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How A Roman Sacred Site Became A 300-AD Tile And Brick Factory

How A Roman Sacred Site Became A 300-AD Tile And Brick Factory

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It’s always surprising when you read that a sacred site was “abandoned” for commercial opportunity. But it happens! UK researchers have determined that a large sacred site and Roman villa complex in England were despiritualized and, not much later, repurposed to function as a tile and brick workshop.

The 1,600-year-old Roman industrial site, located at Priors Hall Park in Corby, is being excavated prior to the construction of 5,000 new homes. Located at the heart of an ancient limestone and iron ore mining region, the area around Corby is home to forty “known” Roman villas, which were first identified in 2011 and 2016.

In the of spring 2020, a team of archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology East excavated the site and dated it to between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. And now, according to an article on Archaeology, “a panoply of new features provide breathtakingly rare insights into the construction and economic life of a Roman villa.”

This site plan shows the key features recorded during Oxford Archaeology East’s investigations at the Priors Hall site.  (Oxford Archaeology East)

This site plan shows the key features recorded during Oxford Archaeology East’s investigations at the Priors Hall site.  ( Oxford Archaeology East )

A Sacred Site That Went From Worship To Commerce

The ancient Priors Hall sacred site comprises a Romano-Celtic temple and “ mausolea,” which are both situated directly adjacent to a Roman villa on a prominent ridge at the uppermost western point of the site. This elevated location would have stood out and dominated the ancient landscape when it was functional.

Perhaps the most important of the new discoveries at this sacred site came from the examination of a third century AD stone-built Romano-Celtic temple-mausoleum. This sacred complex included a well-constructed single-cell square building within a larger rectangular courtyard, bounded by stone walls that formed a sacred square precinct.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that this once deeply sacred site was later reused as a tile and brick workshop and equipped with kilns. What´s more, evidence suggests the industrial activity at this site might have continued into the 4th century AD, and that it might have served as an important “ commercial arm of the estate.”

The main elements of the temple-mausoleum sacred site and the parts of the complex that were recycled and reused by the Roman tilers who later worked on the site. (Oxford Archaeology East)

The main elements of the temple-mausoleum sacred site and the parts of the complex that were recycled and reused by the Roman tilers who later worked on the site. ( Oxford Archaeology East )

Reverse Engineering The Site’s Ancient Structures And Walls

Two of the precinct walls measured approximately 14 x 17 meters (45.93 x 55.77 feet) and at the heart of the courtyard stood a “ cella” or “ naos,” the inner chamber of temples built in classical antiquity . Crowned with a limestone-tiled roof, the three surviving walls of the cella measured 1 meter (3.28 feet) wide, and this suggested the sacred site’s inner-chamber covered an area of about 4.1 x 4.6 meters (13.45 x 15.09 feet).

In the late 3rd to early 4th century AD, the Priors Hall temple-mausoleum sacred site became an industrious hive where dozens of trained workers and their animals serviced a tilery with two kilns, within the walls of the former holy of holies, the temple cella. The new research also determined that the precinct walls had been repurposed as a trackway and to make kilns. The cella’s eastern wall was partially demolished to make way for a new entrance.

One of the site’s most spectacular finds: a well-preserved lime kiln that was so big it could comfortably accommodate the entire excavation team. (Oxford Archaeology East)

One of the site’s most spectacular finds: a well-preserved lime kiln that was so big it could comfortably accommodate the entire excavation team. ( Oxford Archaeology East )

Fingerprints Of Ancient Tradesmen And Their Animals

When the sacred site was converted into a tile and brick workshop the remaining cella walls were lined with clay to seal them, and small notches were made along the faces of the interior walls. The researchers say the completed kilns would have produced “staggering” and “enormous” quantities of bricks and tiles: a conclusion they drew after discovering over 22,400 pounds (10 long tons) of slag, a kiln waste product.

The excavators also found Roman pottery and nails, a heavy lead plumb bob, animal bones, and endless fragments of ceramic tiles. A Late Iron Age coin was deliberately placed beneath one of the tile-kiln roof post-pads, which the researchers say was itself already an ancient artifact. And while the names of the people who built the villa at Corby might never be known, one of the skilled workers has been successfully identified. While excavating one of the backfill deposits, the researchers discovered a tile inscribed with the words “…EN(TI) [or IT] (F)ECIT” which translates to “…NENTI has made this.”

Furthermore, dozens of tiles were found with animal footprints including deer, fox, dog, and cats, and others bore marks from the soles of boots, which were made by tilers checking the consistency of the wet tiles before firing them in the kilns.

Top image: Overlooking the Priors Hall excavation site, where Oxford Archaeology East excavated the remains of the Roman temple-mausoleum sacred site that was subsequently repurposed into a tile and brick “factory.”            Source: Oxford Archaeology East

By Ashley Cowie

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