Ross-on-Wye



Ross-on-Wye

Excavations in the Prospect

Introduction

After the boundary wall between the Prospect garden and the churchyard collapsed, Border Archaeology were employed by Herefordshire County Council to oversee the excavations required to repair the south-west wall which was a result of the poor drainage through the wall. This was supposed to last around four weeks under a Watching Brief.

A Watching Brief is used by a developer to record and preserve archaeological remains when there is a threat from development of an area. An archaeologist is employed by the site’s developer to monitor excavations, landscaping and any other intrusive work and the archaeologist is given sufficient time to identify and record any archaeological finds and features.

During the works there was an expectation that human remains would be found due to the proximity to the church yard but, although animal skeletons were found, no human remains were actually discovered. The excavations did reveal that cartloads of soil had been used to build up the level of the Prospect on top of the bedrock and the features that existed there.

The West Wall

The first phase of the excavation involved much more digging than was originally envisaged as an area approximately 20m long x 4m wide x 2m deep was hand excavated. These works revealed two ditches running approximately north-west to south-east, parallel to the boundary wall, with other features clearly running out under the churchyard and extending further back under the Prospect. There were also several post holes and signs of burning that were believed to be due to some form of fire hearth.

Items found during the works included Samian ware, a kind of bright glossy red Ancient Roman pottery [1 AD onwards] 7, a Roman coin from the reign of Claudius [Emperor from 41 AD to 54 AD] 8 and Bronze Age [circa 3300 BC] prehistoric worked flints and these indicated that there had been several periods of occupation on the site.

Another feature identified was a flat bottom pit but there were no indications of its intended use; samples were taken to allow analysis and the date to be determined which are currently awaiting analysis.

Two distinct timber structures were identified that were enclosed by a boundary ditch and appeared provisionally to be of early Roman date (1st-2nd century AD). The second one had replaced the first probably after it had fallen into disuse. Significant evidence of burning activity associated with these buildings was identified, in the form of charred timber slats and fired soil surfaces, which may have been associated with an accidental fire or deliberate clearance of the site. An alternative explanation is that the buildings may have been used for industrial purposes, possibly for the manufacture of pottery or iron-working, however the quantity of pottery and iron slag found appeared to be suggestive of low-level domestic production rather than large-scale industrial activity.

The North West Corner

In the North West corner further excavations were carried out. In this area a 20m x 10m area was excavated to uncover what was below.

As a result a circular base of a structure was uncovered with a post hole in the centre with the base being in the shape of a bowl but the side of the feature was cut through by the original boundary wall. This base was surrounded by 1m thick square walls; these were believed to be Roman. There were signs of collapsed stonework which indicated that the structure had collapsed after it had been abandoned.

There were a number of robber trenches present that had been used to remove stone from the walls, possibly for the construction of the adjacent parish church or the Bishop’s Palace. It was also noted that the churchyard walls contained Roman masonry which may have been robbed from this site. The robber trenches were presumed to have been sunk at some unspecified point during the medieval period. Although Roman pottery was found around the circular base it was not clear if this had got there when the structure was in use, due to material collapsing into the robber trenches or if it came from the material used to level the site to form the Prospect garden.

The masonry structure was dug into a sandy soil, which appears to have been used as a landscaping or levelling deposit for the building to sit upon. Within this soil was a Roman coin identified as dating from the reign of the rebel Emperor Carausius (287-293 AD). The structure appears to have been built shortly after the deposition of this levelling layer, which might suggest a late Roman date for its construction. However, material suitable for dating was elusive and only one pottery shard was found under any intact deposits hence the date of the structure was not confirmed.

Significantly, another rubble filled foundation trench was located to the SE of the circular structure, indicating that it may well have formed part of a larger complex of masonry buildings located beneath the Prospect.

Further excavations around the perimeter of the circular structure also unearthed a small horse skeleton that was partially buried by the structure and only its legs were revealed. This was half a meter below the surface and indications are that this burial was not a coincidence. Elsewhere other horse skeletons and copper-alloy items related to horses, such as harnesses, were found. This might indicate that the site had a special significance, possibly a shrine to Epona.

