Roman Pottery Production, Lavenham

pottery artefacts in situ

Featured Image: The upper vessels in the firing chamber of the Roman kiln © Archaeological Solutions ( now Wardell Armstrong)

In 2019, archaeological excavation on the edge of Lavenham at Bears Lane revealed evidence of two phases of Roman activity dating from the 1st to 3rd Century AD, including well preserved evidence for pottery production.

The earliest activity at the site was evidenced by a number of Mesolithic and Early Neolithic struck flints and two pits containing single sherds of Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age pottery.

The first Roman activity on site appears to be a group of pits alongside a ditch system, enclosing an area of 1st-2nd century pottery production. Two definite, and one probable, pottery kilns were recorded, alongside an oven. Two of the kilns were situated within a natural hollow and one of these kilns, of single-chambered twin flue form, was particularly significant as not only was it well preserved, but appears to represent a complete failed and abandoned kiln load, providing an unusual insight into the loading of Roman kilns. This kiln contained a large number of misfired courseware vessels (a number of which could be fully or substantially reconstructed), alongside damaged sherds representing a minimum of 116 vessels. The presence of a collapsed kiln lining suggests that the superstructure collapsed, resulting in catastrophic failure of the firing, with no attempt by the potters to retrieve any of the load.

These kilns may have formed part of a local, or potentially seasonal, workshop, suppling the farmsteads or estate in the immediate area. However, the position of the site is interesting; it is close to the main Roman road between Long Melford and Pakenham, so there may be a possibility that the pottery production at Lavenham could have supplied other markets.

The skeleton of an adult male was discovered within a grave close to other 1st-2nd century remains; radiocarbon dating is underway to confirm whether the individual is contemporary. It is unknown whether there is a direct connection between this individual and the kiln features; was he someone who worked with the kilns? There are other recorded examples elsewhere of Roman burials located either within or situated in close proximity to industrial features.

Between the 2nd and 3rd century AD the intensity of activity within the excavated area appears to have decreased. The hollow in which the earlier kilns were situated filled up with accumulated debris; this included large amounts of pottery and Ceramic Building Material, including roof tile and box flue, thought to be from domestic occupation somewhere in the vicinity. A further pottery kiln cut the fills of the hollow, which also sealed a juvenile burial from this period, cut into a grave pit in the base of the hollow. Radiocarbon dating is underway to confirm the date of the burial. A scatter of pits and a few ditches were also dated from this later period.

A number of other pits and ditches were recorded on the site which were either undated or of unspecific Roman date. Of most interest was a group of shallow ditches in a rectilinear arrangement, which may have formed part of a structure.

Additional Roman remains, potentially relating to an area of occupation, were recorded in trenches in the eastern part of the site, although there is certainly potential for additional kilns or ovens surviving in this area. However, this part of the site has been preserved in situ within an area of green space and covered by a management plan which sets out how the long-term protection of these remains will be secured.

There was no further activity on site until the post-medieval period when a few rubbish and quarry pits were dug, containing material from the 17th-18th centuries. This has also demonstrated that in Lavenham’s medieval and early post-medieval heyday, that Bears Lane remained a peripheral area.

This site makes an important contribution not only to studies of Roman pottery production but also to understanding of Roman activity in Lavenham, whose medieval history is much better understood.

The only evidence for Roman activity previously discovered in the immediate area was limited to a few finds scatters, as well as anecdotal evidence of a Roman tessellated pavement, or possibly bathhouse or crypt discovered in the late 19th Century in the grounds of Grove House. We now know that pottery production and industrial activity was taking place in Lavenham during the Roman period, and there is some evidence of nearby occupation.

All archaeological remains at the site subject to development have now been fully excavated and the area has been fully mapped and recorded ahead of the commencement of building work. The finds and remains have undergone specialist analysis and a full report on the results of the project has been completed (and will be made publicly available in due course). A publication report for the project is also set to feature in the Journal of Roman Pottery. The entire archive will be deposited with the County Archive, maintained by Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service; this will be available for researchers and for local museums to borrow on loan for display to the public.

The work was commissioned by Marden Homes and the excavations were undertaken by Archaeological Solutions (now Wardell Armstrong) ahead of a proposed residential development. Suffolk County Council’s archaeological officers monitored the project to ensure that the site was excavated and recorded to a high standard.

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