Research on Wroxeter Roman City

There was little research of any kind at Wroxeter until the 19th century. Before then, the survival of the ‘Old Work’ (the basilica wall) was recorded in Camden’s Britannia in the 17th century and the first record of the discovery of a building was in 1701, but this was a schematic account.

'The Ruins of Uriconium' at Wroxeter Roman City, by Thomas Prytharch
'The Ruins of Uriconium', by Thomas Prytharch

Antiquarian Records

The first accurate record of a Roman ruin from the city was made by Thomas Telford in 1788 whose account provides detailed measured plans and views of the ruins, although the ruins themselves were robbed by local people afterwards.

The ‘Old Work’ became the subject of artistic interest late in the 18th century, forming the subject of watercolours by Thomas Girtin and others. Slightly later, in 1828, an extensive fragment of a fine 4th century mosaic was recorded but again was destroyed by visitors.

Antiquarian interest began with the arrival of the railways which enabled researchers to visit the site comparatively easily, as the London-based antiquary Charles Roach-Smith and Henry Dryden of Northampton did in the mid 1850s.
Both recorded significant recent discoveries: Roach-Smith made a record of fragments of a Jupiter column, which he observed in the village, while Dryden made an accurate record of a colonnade found during the construction of the farm buildings adjacent to the baths.

In February 1859, the antiquarian scholar Thomas Wright began an excavation by the ‘Old Work’. A rapid clearance of the ruins of the baths was made and was widely publicised. Over the spring and summer of that year large numbers of day trippers came to visit the site, including Charles Dickens.

Such was the popularity of the site and the impressive nature of the ruins that the landowner, the Duke of Cleveland, donated the ruins to the recently formed Shropshire Archaeological Society, which provided a custodian to live on the site and run a small museum. Wroxeter thus became one of the first Roman archaeological sites permanently open to the public in Britain.

Wright’s excavations continued intermittently on the baths and elsewhere until 1867, including an investigation of the Roman cemetery alongside Watling Street where it enters the town at the north-east corner, and the defences which were examined in a number of places.

Excavating the Baths and Basilica

Minor excavations were conducted on the baths in the 1890s by George Fox and by Kathleen Kenyon in 1936–7 to answer specific research questions about the buildings. In 1947 the baths site was acquired from the Shropshire Archaeological Society by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, later the Department of the Environment. They began a programme of consolidation of the baths which had now been exposed for nearly a century and had deteriorated badly, losing much important detail.

From 1955 to 1985, Graham Webster of the University of Birmingham ran a major training excavation based on the baths, funded by the Ministry. His principal discovery was the location of the fortress beneath Wroxeter that had long been suspected from military tombstones found in the 18th century.

In 1966 excavation extended to the baths basilica. Here evidence of timber buildings was found lying over the site of the basilica and this led to an extensive and pioneering excavation directed by Philip Barker, also of the University of Birmingham. He adopted the then revolutionary technique of open-area excavation – an excavation that opened up as large an area as possible rather than digging in small box-trenches as Webster continued to do.

This new technique rapidly demonstrated that there was important but ephemeral evidence of a phase of timber buildings that had been erected after the basilica had been demolished.

This was interpreted as a post-Roman phase dating to the 6th or 7th century and proved to be very influential in demonstrating how complex urban levels could be approached in the future, and that Roman archaeologists needed to be more alert to the possibility of finding ephemeral buildings in Roman levels of urban sites.

Graham Webster's excavation of the Wroxeter Roman City bath complex shows the pale-coloured timber-slots from the first military barracks beneath the later masonry walls of the outdoor pool
Graham Webster's excavation of the Wroxeter bath complex shows the pale-coloured timber-slots from the first military barracks beneath the later masonry walls of the outdoor pool

Excavating the Forum

A second public building, the town’s forum, was excavated in 1923 when Professor Donald Atkinson of University of Manchester began his examination of a site immediately opposite the ruins of the baths. Beneath this, he found evidence for an unfinished bath house which is now thought to belong to the last phase of military occupation on the site in the late 1st century.

Further excavations had been carried out a decade before in the area south of the forum by JP Bushe-Fox, Inspector of Ancient Monuments. Starting close to the site of the village, Bushe-Fox worked for three seasons (1912–14) uncovering most of the southern end of this field and discovering a row of houses with shops at their frontages. The last house, Site VI, was a substantial town house with its own bath house which sat immediately adjacent to a temple.

The First World War brought an end to his investigations and both Bushe-Fox’s and Atkinson’s excavations were immediately backfilled once the season was completed, returning the land to agricultural use.

As a consequence the remains that they excavated are likely to have survived in much better condition than the baths site, although this has yet to be tested; re-excavation of these areas, and especially the forum, would be of enormous interest and benefit in understanding more detail about the town’s development.

The reports of these excavations are of variable quality. Bushe-Fox’s three reports were produced quickly and give a brief but sound account of his work, supported by important reports on the finds he retrieved.

The pottery reports were particularly influential on the development of Romano-British studies as he produced extensive catalogues of common coarse wares that had been little regarded before then. Bushe-Fox also included environmental analysis of some of the remains he encountered, again a pioneering feature.

