Could ‘Roman’ Bath have a nearby rival?


Here’s another favourite story of mine – this time from March, 2013.

I am still hoping that enough interest – and funding – can be generated to do a proper dig in Keynsham to uncover what could turn out to be one of the most important Roman discoveries of our time.


In 1877 the Vicar of Keynsham and his churchwardens had to dip into church funds and purchase two and a half acres of ground to provide a public cemetery. They had run out of burial space in the graveyard around the parish church of St John’s and there was no means of enlarging it. The new site, purchased for the faithful, was a quarter of a mile out from this ancient market town – on the Bristol side. It lay on part of a stretch of meadow-land,  known locally as the Hams, and embraced by the meandering River Avon.

keynsham sign
Keynsham High Street

The first trenches to be dug on the site were not for graves but to put in foundations for two mortuary chapels in the centre of the plot. Almost at once – according to letters written at the time – a flat pavement of white lias tesserae – small stones used to form a mosaic – were found in the excavations. It was the first indication of the great courtyard villa – one of the most exciting and important surviving domestic indications of life in Roman Britain – which lay beneath the surface.

However, in spite of these indications, burials began at once and continued for over forty years. Enough time to gradually dig away two whole corridors of this sumptuous building  –  a large villa in which many rooms were decorated with magnificent tessellated floors.

The gravediggers were not the only ones who were involved in doing great damage to this particular buried treasure. More than eighty years earlier a road had been constructed on the south-western side on what became the new cemetery. This Bristol to Bath road passes over the western and southern corridors of the ancient house. More of the building is buried deeply below the high embankments upon which this road was constructed.

keynsham europa and the bull-1
An illustration featuring Europa and the bull!

It took the discovery of another and smaller Roman house to finally get a rescue dig underway. In 1922 Fry’s decided to move chocolate production from a cramped site in central Bristol and out on to a considerable stretch of the Hams where this Quaker family proposed to build a new factory.

While digging foundations for the first block the walls of a small Roman house were encountered and, at a short distance away, two finely-finished stone coffins containing a male and female skeleton were found.

This aroused considerable local interest and – according to a report on the excavation of the Roman villa in the cemetery published in 1925 – it was this important find at Fry’s new factory site that helped persuade Keynsham Parish Council to allow excavations to be made in the public cemetery.

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The small Roman building found in 1922 during the construction of Fry’s chocolate factory at Keynsham.

The operation began in the autumn of 1922  and continued during periods in 1923 and 24. Despite all the damage the excavating team were able to secure some amazing fourth-century mosaics from a high-status courtyard villa. The building – according to experts – is one of the most important in the whole country and would certainly have stood in a class of its own in the Avon Valley. It had dozens of rooms – some of which were heated by under-floor flues or hypocausts – and paved with expertly laid and expensive mosaics.

Early photographs of the rescued mosaics.
Early photographs of the rescued mosaics.

The official report on their excavations and findings expressed regret that the Roman house could not be preserved in situ after being exposed but its position in the cemetery – where the ground was badly needed for interments – made its destruction inevitable. All that could be done was to record what was uncovered and take up all the tessellated floors that were sufficiently intact.

In fact the bill for preserving the floors was picked up by Messrs Fry and Sons who paid for skilled workmen to remove them in sections and then constructed a museum in the factory grounds to display them.

According to the report, ‘ the outstanding feature of this Keynsham Roman house is its great size. It seems probable that no other single house has been found in England which is larger than this one.’

The re-constructed villa at the factory gates!
The re-constructed villa at the factory gates!

The Fry’s Museum was set up in a lodge at the entrance to the Somerdale site and was accessible to the public during working hours. Adding to the exhibits were artefacts from the smaller villa – the site of which is now buried beneath the factory. After its excavation, the foundations were removed and reconstructed on the opposite side of the drive from the museum.

Then in the 1960s, the Keynsham by-pass cut through the site of the town’s medieval abbey – itself a substantial complex – founded by William, Earl of Gloucester as a house for Augustinian canons around 1170. The impressive complex survived until 1539 and the dissolution ordered by Henry the Eighth.

What remains of the Abbey lies at the top of the Memorial Park and is a designated Grade 1 listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Great quantities of carved stone, rescued from the bulldozers by the Bristol Folk House Archaeological Society, was stored in the Fry’s Museum and in the open nearby.

The Abbey ruins in the Memorial Park.
The Abbey ruins in the Memorial Park.

I found mediaeval window tracery mixed up with the scattered remains of that smaller Roman villa when l went up to take a look at the fenced-off site at the entrance to Somerdale. It has all lain in the open ever since – though the hope has always been that a suitable home for this material would be found. Other pieces – including 12th-century Romanesque sculpture – is currently in storage.