Epona, meaning 'Great Mare', was a Celtic goddess who was, unusually, also recognised and worshipped in Rome itself between the first and third centuries AD. Epona was a protector of horses, donkeys, and mules and was particularly known as a goddess of fertility which is indicated by her depictions with a patera (a broad, shallow dish used for drinking, primarily in a ritual context such as a libation, which is a ritual pouring of a drink as an offering to a god), a cornucopia, ears of grain and the presence of foals in some sculptures 9. Maybe the circular bowl shaped structure is symbolic of a patera.

No similar structures have been previously identified and it has been postulated that this could also have been:

  • A defensive tower or signal tower due to its strategic vantage point overlooking the Wye, although the excavations revealed no clear evidence for Roman military occupation on the site.
  • A Windmill or Mill but this seems to be unlikely due to the external square walls which would make positioning the sails difficult.
  • A dovecote but there were no bones or faeces found. No other examples of Roman dovecotes have been found which seems to rule this out.
  • Another possibility, based on the size and plan of the structure, is that it could have represented a bath-house, forming part of a larger group of buildings that once occupied The Prospect, possibly a late Roman villa complex.

A coin minted in Leon, France, during the reign of Emperor Vespasian [72-73 AD] was also found during the works. This indicated that travel over great distances had occurred for such a coin to turn up in Ross.

The Bishops Palace

During the excavations Dr Keith Ray, County Archaeologist Herefordshire Council, requested a trench to be opened further into the Prospect to look at the extent of the Roman workings on the site.

Although it is known that John Kyrle had a fountain built in the Prospect, it was not known what else was located there. During this excavation a well built but partially robbed out wall 1 metre thick was uncovered. At its base the foundations were 1.2 metres thick.

This was identified as being the remains of the Bishops Palace. This was surprising as this was believed to have been under the Royal Hotel because in 1837, when the Royal was built, a vaulted holding cell was found. As a result of this find the location and the extent of the palace was put in question.

The walls cut through the Roman layers but there was no floor surface found during the excavation and no evidence of slots in the wall to support a timber floor. Medieval floor tile fragments were found but it was not clear if these were related to the building or as a result of the importing of soil to build up the level of the Prospect.

There was no reference to the Palace in the Domesday Book [1086 AD] in which such an important building would be recorded. In 1166-1167 a fortified house is recorded as being on the site which was the Palace. It is therefore thought to have been built around the start of the 12th century and was abandoned in the 14th century.

Conclusion

It has been concluded that this has opened a new window on the occupation of Ross.

There is evidence, in the form of pits and worked flints, of prehistoric occupation of the site from the Bronze Age or possibly earlier. The second phase of occupation came in the form of timber structures associated with pottery and iron slag,which appeared provisionally to be of early Roman date. This period of occupation continued until the latter part of the third century AD when the site was abandoned. Following this abandonment, there appears to have been a phase of landscaping activity which was dated to around the late third century, due to the coin from the reign of Emperor Carausius being found within the landscaping deposit. The circular masonry structure appears to have immediately post-dated this phase of landscaping activity, which provisionally suggests a late Roman date for its construction, although further work is needed to establish its precise date and function.

The Roman occupation was not unexpected as other sites of Roman occupation have been found in the area at Weston-under-Penyard (i.e. Ariconium) and Coughton.

In addition to the Mesolithic flint tools found on Chase Hill, which became an important Iron Age hill fort, this has proved to be a useful insight into the history of Ross and has proved that there was pre-Roman activity and Roman occupation specifically in the Ross area.

This is based on a talk given to the Ross & District Civic Society by Border Archaeology.





1 The Ross Gazette - Wednesday June 4th 2008
2 The Hereford Times - Thursday June 5th 2008
3 The Ross Gazette - Wednesday September 10th 2008 - no. 6727 - article: [i]Roman remains or landmark tree?

4 The Ross Gazette - Wednesday September 17th 2008 - no. 6728 - article: A new home for Ross War Memorial
5 Ross-on-Wye Journal - Wednesday October 6th 2008 - article: Tree will go at Prospect
6 The Ross Gazette - Wednesday November 25th 2009 - article: Prospect restored
7 http://en.wikipedia....ncient_Roman_pottery, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samian_ware
8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudius
9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epona


[Page updated: Feb 15 2011 13:31:59]






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