Atkinson’s report was produced twenty years after his work, in 1942, and it is a much more difficult work to use. Nonetheless there are important elements, including reports on the spectacular finds of the silver Wroxeter mirror, the forum inscription and the extensive hoard of samian, mixing bowls (mortaria) and whetstones found in the forum gutter where they had been deposited during a fire between AD 165–175. The discussion of the unfinished bath house was important in making the connection to the then unknown military phase of Wroxeter’s existence.

Other Excavations

Contemporary with these long-running excavations were a series of smaller excavations, often carried out by a local medical doctor, John Houghton, between the 1950s and mid 1970s.

These located many peripheral sites of great interest including a tile works located on the flood plain, a pottery kiln at the confluence of the River Tern and River Severn just upstream of Wroxeter, a glass-working site located opposite the church in the village, the town’s major cistern into which the aqueduct flowed, some isolated graves in the north-east cemetery, work on the river to locate the crossing point or bridge and a number of investigations on the town’s defences.

The defences were also examined by Stephen Johnson, who re-opened one of Kathleen Kenyon’s trenches and also Houghton’s water cistern nearby, and Simon Esmonde Cleary, of the University of Birmingham, who re-examined the northern defences sectioned by Atkinson in the 1920s. Finally, the Central Excavation Unit of the Department of the Environment re-excavated the Forum Drain and established the line of the western defences of the town in 1976–7.

Bushe-Fox leads visitors round the Wroxeter Roman City site during his excavations of 1912; alongside is a reconstruction of one of the mosaics from the floor of the basilica
Bushe-Fox leads visitors round the site during his excavations of 1912; alongside is a reconstruction of one of the mosaics from the floor of the basilica

Future Research

Large-scale excavation in the town has become more difficult over time. This is partly because excavation is very expensive, is destructive and involves a decision on whether the remains uncovered ought to be preserved for public view, causing yet more expense. As a result archaeologists have increasingly turned to remote sensing methods of investigation.

At Wroxeter, the principal methods of remote sensing have been aerial photography and geophysical survey. The first technique, pioneered at Wroxeter in the late 1920s but really coming to the fore from the late 1940s and into the 1970s, is, of course, reliant on the weather and the effects of short-term drought.

Thus it is not predictable. When it does occur, however, the results can be quite spectacular with the complete plans of houses visible, even to the extent of seeing the locations of doorways and underfloor heating channels.

It is now understood that the technique is best adapted to picking up the evidence for substantial, often stone-founded, buildings or very large pits and ditches. More subtle features or structures made of organic remains are not susceptible to this technique.

This was only fully realised after the large-scale application of geophysical survey technologies to the town in the years 1995–6. Geophysical technologies had first been tried out at Wroxeter in the 1950s but the technology was cumbersome and the results slow to plot. By the 1990s, the microchip revolution enabled the fast collection of large amounts of data and their swift processing so that the entire site could be mapped for the first time.

The primary technology used was gradiometry, the detection of minute variations in the earth’s magnetic field caused by disturbance of the soil through human, or geological, activity. Burnt features and stone buildings show especially clearly as these have an enhanced magnetic signal but more ephemeral structures in timber or with clay walls can also been seen, albeit less distinctly. Additional surveys using Ground Penetrating Radar showed that the archaeological layers in parts of the site are two metres or more thick.

Although we now have a good overall understanding of Wroxeter and how it relates to its hinterland based on the interpretation of remote sensing evidence, this still needs testing through excavation to establish how well the signals that have been plotted relate to real archaeological remains.

This could be achieved through a variety of techniques, including geo-chemical sampling and small-scale test pitting to establish how deeply the remains are buried. 

Understanding the Towns Development

While the broad chronology of the town is understood we have huge gaps in our understanding of how the town developed, and what its economic wealth was based upon.

Few town houses have been excavated and none to modern standards. We have an especially poor understanding of the latest phase of the site and its extent, and of the period between the fortress and the classical town. This short phase of about 30 years was crucial for establishing the town at its fullest extent yet remains shadowy as it is masked by later developments and is deeply buried.

Wroxeter’s Environment

Very little is understood about the broader developments of the landscape as evidenced through environmental remains such as pollen and ecofacts. A programme of research is needed inside and outside the town to identify where such evidence might be located and a programme of work drawn up to implement such a study.

Characterising the Post-Roman Period

Wroxeter provides a key resource in Britain for characterising the material culture of the 5th and 6th centuries in western Britain. This is because we have an excellent stratified collection of artefacts that we know relate to the latest levels of occupation and have not been contaminated by later activity. These remains have been archived but need further research to bring us to a fuller understanding of the period.

Similarly, there is evidence from a small but consistent group of artefacts for substantial late Saxon occupation at the site and in its vicinity. This can be seen from the church and from a number of metal finds of relevant date. This phase has hardly been researched at all, yet could provide important evidence for the transitional Anglo-Saxon to Norman phase of the site.

Further research could also be carried out on the high medieval occupation of the site, which has barely been touched upon, even though some records survive. Work in these areas would usefully broaden and deepen our understanding of Wroxeter and its development over time.

The latest phase of work on the site has demonstrated that much can be achieved in research terms without causing long-term damage to the site and the development of new procedures and technologies should be allowed to continue in an organised and coherent programme of research to develop our understanding of the town as well as permitting further development of scientific approaches to archaeology. This would also continue the long tradition of training established on the site.

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