Mediaeval window tracery in amongst the Roman remains
Mediaeval window tracery in amongst the Roman remains

After the damage done to the Abbey with the building of the by-pass – more destruction of Roman remains followed at the beginning of 1991 when part of the rugby pitch in what was then Cadbury’s Sports Field was levelled. At the time the late Charles Browne was Honorary Curator of the Somerdale Roman collections at Keynsham and – in a specialist publication (Roman Research News 3 1991) – described his feelings.

‘By the time a hint of what was happening had leaked out from the factory the damage had been done. When l arrived the levelling had been completed and the site was being prepared for recovering by topsoil.’

Charles Browne and others started a detailed search of the spoil heaps. ‘ Apart from the usual pottery, coins, brooches, querns ( a hand-mill for grinding corn) etc, it is clear that the machinery removed quantities of good building stone and paving. The base of a column was found on the spoil heap.’

Illustrations of many of the objects found
Illustrations of many of the objects found

Charles Browne went on to launch a campaign for a proper museum for the town. A Trust was also inaugurated  with the aim of finding somewhere fitting for the Roman and mediaeval finds that formed such an important part of Keynsham’s growing reputation for an illustrious past.

In the meantime – by the start of the 90’s the factory museum had closed and Roman and mediaeval material was moved to the basement of the old town hall where they languished – almost forgotten – for years.

With so much evidence for extensive Roman occupation on the Hams from the chance discoveries made in the 20’s and 90’s Charles Browne repeated in 1991 what he had first suggested in 1987 and that was the growing belief that this low-lying land by the meandering Avon was where the Roman occupiers had built Trajectus –  a staging post between Aquae Sullis (Bath) and Abona – the Roman port at Sea Mills near Bristol.

The old Somerdale factory site.
The old Somerdale factory site.

He did not live to hear recent confirmation of that belief. A detail geophysical assessment of the area around the factory has been done by the new owners of the site – Taylor Wimpey. The remains of at least 15 Roman buildings have been located with evidence of others that have been disturbed by quarrying. The buildings seem to lie either side of a main road. There is evidence of industrial activity and also of a circular structure – surrounded by an enclosure – which may represent a shrine or a temple.

Enough evidence to show that the original Roman building discovered in 1922 was not an isolated villa but a possible townhouse. A part of Trajectus. The site has what’s known as ‘archaeological potential’ but that is likely to be its long-term status for the future. There are no plans to excavate as part of the redevelopment plans. Professional sources l have spoken to talk about the massive costs involved and the damage to the precious site that would be done by long-term exposure to the air.

A more recent mosaic from the mosaic trail in the Memorial Park.
A more recent mosaic from the mosaic trail in the Memorial Park.

Well, Keynsham already has two areas of archaeology that have been exposed for lengthy periods. The Abbey remains and the Fry’s villa which had been lifted and re-laid inside the gates of the factory. Both are fenced, labelled and, l would argue, rather forgotten.

There is a mosaic trail around the Memorial Park that features images of Keynsham’s mediaeval and Roman past but l wonder how often children visit the sites or indeed how much more interest there might be if the town had a proper Museum to house its treasures?

Would a dig at Somerdale – however small – maybe expose striking evidence of the town’s heritage? Enough perhaps that – with a museum – would encourage tourists visiting Bath’s celebrated and established Roman remains to take a trip to Keynsham too! Certainly, the Victorians who rediscovered the Great Bath saw the tourist potential in promoting what they had found.

It is my understanding that the Museum Trust – which campaigned strongly for Keynsham to have its own free-standing facility – has been disbanded following the news that B&NES will provide space for the mosaics and some artefacts to be brought out of storage in PIxash Lane and displayed. These fourth-century marvels of fine and colourful tessellation will be laid in the floor in a room adjoining the new library and protected under a translucent covering.

How the new library should look but no illustration on the hoarding around the construction site for how the museum room will look!
How the new library should look but no illustration on the hoarding around the construction site for how the museum room will look!

Display cases will also contain other artefacts for people to view. Many campaigners must have thought this is the best they could hope to achieve after a long and exhausting struggle to recognise the town’s history. I can only imagine the Trust had realised that there would never be any large sums of money available for a Keynsham Museum in its own right.

This promised space will not, of course, accommodate all that lies in storage and one can only wonder what the future holds. Once harvested from the ground the past must surely become the responsibility of the present.

The mosaics were last taken out of storage for a millennium event mounted by the Keynsham Heritage Trust in May 2000 and laid out in St John’s Parish Trust for a week. It was the first time they had been seen since their discovery in the early 1920’s.

Anthony Beeson
Anthony Beeson

One man who remembers the event well – as he actually helped in positioning the panels – was Anthony Beeson. He is an acknowledged Classical iconographer and an expert in Roman and Greek art and architecture. Anthony is also the Hon Archivist of the Association for Roman Archaeology and a frequent contributor to the ARA’s annual bulletin.

