Monthly Archives: December 2014

VM_365 Day 185 Roman painted plaster inspired by nature

VM 185

The image for Day 185 of the VM_365 project shows another fragment of painted wall plaster from the Roman villa at Minster. Fragments of painted plaster from the same site were featured on Day 178 and Day 182.

This fragment of decoration depicts a seed head or flower, painted on a dark grey background. The edge of the flower or seed head has been painted in white with a yellow stem. The internal part of the flower may have originally been painted the same colour as the stem  with additional detail in dark red although the paint is now worn away. Green leaves, possibly extending from the stem can be seen on the edge of the fragment.

In contrast to the figurative painting of the Deer shown on Day 178 and the architectural emulation of marble shown in Day 182, this fragment shows an abstraction from nature where a natural object has been used to inspire a painted motif.

VM_365 Day 184 Kilns, malt, sugar and beer in the Roman period

VM 184

Our image for Day 184 0f the VM_365 project is of one of the later buildings associated with the Roman Villa at Minster which has featured in a number of previous posts about important finds and artefacts that have been discovered at the site. The picture shows the two chambered furnace of a kiln that was built in the open space of the courtyard to the south of the main villa building, toward the end of the period of occupation on the villa site at the end of the 3rd century AD.

In the picture the furnace is viewed from the stoke hole across the two chambers of the kiln.

The structure was created by lining a rectangular pit that was cut into the natural clay geology with walls formed of chalk blocks. The central dividing wall was constructed partly of chalk blocks with some large rounded beach cobbles. The chalk walls were coated internally with clay, which had been fired into a hard surface by the hot air running from the stoke hole through the chambers and out through some form of chimney or vent on either side  At some point one of the two chambers had been blocked and abandoned. Post holes aligned with the outer edges of the furnace demonstrated that it originally stood at the north east end of a post built barn. What had this structure been used for?

Within the soot filling the chambers were burnt grains of wheat and other cereals which suggest it was used for processing these staples of Roman agriculture. Buildings like this are often called ‘corn-driers’, but in the Roman period it would not have been necessary to reduce the moisture content of grain for storage in bulk, as is the practice in the present day. It is more likely that buildings combining long barns with kilns at one end, which are common on Roman Villa sites, were used for a process such as malting, where the controlled germination of grains allowed enzymes to turn starch into natural sugars, which could be extracted and used in other processes. Substances with a high sugar content could be used in a variety of ways to create highly nutritious or long lasting sources of food and drink, but there were few natural sources of sugars in the Roman period.  One common application of artificially created sugars would have been to produce alcohol by fermentation.

Malting required the application of heat to grains over several progressive stages. To create sugar from cereals in the malting process, the grains must be made to germinate by creating the right levels of heat and moisture. The right conditions could be created  by laying out the grain in the long barn, watering it and raising the temperature  by firing up the kiln. As germination proceeded, it could be controlled by moving the grain up the length of the barn floor toward the heat source. Finally, once germination had reached the point where sufficient natural sugars had been created in the grain, it was arrested by laying the grain directly on to a high heat, probably by putting it on to a surface that lay directly above the two heated chambers of the kiln. The sugars in the malted grains could be washed out  with hot water, the resulting sugary solution being used to feed yeasts and brew the liquid into alcohol, or the liquid malt extract could be refined into malt syrup.

The barn and the active kiln would have been a smoky and unsightly presence within the yard in front of the main villa buildings, suggesting that at this point in time it had declined in status. However, the villa complex always contained several bathhouses and heated rooms and would perhaps have had a smoky and semi-industrial character itself. The addition of another furnace in the complex was possibly less significant than it appears. Throughout its life the building had been used to direct the flow of clean water from a nearby spring, to feed the hot and cold pools of the bath-houses. The control and direction of clean hot water was a skill that would have been developed by the people who operated the villa’s facilities and it would not have been a major leap to controlling the furnaces of the malt kilns or managing the supply and heating of clean water that would have been needed to brew with the malted grains.

