Museum, and I to discuss the potential ramifications of this exciting find. We began formulating a plan to not only investigate the context of the ingot itself but also start to assess wider evidence for Roman activity in the area. With generous support from the Roman Research Trust, the University of Chester and Wrexham Museum, we were able to embark upon phase 1 of the In the Footsteps of Trebellius Maximus project.
Starting with the site of the lead pig discovery – in partial lockdown September and October 2020 we were provided appropriate permissions to survey and excavate the site with a small team from UoC (me), Wrexham Museum (Steve), Archaeological Survey West (Chris), two local volunteers plus the detectorist who made the exciting discovery.
The surveys identified a handful of possible features. But upon investigation during a very mixed week of weather, we found that these features were, let’s just say ‘underwhelming’ – that was, when we could actually see them beneath the layer of water that accumulated within the trenches! The series of drainage features we’d identified likely bore no relation to the discovery of the Roman lead ingot, many of which likely dated to much later periods. Alas, ‘tis the nature of the beast. This type of ‘low’ in archaeological fieldwork is something we come accustomed to and must expect from time to time.
But it wasn’t all a waste of time. The absence of Roman archaeology and confirmation of alluvial deposits highlighted the likely watery or marsh-like setting that existed during the Roman and later periods. In turn this tells us that the ingot is reflective (perhaps) of a stray loss since no evidence of deliberate deposition or lead processing could be found nearby. Our current thinking therefore, is that the ingot may have been lost in transit. This is interesting in itself.
To this we can add the ongoing work by Wrexham Museum and the University of Liverpool on the material composition of the ingot and the lead isotopes, which suggest it may have come from somewhere in Wales. Research questions, therefore, could now be focused on the source and processes associated with the lead processing as well as the routes of Roman roads across parts of Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham (especially at such an early date), and how/where the ingot was being transported. Suddenly a frustratingly uninspiring (and soggy) excavation is no longer a ‘low’ and these important and intriguing topics will be incorporated into the aims of the project as we move forwards, so watch this space…
Now to the highs… Despite the disappointment of not finding much around the pig findspot, its discovery provided the perfect opportunity to turn our attention to another nearby site of interest that Steve and I had previously hoped to explore: Situated just off the proposed route of Margary’s RR66b, a site in Burton Green had until this point yielded clear evidence of Roman occupation through agricultural ploughing and metal detecting. Samian ware, box tiles, mortaria and quern stone fragments had previously been identified, as well as a number of Roman objects recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme including Roman brooches and coins. Whilst this evidence tentatively points to potentially significant Roman activity, the extent and importance of this site had not yet been realised.
Moving into our fieldwork at this site, we anticipated a possible rural settlement, possibly with some interesting architectural features. In Autumn 2020, magnetometry and field walking were undertaken. The field walking recovered a total of 181 artefacts from the ploughsoil. A large proportion of artefacts were ceramic, including brick and tile (CBM). A total of 76 sherds of pottery, 23 fragments of worked stone, 4 metal objects, 5 fragments of glass and one fragment of animal bone were also retrieved. Together with fragments of painted plaster and opus signinum, the assemblage reflected the likely presence of a Roman building, but potentially of higher status than we’d initially suspected.
Such a building was confirmed in what I can only describe as some of clearest magnetometry results I’ve ever seen! You can imagine our astonishment when we saw the plots appear on the laptop screen. The outline of a rectangular building appeared in the mix of greyscale pixels, together with a possible enclosure, which also contains additional, smaller buildings. This is every Romanist’s dream (especially those of us who specialise in the Roman archaeology in Wales!) – a previously unidentified Roman villa. And the first one structurally confirmed in north-east Wales to boot! The scale of magnetic signatures in some areas are suggestive of burning (possible hypocaust – under floor heating), and ceramic building materials. The clarity of the results also may suggest impressive levels of survival of structural walls and features. The familiar, tell-tale signature of a winged-corridor villa was therefore as clear on the magnetometry plot as if it leapt off the laptop screen and slapped us in the face.
And the possible highs continue… Both the lead pig and the villa whisper to us of great potential. The prospect that this villa complex does not exist in isolation is very real. There are not many Roman villas known across north Wales. North east Wales specifically, was until now, yet to reveal one buried beneath its soils. Who knows how many more lurk beneath the surface? There are also a surprisingly low number known further west and south into Cheshire and Shropshire. This is strange considering the presence of a whacking great Roman fortress (Deva Victrix) and the civitas capital at Viriconium (Wroxeter). One would surely expect a richer character of rural settlement in this area than is presented in the known archaeological record to date.
With the kind permission of the landowner, we aim to excavate the villa in September 2021 (funding permitting), and as the project expands we will conduct additional survey and investigation in the region where we may well uncover more previously undetected villa sites and who knows what else…
Dr Caroline Pudney