Ipswich Icons: Grand Roman villa... but who lived in such style?

Castle Hill

Castle Hill - Credit: Archant

A previous article in this series highlighted the Roman settlement at Combretovium, on the banks of the Gipping close to Baylam Rare Breeds Farm, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

Basil Brown

Basil Brown - Credit: Archant

The fort was at the junction of various Roman roads including the one from Walton Fort (Felixstowe) to Caister St Edmond (Norwich).

This road may well have followed the line of Ipswich’s main shopping streets. Traces of an earlier (possibly Roman) road have been found under Westgate Street during sewage excavation works.

Beyond the town this road bends north west and follows the Gipping valley to the fort at Combretovium. About a mile outside of Ipswich, on the south facing slope of the valley the Romans constructed a villa, a substantial collection of buildings with a commanding position overlooking the town.

In 1854 a fine piece of tessellated pavement was found on the site, the first indication of previous use, and a few years later the landowner, Henry Orford, while planting apple trees, discovered a further portion of pavement and an amphora vessel full of coins. The clay pot and the samples of pavement are now in Ipswich Museum but the coins disappeared. It was said at the time that the sub-contractor planting the trees had disappeared with the coins, never to be seen again.

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As was typical in the mid-19th Century, the exact location of these finds was not recorded and no investigation of disturbed soil was carried out so it is not possible to confirm speculation as to what had existed.

Frank Woolnough, curator at Ipswich Museum, photographed the pavements in situ but again did not record their exact position. Thus we can only make assumptions as to the function of the buildings – a villa, certainly, but for what purpose, a farm house, a tax-gatherer’s home and office, a hunting lodge for the officers at Colchester Garrison? We simply don’t know.

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What we do know is that the villa was a substantial complex, with the main house facing south, commanding a view across the Gipping valley. The mass of relics found indicate occupation during the late Roman period (up to the middle of the 5th Century). Notable among the finds are fragments of pots or Samian Ware. One, decorated with a hunting scene, is from the 3rd Century and is stamped with the maker’s name: CINNAMUS. It is however a poor example of this type of pot and is most likely a fake. Even the Romans were not adverse to buying expensive-looking copies to impress their friends!

In 1948, Basil Brown, curator of Ipswich Museum, carried out further excavations in advance of the planned house building (the Crofts estate built in 1951). Among the literally hundreds of items found were bronze rings, glass beads, shards of broken clayware, keys and buckles. The majority are in the Ipswich and Colchester Museum collection, a few among the 750,000 Roman artefacts held in these museums. The most definite items among the collection are coins which are dated from 119AD to 378AD – confirmation that the villa was operational 1,000 years before Ipswich received its charter.

Fragments of bone among the items found indicate what the Romans ate, predominately pig and ox, but the majority of the protein in their diet was fish, particularly oysters. There was also a fair quantity of grain, indicating a farming community.

When clay was being excavated at Bolton’s brickyard adjacent to Dale Hall Road, just a few hundred yards from the villa, a number of Roman graves were discovered, most with funeral pottery which has been dated to the same period as the occupation of the villa. Indications of a reasonably-sized population.

In 2004 the television series Time Team excavated in the back gardens of houses in Tranmere Grove but despite extensive research and a number of trial holes they found nothing of significance. Put simply all Time Team were able to confirm is that Basil Brown’s excavations of 1948-49 had removed almost all trace of the villa.

• St Peter’s by the Waterfront is currently operating its summer opening hours. The Ipswich Charter Wall-hangings, featured last week, can be seen there from Tuesdays to Saturdays, between 10am and 3.30pm. Please go to the website at www.stpetersbythewaterfront.com for further information.

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