Many modern breweries were founded on artesian wells, using gravity to control the flow of their brewing process through its various stages. Perhaps the rest of the heated rooms and furnace chambers in the villa building had been put to similar use, the natural downhill flow of the water that had been supplied to the pools of the  bathhouse being utilised for a new industrial use? The conversion of the villa complexes from grand houses into industrial facilities has been seen as a symptom of decline in status for these sites. However, the products of the malting industry would have been valuable commodities. Perhaps it is better to see the conversion of the villa site to a malting as the utilisation of a location that combined significant resources for a new use, which rendered the ornamental aspects of the earlier occupation redundant.

VM_365 Day 183 Repaired Roman Pottery

VM 183

The VM_365 image for Day 183 shows a sherd of samian pottery from the excavations at the site of a Roman Buildings at Broadstairs which has had a hole drilled through it, so that the vessel could be repaired.

The sherd is from a first century Dragendorf 37 form bowl. made at the La Graufesenque workshops in Southern Gaul. The decoration on the bowl showed a bead border with a running animal motif, but it  was poorly impressed.

The vessel must have been broken at some point and the area represented by the  sherd in the picture was drilled through so that a lead rivets  could be used to repair it. Lead wire was passed through two holes and either joined in a loop, or the ends may have been cut off and hammered flat on the inside of the bowl.

Other Roman pottery from this site has already featured in the VM_365 project.

VM_365 Day 182 Marble effect Roman painted plaster

VM 182

Today’s VM 365 image shows another example of a fragment of painted wall plaster from the Roman villa at Minster. An example of high quality naturalistic painting was shown for Day 178.

This fragment of plaster shows paint being used to imitate expensive marble panelling that was often used in very high status Roman buildings. This piece shows a dark panel border dividing two sections of pink marble. The marbled effect has been applied using splashes of dark red, white, black/grey and yellow to achieve the illusion. Large areas of wall surface decorated in this way would have produced a very striking effect intending to emulate the marble clad walls of buildings across the Roman empire.


VM_365 Day 181 13th century medieval pitcher from Manston

VM 181

The image for Day 181 of VM_365 is of the near-complete profile of an Early Medieval pitcher in Canterbury sandy ware fabric. The surface of the pot is decorated with two or three broad incised horizontal  wavy-line decoration which extends around the body.

The vessel is unglazed which is an indicator of its early date in the sequence of Canterbury sandy ware pitchers.  The preferred dating for this vessel is 13th century, c.1125-1150/1175 AD. The pottery was excavated near Manston in Thanet in 2003.

VM_365 Day 180 Used Middle Iron Age loom weight

VM 180

Today’s VM_365 image for Day 180 shows a worn Middle Iron Age clay loomweight from Northdown, Margate excavated in the 1970’s.

This loom weight shows evidence of heavy use wear from where it was suspended from a warp weighted loom which has created a groove in its surface. Other different types of Iron Age loomweights have been found at  Broadstairs and North Foreland.

VM_365 Day 179 Déchelette and a samian beaker from Minster

Photo: Lloyd Bosworth, University of Kent
Photo: Lloyd Bosworth, University of Kent

The image for VM_365 Day 179 shows sherds of a second samian ware beaker found at the Roman villa, Minster (see previous VM 365 Day 175).

As with Day 175’s vessel this is a type known as Déch. 64, after the French archaeologist Joseph Déchelette who complied a study of decorated samian ware made in Roman Gaul which remains an important publication to this day.

This autumn has seen the 100th anniversary of his death: Déchelette was killed in October 1914 during the early campaigning of the First World War as the French Army fought the Germans in the Aisne Valley, in southern Picardy. Although over 50 he was a captain and combatant. His contribution to archaeology is being marked in several ways including a special exhibition at Mainz RGZM Museum.

Several samian ware forms are named and numbered still following his catalogue. Form 64 is rare and so to have found two such drinking beakers at one site on Thanet is an indicator of the status of the villa and its occupants. The precise detail of the shape of this beaker type can vary as the drawings of complete examples (from Oundle and Colchester) shown here demonstrate.

