Roman ‘smoke-house’ found at Pineham, Northamptonshire

Excavating a deposit of Roman pottery.
Excavating a deposit of Roman pottery.

From April to November 2013 one of the largest (7.5ha) single-phase ULAS excavations took place at Pineham, Northamptonshire. Directed by James Harvey and Dr Gavin Speed the site is located in the Nene Valley, 4km south-west of Northampton. The excavation revealed evidence for human activity from Upper Palaeolithic artefacts through to post-medieval ploughing, with the key discovery of a substantial Roman rural settlement.

The earliest activity consisted of evidence of a reasonably rare find of an Upper Palaeolithic long blade (c.120mm long) found within the floodplain of the site. Prehistoric activity consisted of Neolithic and Bronze Age pits on a sand and gravel promontory to the east. A possible ring ditch, Iron Age ditches and a roundhouse were also located. Detailed phasing is uncertain at present (prior to detailed post-excavation analysis), however, it was clear during the excavation that a D-shaped enclosure was Late Iron Age and/or Early Roman in date.

Plan of the Roman settlement.
Plan of the Roman settlement.

The majority of the evidence consisted of a substantial Roman rural settlement, much of which date to the late Roman period. A late Roman farmstead appears to have been added to an earlier E-W field boundary. This consisted of lots of field boundaries / paddocks, a large water hole (containing surviving timber revetment and fragments of a leather shoe), cobble surfaces, ovens/kilns, and a small stone-built rectangular building.

This intriguing structure was discovered set within a small enclosure. It contained an internal vent/flue that ran the perimeter of the building, with a fire pit located at the southwest corner of the building. Although heat was recorded within the fire pit area, little evidence of heat was seen elsewhere, perhaps suggesting the channel was designed to distribute smoke around the building. The structure could have had multiple functions including grain drying or smoking food. The location of the structure next to the main entrance of the site (perhaps leading directly to Roman Duston) suggests that the function of the building may relate to final processing of agricultural resources prior to leaving the site. Full analysis of the environmental sample will help clarify its function.

View of the stone 'smoke-house' from above (image courtesy of Aerial Cam).
View of the stone ‘smoke-house’ from above (image courtesy of Aerial Cam).

Excavating the base of a well containing large quantities of animal bone.
Excavating the base of a well containing large quantities of animal bone.

More pits and postholes and some possible beam slots were recorded within the higher ground, the ditches also appeared to contain denser concentrations of pottery in areas suggesting domestic activity. However no clear buildings were discovered. The depths of the features were noticeably shallower on the sand and gravel area, suggesting these elements of the site may have been lost through horizontal truncation. One of the wells was fully excavated to a depth of some 5m. At the base of the well a large quantity of animal bone was recovered within a dense matrix of stone. Some of the bone appeared articulated, perhaps suggesting that whole carcasses had been deliberately thrown down the well, subsequently splitting up during decomposition.

A water-hole containing preserved timbers.
A water-hole containing preserved timbers.

The site has produced many great finds but one of the best and least expected came directly from a metal detector signal within a narrow ditch forming part of the southern boundary of the enclosure complex. Four fragments of a circular lead tank were recovered that have been interpreted as parts of an early Christian baptismal font. The pieces were laid individually along a short section of the ditch. The base of the tank had been cut into two separate pieces and the other two recovered pieces consisted of around c.2/3 of the side of the tank that had been flattened out. The pieces appear to have been cut to a portable size, perhaps intended as scrap metal. No furnaces were recorded on the site but two lead ingots have also been recovered perhaps suggesting metal was being melted down on the site.

Fragments of lead sheet found in the bottom of a ditch.
Fragments of lead sheet found in the bottom of a ditch.

The excavations also revealed evidence for significant Anglo-Saxon occupation too – this included sunken-feature-buildings (SFBs) of various forms and sizes, along with pottery and other Saxon objects. It’s intriguing, but at present uncertain, how these relate to the late Roman activity. A further area remains to be excavated in 2014 in the field to the west (thought to contain an Iron Age settlement).

Excavating an Anglo-Saxon SFB.
Excavating an Anglo-Saxon SFB.

The project manager was Vicki Score, and was co-directored by James Harvey and Dr Gavin Speed. Many thanks to the vast excavation team: ULAS staff: Hypatia Atheiria, Steve Baker, Adam Clapton, Donald Clark, Mark Collins, Jon Coward, Nathan Flavell, Tony Gnanaratnam, Nick Hannon, Tim Higgins, Pauline Houghton, Lou Huscroft, Richard Huxley, Dr Roger Kipling, Chris Lawson, Andy Lythe, Andrew Mcleish, Jamie Patrick, Roy Poulter, Anita Radini, Tom Slater, Tom Wex. Northampton Archaeology: Rob Bailey, Laura Nicola Cogley, G. Davey, Oliver Dindol, Tom Garside, K. Hosking, John Kemp, B.Kidd, A. Meadows, Robyn Pelling, Chris Pennell, Orlando Prestige, Erhan Reyman, Rob Smith, Amy Talbot. ASC: J. McLeish, Mo Muldowney, C. Summerfield-Hill.

The excavation team.
The excavation team.

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