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Building Roman Britain : The Roman Kiln at Dell Quay

CBM Dell Quay

Building Roman Britain : The Roman Kiln at Dell Quay


The Building Roman Britain Project is an innovative programme of archaeological science that will characterise stone and ceramic building materials and explore the contexts within which they were produced. It is doing this by analyse the important building materials of stone and ceramic (brick, tile, clay pipes, etc.) from two key sites of early Roman Britain, Roman Bath and Fishbourne Roman Palace.

The technique being used is portable x-ray florescence (pXRF), which allows materials to be analysed rapidly, providing its chemical composition. It is possible to use this composition as a 'fingerprint' that allows the material to be better understood and broadly grouped. Stone and ceramic building material have distinct chemical compositions that can help archaeologists to better understand where they were produced and how their procurement fitted in to the wider economy.

The pXRF analyser is non-destructive and can be used in both the laboratory and museums (Liritziz & Zacharias 2011). This means that the range of artefacts that can be analysed extends far beyond the reach of traditional, destructive techniques.

The Roman invasion of Britain in AD43 brought with it not only new customs and cultures but new architectural and building styles. These styles required building material not normally used in Britain; stone and ceramic building material (CBM). The need for high volumes of stone and CBM as construction materials would have required resources that extended far beyond the existing Iron Age procurement networks. As such it represents a clear socio-economic change that would have had significant impact on native communities.

 Ceramic building material production

The use of ceramic as a building material, despite having some parallels in the earlier Iron Age, was a new technology brought to Britain by the Romans. The extent of building in the first century AD would have necessitated a substantial supply of CBM. It is typically argued that in the earliest period the knowledge and skills for this production would have been supplied by the military before eventually becoming established in local areas by civilians. Chemical analysis of CBM will help us to understand how different sites related to each other and how production was organised. This could allow us to explore the impact of the coming of the Romans and their novel building techniques on native communities. Bath and Fishbourne are multiphase sites that have some of the earliest use of CBM in Roman Britain. They are therefore excellent case studies to explore the process of the Romanisation of Britannia.

Preliminary Results

To date, over 2000 analysis have been recorded for the project across 650 samples from the two main study areas. Although preliminary, the results have already begun to highlight interesting trends.

For instance, the analysis of ceramic building material has highlighted clear variation at Bath particularly between local sites such as the main bath/temple complex, sites within the town and those beyond its walls. Interestingly, at present the data suggest that the material in the bath complex is drawn from a different source/recipe than the material used in the wider area. This is in marked contrast to the material from Fishbourne that shows comparatively little variation between areas and forms.

The data for stone building material are considerably more complex. The dataset shows clear variation and once subjected to detailed analysis and comparison with other archaeological traits should reveal significant information about how it was procured and produced. However, due to the post-depositional processes and physical nature of the limestone, it is difficult at present to draw definitive conclusions.

Potential for future study

You may be asking yourself how The Novium museum's collections fit into this established research project. Although the project is by no means complete the potential for further study has already been identified. So far the project has focused on a very specific set of material aimed at highlighting the validity of the technique. Future work will look to involve a greater breadth of study both geographically and with regards to identifying and analysing sites producing ceramic building material (kiln and quarry sites).

In 2007 the site of a Roman kiln was excavated by the Chichester District Council's Heritage Outreach Officer along with local volunteers. These excavations produced material including imbrices, tegulae, box-flue and brick. Throughout the next few months researchers from the Building Roman Britain Project will be analysing the material make-up of the ceramic building material from Dell Quay. The results will be compared to those from Fishbourne Roman Palace. Was the Dell Quay kiln site producing the building material used at Fishbourne Roman Palace?


Dr Derek Pitman

Research Assistant

Bournemouth University