Houghton Down, Roman Villa and Iron Age Farm
Was this both a Roman villa and an Iron Age farm? A dig in 1922 by E A Rawlence, a Salisbury surveyor, found a substantial Roman aisled building containing a bath house. The excavated baths were covered by a shed until the 1930s. Rubbish accumulated, including a dead pig and barbed wire, and the hollows were eventually filled in. Later, aerial photographs showed circular buildings, storage pits, and fenced and ditched fields in the immediate vicinity.
Excavations by Professor Barry Cunliffe and his team in 1994 and 1997 for the Danebury Environs Project showed that, yes, it had been occupied, not quite continuously, between 700 BC and the 4th century AD. Generations of farmers extended the fields, pastures and ditches, dug wells, buried their dead, and built furnaces for metal-working and corn-drying ovens. The main activity took place in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, when there may have been more than one family in residence. By about the year 200, the main buildings were in masonry rather than timber, and included the aisled hall and a narrow building, also used for living and eating in. The farm had expanded from a modest to a prosperous state.
The aisled building, 27.2m long by 13.6m wide, had been carefully constructed and was a substantial structure that would have been visible for miles around. It had a chalk floor, full-height flint walls on greensand corner foundations, a central nave and light from a timbered clerestory. The roof, supported on 14 stone and timber piers, was made of hexagonal Purbeck stone tiles. In the south wall (and probably also in the north) there was a large door opening – over 2m wide.
By the late 3rd century the building had been subdivided by timber partitions. It had a large oven inside. It was evidently now the main working area of a moderately prosperous farm. It also had a large bath suite retrofitted into the northwest corner. A cold plunge pool was started outside the building, but abandoned after only a day’s work! Making a breach in the gable end wall had caused serious structural damage, and so the design was hastily changed and the plunge pool moved to the north side instead of the west – but still outside the main rooms!
A new strip building then enlarged the farm’s living accommodation. Beer was brewed from surplus corn. But there was still little in the way of fine, non-local pottery or decorative ornaments. By the end of its life, in the middle of the 4th century, the building housed a smithy and piles of building material for recycling.
The dig unearthed 13 burials. Two were Roman cremations, two were adults buried close together in the old western enclosure ditch, and nine were infants, buried, here as elsewhere in Roman Britain, under the floors of the Roman buildings.
Houghton Down archives A1994.35 & A1997.55 are in the care of Hampshire Cultural Trust
Image: The bath suite at the western end of the aisled building; the abandoned ‘cold plunge’ is at the top of the picture, the replacement to the right.
The Danebury Environs Programme: The Prehistory of a Wessex Landscape, Vol 2 Part 6: Houghton Down, Stockbridge, Hants, 1994, by Barry Cunliffe and Cynthia Poole. English Heritage and OUCA Mono 49, 2000.
And Vol 2 Part 1: Houghton Down, Longstock, Hants,1997, Mono 71, 2008.
Series by: Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone