Brewing, lead working and Roman rural life at Melbourne

Early in 2021, ULAS began an investigation of a small strip of land at Melbourne in South Derbyshire. A trial trench evaluation was commissioned prior to the construction of eights new homes. Day one of the evaluation fell on the first truly snowy day of the year, quite a contrast to the wet weather conditions experienced on site later on down the line! Site director Georgia Day tells us more…

Our first day on site. It didn’t stay this pristine for long!

Six trenches were excavated, and whilst the only archaeology found in the first five was the remains of post-medieval plough furrows, the final pull of the digger bucket in the final trench revealed quite a surprise! An area of stonework was uncovered and, after a quick poke around with a trowel, it was clear that we had found something that needed further investigation.

Our first look at the Roman stonework.

The digger was used to extend the trench to find the extent of stonework and a number of Roman pottery sherds were recovered. Prior to this, the only evidence of Roman activity in the wider area was a couple of find spots – four roman coins and a fragment of a quern stone. The presence of stratigraphically sealed Roman finds recovered from a large area of stonework was, therefore, exciting and indicated the presence of a previously unknown area of Roman archaeology and so, provisions were made for us to return and undertake a small excavation on the southern portion of the development site.

Unfortunately, due to the combination of melting snow and two days of torrential rain, the site flooded and the trench better resembled a mucky swimming pool than an archaeological excavation!

Desperate attempts to drain the site!

We were forced to abandon the site to dry out for two months before we returned to undertake the excavation. The soil was stripped off with a digger revealing archaeological remains throughout the excavation area and, over the following two months, we worked on excavating the features by hand.

The site plan, showing the key archaeology.

Archaeological remains were predominantly associated with industrial activities and were located in two clusters, one at either end of the site, separated by large boundary ditches running south-west to north-east. The area of stonework found during the evaluation proved to be a large, stone built corn dryer or malting oven, located in the northern extent of the site.

Such structures typically share the characteristics of having a heated floor area of at least two square meters, alongside a stoking area, fireplace and flue. There is great diversity in the material and form of construction seen in these features. While some were used repeatedly and over long periods of time, as such requiring more substantial means of construction, others were only used for a single harvest before abandonment and, subsequently, present with less durable means of construction and are often much smaller in size. Recovery of charred cereal grains from these structures initially led to their naming as ‘corn dryers’, however reconstruction experiments showed that the time required to dry grain in these structures took far longer than initially anticipated and so it was concluded that a function related to the malting process was more likely. Brewing does not leave many identifiable traces in the archaeological record, however a high proportion of germinated grain is often seen as an indicator of malting. The recognition of malting as a rural industry in Roman Britain is a relatively recent occurrence, with only a few excavated sites in each region where it can be recognised archaeobotanically. Malting appears to be an activity undertaken at villas, complex farmstead and roadside settlements alongside defended ‘small towns’, major towns and military settlements.

Excavating the malting oven (left) and an aerial photo of the oven with different stone layers highlighted. The pink is tumbled stone and the purple is the original structure.

The corn dryer/malting oven on our site, due to its shallow depth below the ground, had not survived well and appeared to have either collapsed or been deliberately demolished during antiquity. As such there were layers of stone tumble both inside and outside the feature masking its true form. However, once the rubble was removed by hand it was clear that it comprised a shallow rectilinear trench with a single surviving course of in situ sandstone blocks around its perimeter. The western extent was damaged by a post-medieval furrow. As such, any evidence of an associated stoking pit, fireplace or flue was lost. Across the base of the feature was a layer of compact, charcoal-rich silt which contained germinated glume wheat bases and detached embryos. The sprouted embryos still attached to the grain could be approximately measured and were all shown to be of the same length, indicating that the germination of these cereal grains was a controlled and deliberate act which re-enforces the likelihood of malting, in this instance, for the brewing of wheat beer. It should be noted that, while beer had a short shelf-life, ground malt could be stored for up to a year and it is possible that the fragments of mortaria and storage jars from the site were not refuse from a nearby settlement, but instead could have been used on site as part of the process of preparing and storing the malt.

