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‘Cold Case’ Archaeology

by Dr Tim Copeland, Research Fellow at the University of Gloucestershire

In many ways all archaeology is ‘cold case,’ in that we recover and explore the physical evidence of objects and structures from the past in order to reconstruct what activities have occurred in a particular place at a particular time, who was responsible for them, and why they happened. This specific project is entirely different in that we are endeavouring to find the records of unpublished excavations: ‘cold cases’ within ‘cold cases’, and it is proving quite interesting but difficult!

The missing reports are of excavations at a Roman villa which was the country retreat for someone of great wealth. The villa was found in 1864 by a gamekeeper’s dog going down a hole chasing a rabbit, although this seems to be the ‘Creation Myth’ for so many Roman villa sites. It was ‘cleared’ (‘excavated’ would be too positive a word for what happened!) in the mid-19th Century on behalf of a Lord on whose country estate it was found. He argued that since he was a noble in the British Empire, whoever owned the villa was a noble in the Roman Empire and therefore the house should be on display. As is often the case at that time, the foundations of the building and mosaic pavements were preserved, and the ‘goodies’ such as statues, fine jewellery, coins, classical pottery from France and Italy (etc.), were removed and eventually displayed in a museum or the owner’s house. Although panoramic views were drawn, no plan of the structure was made, nor were there any attempts to show the location of where the objects were found. All the coarse ware pottery from the ‘service’ areas and kitchens, which is very useful for dating, was dumped away from the site. The Lord had been on the ‘Grand Tour’ to Italy and Greece, and so thought he knew about what a Roman villa should be like and may have added to the remains to make them more ‘complete’, and a symmetrical and pleasing shape. We have no idea about how much of the structure is from the Roman period and which from Victorian times because excavations between 1950 and 2000 using modern techniques have also not been written up. Since any archaeological excavation by its nature destroys evidence, any ‘dig’ is only as good as its report. It is through the present project that we are endeavouring to find these reports.


I have been trying to locate the records from an excavation undertaken in 1977 in advance of the construction of a visitor and administration building at the site. The aim was that the ‘footprint’ of the new structure would not destroy any evidence for the villa without it being archaeologically recorded, and if the finds were important, the architecture of the centre might be modified. The results of the excavation were recorded, but the report, if written, was thought to have disappeared. It was not certain that the excavation director was still alive, nor was it known where he was living. By researching excavations that he had undertaken after 1977 I was able, through acknowledgements in his reports, to track down individuals who had worked with him and who could give me the next link up to the late 1990s,  when I knew he had retired. Eventually, I got an address, but the archaeologist had moved after retirement, though a neighbour remembered a village in another county where he might be located. By visiting the local pub (as archaeologists occasionally do) and enquiring of his whereabouts, I found him, aged 80, almost without vision and recovering from serious surgery with just months to live. Under his desk was a box marked with the name of the villa site. He had always meant to get the report written, it was just that he had been busy and was delighted that it would be published at last. Now I had the day-to-day site note books, but the plans had got lost, although there were working sketches, the colour slides had faded and I could not find the black and white images. The finds report was also missing, and the finds themselves seemed to have vanished into thin air.  Looking at the weekly accounts in the notebooks there were several names of individuals that I recognised who had gone on to be professional archaeologists and were Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries (FSA). As a Fellow myself, I was able to access the Society’s records and locate the present addresses of these individuals. I thought that  many of them might have photographs of university students with long hair and beards, wearing flared jeans and tie-dye t-shirts, smoking pipes and with bottles of beer in hand, sitting next to excavation trenches. These were the ‘hippies’ who were on the 1977 excavation (now grey haired, often bald, retired and ‘grandchildrened’). Importantly, with all their colour photos, slides and black and white images, I was able to piece the site together, and with a modern plan of the villa, locate the position of the excavation trenches and some of the features such as walls.

Since there are a whole series of lost or incomplete archaeological interventions being researched, a colleague who was working in the Sackler Library of the University of Oxford on a 1950s project found an ‘interim’ report of the 1977 excavations. This had been written immediately after the dig was completed for the body which had funded the project, and it contained scaled-down versions of the original measured, but still not located, originals. With present imaging technology these plans could be ‘cleaned-up’ and enhanced. Now I also had the site code XX77 and in a local museum I found plastic bags, which had lost their labels, full of pottery with the letters and numbers inked onto every sherd. We could identify the layer they had been found in and date it. Unfortunately, most of the finds had been from the Victorian spoil dumps and were of limited use, although they gave information to link them to specific pottery kilns and therefore identify the trade patterns of the villa. The kilns had been discovered by excavations before the construction of a nearby motorway. It was a pity that three coins and several brooches had gone missing.

Unfortunately, the original excavation director died a few weeks after my visit, but there is now enough information, pictorial, written and oral, for me to put together a report of the 1977 exploration of the villa. It is also possible that I now have the address of the deputy director of the excavation, but he is living in New York. Will someone pay the expenses of a visit to meet him, please?

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