The Somerton Roman Kitchen text

November 9th 2009.

The Weekend Wanderers met again at this new club farm in Somerton, Oxfordshire for just the second time. This is the story of hoe new member Pete Steanson located Roman pewter table ware that would ultimately lead to the discovery of a previously unknown of Roman villa!

The turnout on the day was very good but better still everyone seemed to be digging. This could have been a bad sign though and as we looked on suspecting either green waste or 303s all over the field. As it happened, plenty of good targets were soon coming from the sandy Somerton earth.

We had expected Roman finds as two Roman roads cut through this farm but were delighted to see a Saxon sceat turn up in the first 5 minutes. This was soon followed by a silvered strap end, a ring & dot pin and mount , a Roman bracelet and coins plus a superb Henry 1V groat.

Finds Liaison Officer for Oxfordshire Anni Byard was on site at the very start of the dig and was busily keeping up with recording those finds when we had a call that someone had dug up what may be a grave and asked for Anni to take a look.

Anni had only just excavated the West Hanney Anglo-Saxon skeleton so wasn't expecting to be thrown in at the deep end so soon!  We headed over to the site to be greeted by a smiling Peter Steanson (Left)

This was Peter Steanson first ever Weekend Wanderers dig and as a new member he did exactly the right thing and stopped digging as soon as he realized that he had something potentially significant. The pictures right show what he saw that he knew the importance of not digging further.

FLO Anni quickly determined that this was unlikely to be a grave. She immediately made  phone calls for the proper authorizing her to hold an archaeological excavation there and then.

FLO Anni Byard had long since started the excavation but this is a quick snap shot of what had initially appeared in the hole when she was called over.

First though, the landowners had to be called over for their consent and the two brothers Ian and Andy looked on and seemed pleased yet amused at the unexpected find made on the land they had been working for so many years.

Their neighbour had a mini digger and he kindly offered to strip the surface layer of plough soil down to the archaeological strata beneath.

Pete Steanson’s daughter Jenya had also come along with her dad to see what happens on a Weekend Wanderers dig.

Jenya got involved excavating the site with the kind encouragement of Anni.

The cleared ground revealed a horizontal layer of dressed stone that we thought looked like a road. Further inspection by Anni in the yellow hi-vis jacket pointed to a far different conclusion. This was the wall of a collapsed Roman building!

Jenya unearths a terracotta rim sherd but close to it is this mystery bronze coloured circular object.

On closer inspection the bronze object was a  grey ware vessel interestingly holed uniformly across the base and we think this is some kind of strainer. Strangely though, this strainer was out of context being beneath the stone wall which opened up even more questions.


The neighbouring farmer's chicken, ’called time for tea’ so we briefly stopped and discussed why was the collapsed wall on top of the pottery and how had it inwardly collapsed. Until this strainer was found we hadn't quite nailed this discovery down as Roman but now we were certain that it indeed was.

It was time now to return to the original excavation made by Pete as more metal work had been determined beneath the ground. Pete was using his Minelab E-Trac when he made his great find!.

This ashen grey patch appeared following delicate scraping with trowels. It appears that ploughing had disturbed some of the stone work of the building so this was a timely discovery by Pete.

he most important feature about this what was going to be eventually revealed below this wall is that this was as good as a time capsule, totally preserved and intact and mostly unadulterated. The whole site could now be fully excavated and initial signs showed that Pete's first targets were not the only ones and that more mysteries where yet to be discovered.

Closer inspection shows that this looks very much like  a plate or dish.

Disappointingly, the plate is in a poor state of what we thought to be corrosion. It turned out that this plate was partly ash and had been subject to intense heat but was beyond recovery.

Yet below this powdered ashy plate more finds were just below as dampened enthusiasm was now excitingly raised once more at the sight of a second pewter plate beneath the tops powdery remains.

The Hexagonal dish was intriguingly upside down just like the first ashy top plate. It now looked certain that there had been a domestic fire and that the hexagonal dish below had been protected by the ‘heat shield’ of the upper dish. There were other goods too...

Now the story begins in full flow. Turning over the second hexagonal dish revealed a third plate but between them was this bone. This was certainly an important clue. The bone had not been charred by the fire that caused the uppermost plate to perish so clearly this fire happened after meal time!

Not from the building site but these nashers were spotted by one of our detectorists a few hundred feet further up the field. Hope they are not human!

A sooty streak in the soil  proves there had been a fire at this building. One more plate showing some damage is gently troweled out of the ground by Anni.

This lovely beaded rimmed drinking beaker was underneath the plate. Right. Next to the beaker was this odd circular shaped item.

A candlestick or lamp maybe? The rim top left turned out to be part of this strange item that in the end was in fact a square pedestal and a new type. At the time we thought it should be this way up but it is in fact upside down.

Now that all metal work had been very carefully removed, fragments of pottery peeked through the scraped earth.  Ranging from high class Samian ware to all sorts of vessels, it was pretty clear that we were standing in the middle of what must surely be a Roman Kitchen.

With several pieces excavated, the educated theories of what had happened here nearly 1,700 years ago. Had there indeed been a fire raging through the building? As the last sherds were bagged and tagged, the last soil at the very deepest part of the excavation revealed a blackened layer giving the strongest suggestion that the fire had consumed the building. One burnt coin was recovered from this layer as yet to be identified.

The animal bone, remains of a completed meal was discovered in context between unburnt plates that were all upside down. It is possible that the washing up had been stacked up ready for the return of the occupants who maybe went for an after dinner stroll. Maybe the kitchen fire threw out a spark, igniting something in the kitchen and ultimately destroying this part of the house.

At the time we thought this may have been a temple site with the equivalent of a cafe inside. This turned out to prove otherwise and we know now that this was a new unheard of Roman Villa.

The whole site has been scanned with ground penetrating radar which revealed a complex of rooms on a substantial villa. It also showed a Bronze Age feature here too perhaps linked to the spring that burbles out of the hillside here.

Above. A photo from Anni Byard showing images of the cleaned pewter table ware with a description of each piece. I understand that the finds have been donated by Peter Steanson to the local museum for public display.

Plans for test pits and further excavation are dependent on funding but it is hoped that this will take place in the next year or so (2015/2016 perhaps) Anni has indicated that she would like the Wanderers to be included in a controlled search of this site but will make arrangements when such funds are released.

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