Roman Villa Unearthed in Northern Yorkshire is First of its Kind

Excavations at a proposed construction site in suburban Scarborough in northern Yorkshire, England have revealed the remains of a grand and stately Roman villa, which would have been constructed sometime in the first three centuries AD. The site is covered with an expansive complex of buildings, including a large, circular central room with auxiliary chambers surrounding it on all sides. One of the structures unearthed has been identified as a private Roman bathhouse, which implies that the owners of the site enjoyed significant wealth and status.

Excavations have unearthed what is been heralded as a unique Roman villa located in the Scarborough suburb of Eastfield in northern Yorkshire. (Maparch)

Excavations have unearthed what is been heralded as a unique Roman villa located in the Scarborough suburb of Eastfield in northern Yorkshire. ( Maparch)

Leading Academics Struggle to Find a Comparable Roman Villa

The real estate development company Keepmoat Homes contracted the preservation organization Historic England to carry out the excavations legally required before they could begin construction on a new housing project in the Scarborough suburb of Eastfield. These types of exploratory digs occasionally turn up something interesting, but what archaeologists discovered in this instance has no precedence in the historical record.

“This type of building layout has never been seen before in Britain and could even be the first of its kind to be discovered within the whole former Roman Empire,” a Historic England spokesperson explained in the Daily Mail . “We’ve spoken to a number of leading Roman academics about it, and we’re all trying to find a comparable site and we are struggling,” explained Keith Emerick, Historic England’s inspector of ancient monuments when discussing what he termed a “significant” and “exciting” discovery.

When talking about the main structure unearthed at the site, Emerick highlighted that it’s “a really interesting hybrid building” that displays architectural features consistent with multipurpose usage and design. According to Emerick, some of its design features suggest the site may have been used for religious purposes. While the villa was most likely owned by an individual or a family at one time, it may have been transferred or sold to a religious organization at a later date. Alternatively, the site may have functioned as a combination private estate and religious sanctuary from the beginning.

In response to the historical significance of this discovery, Keepmoat Homes has agreed to redesign their housing project to work around the ancient Roman site . This means that the Roman villa will remain untouched and archaeologists will continue to have unfettered access to its location in the months and years ahead.

Drone footage of the Eastfield excavation site in Scarborough where the rare remains of a Roman villa have been unearthed ahead of the construction of a housing project. (Maparch)

Drone footage of the Eastfield excavation site in Scarborough where the rare remains of a Roman villa have been unearthed ahead of the construction of a housing project. ( Maparch)

The Roman Presence in the Hinterlands

Whatever its purpose, the newly discovered villa was likely built during the 150-year period during which Rome’s control over Britain was uncontested. This period ran from 77 AD, when the Romans quashed the last of the resistance to their rule and incorporated the entire country into their Empire, to 228 AD, when Rome first began to recall personnel stationed in Britain in response to ongoing “barbarian” incursions.

One of the giveaways for this dating is the villa’s remote location. Scarborough can be found on the UK’s north central North Sea coast, more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) north and east from the Roman provincial capital of Londinium (modern-day London). Modern-day Scarborough is also more than 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of Eboracum (nowadays known as York), which was the largest Roman city in northern Britain and the capital of Britannia Inferior after the province was divided into two sections in 197 AD.

Taking up residence this far from the centers of government, and from the security provided by the Empire’s military forces, suggests the villa’s owners were confident that Rome’s presence in Britain would endure. This expansive and solidly fortified villa was built to last, by elite or prestigious individuals who planned to stay indefinitely.

North Yorkshire Acknowledges its Growing Archaeological Heritage

Officials in North Yorkshire are pleased to see their county occupying the center of attention in British archaeology. “This is a remarkable discovery, which adds to the story of Roman settlement in North Yorkshire,” said Karl Battersby, the director of business and environmental services for the North Yorkshire County Council, in an article published in CNN. “Work by North Yorkshire archaeologists has already established the buildings were designed by the highest-quality architects in Northern Europe in the era and constructed by the finest craftsmen.”

The closest equivalent to this site in the county is the Beadlam Roman villa, also listed on Historic England , which was initially discovered in 1928 and fully excavated in the late 1960s and 1970s. This villa was a rural agricultural estate constructed in approximately the third century, near what is now the village of Beadlam on the banks of the River Riccal, 28 miles (45 kilometers) inland from the recently discovered Roman estate in Eastfield.

To ensure its ongoing preservation, Historic England will recommend that this latest Roman villa discovery be granted special status as a nationally important scheduled monument. Under terms of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979, historical or archaeological sites that are recognized as scheduled monuments are entitled to protections that prevent them from being damaged or destroyed by future development projects.

This becomes particularly urgent in light of recent news of an incident in which nighthawkers armed with metal detectors breached security at the Roman villa on 14 April 2021. Having heard news of this important discovery, they entered the excavation site, damaging the buildings and possibly removing artifacts, reports The Yorkshire Post . In response to this inevitable break-in, Keepmoat Homes has upped security at the Eastfield site.

With access by archaeologists currently guaranteed by Keepmoat Homes’ pledge to redesign the housing project, archaeologists will be able to continue their research of this unique Roman villa. As their work progresses, they will try to determine exactly when the building complex was constructed and for what purpose. Watch this space!

Top image: Amongst the newly discovered remains of a unique Roman villa, archaeologists found a circular room and a bathhouse. Source: Maparch

By Nathan Falde

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