The other small industrial features all varied in size, shape and possible function. Two features in the southern activity area and two in the northern group could all be described as ‘channel hearths’, with an elongated flue area displaying in situ burning. Features like this are often recorded as small or makeshift corn dryers, but this is often done without any archaeological evidence to support their classification. Smaller, make-shift corn dryers have been identified at archaeological sites throughout Britain, such as those excavated at Waltham on the Wolds in Leicestershire by ULAS in 2019. At Waltham, fourteen small corn dryers were identified which were all similar in size and shape and contained high quantities of grain. It was likely that these features were only used for a short period of time before being abandoned and environmental evidence supported their classification as corn dryers. The small-scale industrial features at Melbourne bear some resemblance to those at Waltham, however with no conclusive environmental evidence, it was not possible to categorise them in this way.

Another industrial feature in the southern area bore resembled a small furnace. Across the development site high temperature residues, fuel ash and small quantities of lead were recovered which were characteristic of waste produced during lead working in the area. As such, it is possible that this feature was used for lead smelting.

The extraction and processing of lead ore is known at sites throughout Roman Britain and the Peak District was one of the major sources of lead ore. Evidence for lead production during the late Roman period is scarce, due to the amount of lead already in circulation, and it is likely that lead working in this period focussed on re-use of existing lead rather than mining of more ore. Many known lead working sites throughout Britain were not associated with lead mining and instead are representative of sites where secondary lead working took place. The few farms and villas with evidence of lead working mostly lie in the broad vicinity of the Mendips and the Peak District and, again, date to the later Roman period. It is likely that the furnace found during our excavation at Melbourne was used for this secondary lead working.

The possible lead working furnace.

Structural evidence was divided into two categories. The first comprised two lightweight timber structures, the earlier circular in plan and the later rectangular. Inside both structures, the natural local clay was used as a floor surface.

The post settings for a lightweight timber structure.

The second was the remains of two possible sunken-featured buildings (SFBs). These are more commonly associated with the Anglo-Saxon period but Romano-British examples are known. Roman SFBs tend to be larger and more complicated than the later Germanic grubenhaus form and it has been argued that they represent an entirely different building tradition. A large amount of variation has been seen in the form of Romano-British SFBs and this was observed at our site. Each of the structures presented with a different shape in plan and, the true extent of each was obscured by later damage or the limits of excavation. They all, however, comprised a shallow pit measuring up to 7m in length and 4m in width, with associated internal or external features such as pits, post holes, gullys and possible rudimentary stone wall foundations. It is not clear how these features were used, or what was done inside them but their presence on this site, in an area of small-scale local industry may suggest that they were used for the work that was carried out on site and, likely served many purposes depending on what was needed at the time. For instance, the large and flat surface area provided by the southernmost feature’s stone floor could have been used for threshing during the processing of crops after harvest, but as this activity would have only been done for a short period of time each year, throughout the rest of the year the feature could have been used for storage or as a workshop supporting the other industrial activities on the site. As is the case with the industrial features identified across the site, it would seem that we cannot identify one specific function for these structures. That does not mean that they were not structures with a use, simply that due to the small scale of the industrial activity found at the site, the structures and features likely all served a multitude of functions as and when they were needed.

The excavation of one of the possible Roman sunken-featured buildings.

We believe that there were also other Roman buildings in the vicinity of the excavation. A flat fragment of light green colourless glass with bubbles was identified as Roman blown window glass of later 3rd or 4th century date. Fragments of roof tile and wall tile were also recovered, confirming the existence of more substantial stone buildings nearby. Two fragments of box flue tile were also found, suggesting that at least one nearby building had a hypocaust heating systems, and was therefore probably a Roman villa.

Finds from the site included Roman pottery (left), glass (centre) and building material (right).

Post Roman activity comprised evidence of two periods. The first was early Anglo-Saxon (AD 450-700), and was represented by pottery sherds recovered from soils overlying the collapsed malting oven. The lack of presence elsewhere on site may be evidence of disturbance of the defunct malting oven during the Anglo-Saxon period, possibly to reclaim the stone or clear the land for agricultural use. The second comprised three post-medieval furrows that extended the length of the site.

A local takes an interest in what we are doing!

The previously unknown archaeology that we have identified at Melbourne represents the first Roman archaeology found in the village. The work undertaken during this project has identified an area of small scale Roman industrial activity, probably associated with a nearby rural settlement. It has shown that during the late Roman period, people were living and working in Melbourne, malting grain to make beer, processing crops and smelting lead. It has also identified the remains of three possible late Roman sunken featured buildings, a building tradition that we are still in the early stages of understanding for this period. The finds from the site show that people used both locally-made and imported pottery as part of their daily lives, and the presence of window glass, wall and roof tiles, and box flue tiles are all indicative of a high status residential structure nearby, possibly a villa!

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