Ancient Bone Hidden in a Stone Leads to a Roman Villa of Royal Proportions
In 1963 in England, Broughton farmer John Taylor was ploughing one of his large fields an hour north-west of London. His plough hit an enormous stone causing a crack which revealed a space below. When he put his hand inside he pulled out a human bone. Nearly five decades later archaeologists know that the stone was actually a Roman sarcophagus belonging to "the second-largest Roman villa in the United Kingdom,” and that bone belonged to an unidentified Roman Britain woman buried around 1,700 years ago.
A Massive Roman Footprint
The Roman villa is located beneath cropland on the estate of Broughton Castle, near Banbury in Oxfordshire, England, on land belonging to Martin Fiennes, the heir of Baron Saye and Sele Fiennes. The vast foundations date back to AD99 and architectural historians celebrate this villa for having been “only just smaller than Buckingham Palace” according to a report in The Times.
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The full extent of the villa is not yet known, but some of the structure can be seen in the dry outline from this aerial shot. (Image: Keith Westcott)
Keith Westcott is the director of the Association of Metal Detectorists and told reporters he was “intrigued by the site after being told by farmer John Taylor of the time he had ploughed into what had appeared to be a large stone on the land in 1963.” Mr Westcott said:
I had been fascinated by the knowledge of this little-known burial and needed to go out to the site because I knew she was there for a reason. Who was this woman of such importance? I started to feel a connection to this person, believing her to have been ‘lost’ from a contextual landscape.
Westcott visited the site in the summer of 2016 and after spending a day inspecting and surveying the whole area he a found “A huge plinth-like setting that was not of natural topography”. Then, he discovered an “1,800-year-old tile from a hypocaust,” which was a Roman central heating system. According to an article in the Banbury Guardian in April this year Mr Westcott and a team of specialists from Oxford Archaeology dug five test trenches and used “specialist technology to gauge how much remained of the villa.”
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A lead-lined stone sarcophagus was found containing the remains of a woman. (Image: Keith Westcott)
Using high-tech methods like “magnetometry” archaeologists have managed to “penetrate the soil” and map out the ancient villa. So far the technology has helped the team discover: “several walls, room outlines, and ditches - all without having set a shovel to soil,” according to an article in IFL Science. Scans have also indicated the presence of “a bath-house, a domed-roof, mosaics, a grand dining room, kitchen, and living room.”
Beneath the Surface
Earlier excavations turned up smaller artifacts like: “coins, trophies, boar tusks and pendants” and this time round the archaeologists have so far recovered “178 items of significance” including “bone china and a Roman coin.” Mr Westcott said: “It truly is a remarkable find . . . We’ve only uncovered about 1 per cent so the possibilities of what we still might find are endless.”
Romulus and Remus coin found at the site. (Image: Banbury Guardian)
Lady in the Lead Lined Sarcophagus
Every good story has to have a ‘human interest’ and that question remains unanswered: who was the woman the bones belonged to? Nobody really has an answer to this. What is known is that she was just over 5 feet tall and in her 30s when she died. The wealth surrounding her lead-lined tomb informs archaeologists that she was nobility, but the Romans occupied Britain for four hundred years which saw 10s of thousands of nobles’ feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green.
The team is trying to raise £2 million funding to fully excavate the plot and Mr Fiennes, who took part in the original dig, said he plans to “reach out to various universities, starting with Oxford, to see if they are interested in leading a project to do a full excavation over a period of years.” If the project fails to find a funder, Mr Fiennes said the villa “stays happily undisturbed for another 50 or 100 years until someone comes up with the money and interest.”
Top image: A Boar tusk was discovered at the site. Source: Keith Westcott
By Ashley Cowie