Keynsham Cemetery dig uncovers questions and clues about Roman past

Published on: 07 Aug 2015

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As archaeologists dug further into Keynsham’s Roman roots during July, so the mystery of exactly what once stood here well over 1,500 years ago deepened.

Excavation work at Keynsham Cemetery has been taking place to shed more light on the vast remains of what has been known since the 1920s as Durley Hill Roman Villa.

Volunteers from Bath and Camerton Archaeological Association (Bacas) have been hard at work uncovering a section of wall in the cemetery’s extension to try to piece together what a neighbouring building, revealed during archaeological surveys in the 1990s, might have been.

Funded by the Association of Roman Archaeology (ARA), the overall aim of the two-week dig and examination of the findings is to prove or disprove its director Bryn Walker’s theory that the vast Durley Hill complex is not in fact a spectacularly grand country house but a religious healing sanctuary, with links to the nearby lost city of Trajectus.

The newly uncovered remains could, he believes, “prove to be a detached temple fronting the great villa building beneath the Victorian cemetery”.

The site has so far kept its secrets well, however, with Bacas project leader Gary Pratt and chairman Bob Whitaker MBE puzzling over what they have found – and, significantly, not found – in their trench.

Without any coins to help put a date to the remains, other mysteries include the lack of any roof tiles, none of the bones, pots and oyster shells that would be found around a domestic building and no offerings that would be expected at an ancient temple.

A set of very well-worn steps uncovered during the team’s geophysics work to map the underground remains also casts doubt on the long-held belief the site was a private country retreat, says Gary.

“It’s somewhere lots of people came to do something, it’s more complex than being a villa,” he explains.  

“With Trajectus and this complex and signs of other buildings, it definitely tells us that it is not a country villa and this site in Keynsham was a really important settlement, not just a little village. There was more going on here than people thought.

“There is archaeology everywhere – you wouldn’t know it was here but the geophysics show Keynsham was quite important.”

With the dig at an end and the Roman wall covered with several layers of earth once again, now the group will be examining their finds, and consulting experts whose knowledge might provide some answers.

The trench has yielded some clues, including tesserae – the small tiles used in creating mosaics – some pottery and glass, a piece of carved Bath stone indicating there was once an archway and signs that a doorway was later blocked up with stone, one featuring one of Keynsham’s even more ancient ammonites.

Finding no clear answers so far is disappointing but also intriguing, said Gary, who hopes Bacas will be able to return to carry out more digging in the future – “It’s complicated, as archaeology often is,” he said.

As for guesses from the volunteers on site, one suggestion is that perhaps the huge villa building was in fact an administrative centre or tax office – a forerunner to the council offices in today’s Keynsham, perhaps?

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