Oswald and Pryce 1920, Plate XXI
Oswald and Pryce 1920, Plate XXI

The beaker from VM Day 175 has a more obvious bead to its rim and its appearance is more orange whereas this second beaker is more cherry red. These sorts of details can help us with dating these vessels. Day 175’s beaker probably dates to the Trajanic – early Hadrianic period, whereas this one is slightly later (Hadrianic). Perhaps this later example was a replacement for the earlier one, or the villa owner wished to create a pair. The decoration shows a chase scene, evidently hunting dogs pursuing a hare. The images on these beakers take us directly to the Classical world and remain as fascinating to us today as they did to Déchelette in his time.

Dr Steve Willis, University of Kent


Oswald, F. & Pryce, T.D. 1920. An Introduction to the Study of Terra Sigillata. London.

VM_365 Day 178 The Running of the Deer

VM 178

This is day one of a series of images from the Roman painted plaster collection from the villa at Minster.

Like many Roman villas excavated in Britain there was evidence that the buildings walls and ceilings had once been decorated with finely painted plaster which served a number of purposes. It allowed the rooms to be decorated with figurative representations of familiar scenes and allusions to literature and the natural world. It also allowed the more basic materials these buildings were constructed of, to be given the appearance of more expensive and exotic materials such as marble.

The majority of the fragments from the villa site are simply painted with solid colours forming backgrounds for decorative scenes and motifs. The fragments from the site demonstrate that many of the scenes were of very high quality.

Today’s image shows an example of one of the fragments of the very high quality decorative wall paintings depicting the hind quarters of a leaping deer which can be compared with an example from Stabiae, near Pompei.

VM_365 Day 177 Beaker Decoration Detail

VM 177

Our image for Day 177 of the VM_365 project shows four close up pictures of the decoration on the body of the Beaker vessel from North Foreland shown yesterday for Day 176.

The first impression is that this vessel looks like a very finely and carefully decorated pot but if you look closely you can see that this is not the case because there are some errors in the execution of the decoration.

The decoration was applied using a comb with square-sectioned teeth and is arranged in four zones. The neck (top left) is decorated with opposed filled triangles bordered above and below by a ladder pattern defined by encircling combed lines. The triangles are separated from each other by three vertical ladder motifs.

The waist decoration (top right and bottom left) is separated from the neck decoration by a plain band approximatley 1 cm deep. The waist is made up of a band of herringbone motif bordered above by three, and below, by two encircling lines. There is overlapping in the decoration.

The belly (bottom right) is decorated with a ladder motif and is separated from the waist by another plain band and is encircled above and below by two lines.

The base decoration (Bottom right) is separated from the belly by an undecorated band and comprises a zone of ladder pattern similar to the belly but more untidy where there seems to have been an attempt at forming three encircling lines above and two below but the execution is careless and there is overlap between the horizontal and vertical elements. The lower part of the vessel is undecorated.

How did the potters decide how to divide up the vessel into decorative areas and what patterns to apply? Did they use mathematical principles to divide up the circular space or were there rules of thumb that made the job easier? Perhaps we will never know.


Gibson, A. 2005. The Beaker and other Pottery from Beaufort, North Foreland, Broadstairs, Kent. Unpublished Pottery Report.

VM_365 Day 176 Beaker vessel from North Foreland

VM 176

The image for Day 176 of the VM_365 project shows a Beaker vessel dating between 1900-1700BC excavated from a grave at North Foreland, Broadstairs in 2004.

The vessel accompanied the crouched inhumation of a female aged over 40 years old who had been buried in a large pit cut into the chalk, around which a ring ditch had been excavated. The Beaker had been placed at her feet and a small flint scraper may have been placed near her head.

The Beaker is of the S2 type series, similar to the example found at Manston and has been decorated in four zones using a comb. It is made of very hard, well fired fabric that has been rapidly open fired.  An old break at the base shows possible traces of coil or ring construction.