Sometimes when we were working at Chedworth Roman Villa… in Gloucestershire.
We were asked about mosaics…where do the bits…the tesserae come from?
Occasionally my mind returned to 1984… and a small trench in Dorset.
2 years and about 50m from the National Trust.
I am in a wood. There are three of us there. We are checking what remains of the Roman archaeology in an area… riddled with 18th century clay pits.
It is Spring. The dappled light filters through the trees. I have worked all morning and am deep down in my 1.2m square test trench. We will meet up at lunch-time but for now I have filtered out the sound of the occasional cars travelling from Wareham to Corfe. The unfolding leaves and flowers of late March are above me.
Down here I have a finds tray, a bucket, a hand shovel..and my trowel.
The soil is light, sandy… and black…enriched by the activity of ancient lives. I am crouched down, contained in a square world. There is not much room here but this is definitely a Roman place… unmolested by the old clay diggers.
The trowel blade skims the soft earth surface and catches… sending a familiar vibration through to the handle. A brown cube flicks out of the ground and I pick it up and put it in the finds tray.
It joins the others, typical of this Isle of Purbeck … This whole area was an industrial centre in the Roman period. So in my tray there are colours that reflect the varied rock types across this landscape.. a mini geological world, A mosaicist’s dream.
My latest find is a purple-brown gritty Heathstone from the land bordering Poole Harbour…north of where I am crouching. Then there are white cubes dug out of the chalk ridge behind me……there’s an old quarry… just a short distance away. There are also brown mudstone tesserae and various Purbeck limestone ones… dug from the land out beyond the ridge to the south.
You can imagine the patterned floor makers coming to this place and picking up these coloured cubes in carts.. in their thousands.
Norden was the heartland town of Industrial Purbeck. Three lesser villas surround it. High above me are the picturesque ruins of medieval Corfe Castle guarding the gap through the chalk ridge (like a natural rampart dividing Purbeck). The church and Corfe town now lie to the south… but the Roman town lay here at Norden.
Here in my trench are baked clay fragments…briquetage….remains of containers for evaporating brine to make salt from the Poole Harbour shoreline.
There are pieces of a black, greasy, wood-like stone. I find fragments and circles with chuck-holes in (‘coal money’). These are the waste from Kimmeridge shale, turned on a lathe. It outcrops on the north-east coast of the Island. A cottage industry across Purbeck … making bangles, vessels and furniture from this easily worked …unusual material.
The best thing…. I concentrate on making the sides of my trench vertical… is the Black Burnished pottery.
So much of this distinctive pottery was made here that the army took out a contract and used it to supply the troops on Hadrian’s Wall.
My trowel sweeps and defines a curve where the black soil stops and black ceramic begins. In my tray are many small fragments. Some are remains of jars, straight sided bowls, jugs and lids but this find is almost complete… a dish with oval base and a curved handle at each end.
It still has the wavy decoration inscribed by the potter…. 1700 years ago…it resembles a simple spirograph design.
I dust it down and place it on the floor of my trench as though setting a table….
A few years later… I was in the neighbouring field …part of the National Trust’s Corfe Castle Estate. A water pump was leaking and I watched the trench. Here was Roman Norden again two chalk and gravel yard surfaces… one above the other.. laden with Black Burnished pottery fragments and oyster shells.
And later still.. across the road above the NT Castle View visitor centre we geophysed the field and found a Roman temple site.
This whole area is covered in traces of Roman activity…though now only farmers’ fields and modern Corfe has retreated …to the south side of the gap.. towards one of the villas.
Overlooking Norden and Corfe… we found that the high ruins of the Castle were built on another Roman site…at the deepest level against the chalk…we found pottery in the West Bailey but can only guess what type of site it relates to.
Perhaps there was once a Roman watch tower here, its guards gazing out across the activities of the craftsmen of Norden town towards Poole Harbour.