On Monday, November 20th , Steven Cockings and Elizabeth Sayer from the Bedford Roman Villa Project gave a fascinating and very well illustrated presentation about their work to the History Society. We learnt that Biddenham was the powerhouse of agriculture in Roman Britain in the mid-fourth century AD. The rich soil and the proximity to the River Ouse for transport made it the centre for growing spelt which was distributed to the Roman garrisons on the Rhine and throughout Britain including those on Hadrian’s Wall, using flat bottomed boats.
The wealth generated by the grain trade was reflected in the relatively dense settlement and the Roman Villa complex at Manton Lane that Steven and Elizabeth have been working on since 2011. They pointed out that as late as 2010 it was possible to write that there were no known Roman villas in Bedfordshire, only farmsteads. However, that was to change in 2011, when work started to build a disability ramp at Edith Cavell School on Manton Lane. A utilities trench uncovered a section of Roman wall. This find made further exploration of the site and of the land across the road in Manton Lane desirable and this was undertaken in 2013 and 2016. Funding was provided by donations from individuals and Bedford Borough Council, and Mike Luke of Albion Archaeology provided expert professional help and guidance.
The objects found revealed a wealthy settlement in a south facing location and near to a natural spring with links to mainland Europe. For instance, a piece of pottery was discovered that came from Trier in Germany. High status items were found such as pieces of elaborate freestyle stucco plasterwork of a type that has not been found elsewhere in Roman Britain and rarely outside Italy. A fragment of window glass, high in iron, manganese and titanium can be traced back to sand found in Egypt. It would have been used probably in a bath house from about 350AD. The print of a small shoe or boot discovered on a tile was also a high status item.
Steven and Elizabeth depicted a wealthy complex that was thriving in the mid-fourth century AD. Steven would like to think that the Emperor Constantine might have been a visitor as he would have had luxury accommodation, and that the Eusebius named on the beautiful gold ring found in 1980 in the Biddenham Loop, had a connection with the villa. Sadly, the life there came to an end in 392AD when Steven said, the Romans themselves systematically destroyed the villa for political and economic reasons. This is why only small pieces of glass and stucco survive. Some of the stone may have been used to build St Peter’s Church in Bedford. Steven and Elizabeth would like to find out more about this fascinating complex at Manton Lane and they did discover some more walls in the Spring of this year. We hope their project will continue to yield interesting information about our past.
The next meeting of the Society will be on Monday, January 22nd , 2018 at 8pm in the Church Barn. Jonathan Byrne, the Oral History Officer at the Bletchley Park Trust will talk about the work of the Bletchley Park Trust. We hope you will be able to come as the mysteries of Bletchley Park in the Second World War are now being revealed!