A summary of the excavations by Alec Detsicas with a consideration of the archaeological, historical and linguistic context

Archaeopress Archaeology (2021) p/b 276pp £45 (ISBN 9781789695878)

In about AD 55, some twelve years after the Claudian invasion of southern Britain, a substantial villa was built overlooking the river Medway, at what is now Row Place Farm, Eccles in Kent.  Built on the site of an Iron Age settlement, it began as a group of residential buildings within a walled enclosure (period 1).  In the later first century (period 2) elaborate baths were constructed, as well as a 12-roomed strip building.  During the second century (period 3) detached northern and southern wings were added.  These were linked by a ‘U’-shaped fronting corridor.  At the same time the baths were replaced by new ones incorporated within the northern wing; a long pool was built parallel to the house.  In the early fourth century (period 4), a third set of baths were constructed, including an exceptionally large cold water bath—or perhaps an indoor swimming pool.  At the same time, major alterations were made to the house.  The villa had now reached its greatest extent, measuring 105 x 73 metres.  Outside was a garden featuring a long fish pool and fountain.  A wall surrounded the house and garden, measuring some 116 x 89 metres. On any view this was a very fine country residence.

The main source of income from the villa was probably agriculture.  There are signs of a possible granary within the precincts.  The villa owners may also have controlled mining in the area, as well as quarrying Kentish ragstone. There is some debate about who had the good fortune to occupy it.  This reviewer inclines to the view that the owner/occupiers were élite members of the Cantii, who collaborated with the Roman invaders from the time of the conquest onwards.  In the final period (period 5), the building deteriorated with hearths constructed in former residential rooms.

This book provides, at long last, a full account of the excavations and what they revealed.  It is well illustrated with plans and photographs covering each of the five periods of the villa’s existence.  The book also reviews (as its title suggests) the evidence of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, which was found above the remains of the villa.  This was located adjacent to and partly over the south-east wing of the villa.  About 200 burials have been recovered, but the original number was probably much higher.  There are beautifully clear plans of the cemetery.  These are followed by photographs of the graves and drawings of the artefacts/grave goods.  The cemetery appears to have been used for about 300 years, from the seventh to the tenth century.

The authors set the archaeological finds in their historical and social context.  Place names are important in that regard.  Eccles appears to derive from the Greek word ἐκκλησία.  It probably denoted a Christian community.  In the fifth and sixth centuries Kent was divided into two kingdoms, namely east and west.  The Medway valley between Rochester and Maidstone probably marked the division between opposing kingdoms.  It was sparsely populated.  Following the conquest of West Kent in the seventh century, the Medway valley south of Rochester was settled in earnest.  This coincides with the establishment of the cemetery at Eccles.

This is not a book for the general reader, but it has much to offer any classicist or archaeologist with an interest in Roman Britain.  Kent was a particularly significant part of the province.  It was the main port of entry from the continent, the site of the famous triumphal arch signifying the conquest of Britannia, the first section of Watling Street and the main base (on this side of the channel) of the Classis Britannica, Rome’s British fleet.  Hence the particular significance of the villa at Eccles.  The book also has much to offer medieval historians.  It is packed with hard data about the Anglo-Saxon finds, and sets these in their historical context.


Rupert Jackson