At the time the mosaics were displayed – and l am grateful to him for permission to use photographs he took at that time – he described the villa from which they had come as ‘ one of the most exciting in Roman Britain.’  Writing in Issue 11, in August 2001,  he described how the slabs made up part ‘a great hexagonal mosaic displaying scenes from the stories of the gods and from classical literature.’

There was also, he said,  a beautiful rosette surviving from another room which ‘had at its centre the most accomplished and lovely centrepiece surviving from Roman Britain.’

The rosette centrepiece in one of the villa rooms.
The rosette centrepiece in one of the villa rooms. © Anthony Beeson

The exhibition also featured  unusual fragments of sculpture including a naturalistic eagle’s claw and a bronze pair of tweezers which may be the largest every found in Britain. There were fragments from the Abbey also. Bearing in mind my thoughts as l write this article, it is ironic to read what Anthony wrote twelve years ago  and which l  now quote in full.

‘Keynsham has always been eclipsed by her neighbours, Bristol and Bath. It has been her tragedy that having had, within her bounds, two great archaeological monuments which would have put her firmly on the cultural and tourist map, she has lost both within the last seventy years, one to a cemetery and the abbey to a bypass. With archaeological collections which many a large city museum would envy, it is to be hoped that before too long the local authority will find the funds and enthusiasm to found a museum  where residents and tourists can appreciate, on a permanent basis, the glories of her past.’

An idea of how the mosaics may have looked in their villa setting.
An idea of how the mosaics may have looked in their villa setting.

In 1995 Anthony had written another article – with Bryan Walters – giving a brief history of the villa beneath Keynsham Cemetery. It was produced for Roman Research News and described the remains as ‘a minor Roman Palace on the Bristol Avon.’ Bryan described the vill as ‘ the site of the most lavish suite of Roman domestic rooms ever found in Britain.’

'Achilles on Scythos' mosaic illustration. © Anthony Beeson
‘Achilles on Scyros’ mosaic illustration. © Anthony Beeson

Meanwhile Anthony continued ‘ the mosaic floors of Keynsham were amongst the finest in the Province – both for technique and design. It is a tragedy for Romano-British art and archaeology ( and West Country tourism) that the villa is lost to us or is at present unavailable for excavation. One can only hope that, before too long, the remaining panels of mosaics now in storage, may once more be on public display.

I have a footnote to add about another important local mosaic – and one that Anthony was to see and ponder upon at very close quarters. An amazing figure of Orpheus was brought to light at Newton St Loe back in 1837 when the mosaic pavement containing his image was exposed by Brunel’s navvies building the Great Western Railway.

It was the first Roman residence in the Keynsham area to be unintentionally disturbed. Two floors were lifted to be relaid at Keynsham Railway Station. The Orpheus pavement stayed there until 1851 when it was given to the Bristol Institution – the fore-runner of the present Museum and Art Gallery at the top of Park Street.

It would seem workmen with saws and  pick-axes freed the mosaic and packed it in tea-chests. It went into store at the Institution to await the building of a new museum. By the end of the 19th century it was thought lost. However, in the 1930’s, the then Curator of Archaeology laid out the floor – by now in a multitude of pieces – in the basement of the Museum.  Then World War 2 interrupted its potential reconstruction, along with a fire in the store.

In 2001 the Museum finally got around to trying to reassemble it and it was Anthony Beeson who had the job of trying to put it altogether. After two months initial work at the old Bristol Industrial Museum store, the pieces were transferred to the entrance hall of the Queens Road Museum for Anthony to continue the placing of pieces of the ‘giant jigsaw puzzle’ in public.

Anthony Beeson restoring Orpheus at Bristol Museum. © Anthony Beeson.
Anthony Beeson restoring Orpheus at Bristol Museum. © Anthony Beeson.

Anthony said the mosaic had not been as badly damaged as thought at Keynsham Railway Station. It had been secured in panels that appear to have been subsequently stacked without proper strengthened frames, and ‘broke under their own weight, aided and abetted by exposure to the elements and official indifference.’

The floor – as Anthony subsequently with great care and skill laid out – was spectacular. A central figure of Orpheus playing his lyre with a fox leaping up towards him surrounded by seven animals. The figurative work is highly coloured and the movement in the animals unparalleled, It is possibly the earliest of its type and one of only nine identified Orpheus pavements.

I am trying to find out where exactly the pavement is now. It does, l suggest,  belong back in Keynsham and would be a star attraction in a town museum. In fact any town museum!

‘For a small place, ‘ said Anthony, ‘Keynsham has a lot going for it. It’s villas, the Abbey and, with Fry’s, even the history of chocolate!’

The cover of a booklet published by Fry's about the Roman remains on their Somerdale site.
The cover of a booklet published by Fry’s about the Roman remains on their Somerdale site.

Where exactly the archives of Fry’s are lodged is another story but for now it is comforting to know that the Keynsham mosaics will be  displayed. They will be set  within the floor space of a room in the new development for people to walk around and view but what happens to all the other artefacts remains a concern. Stone coffins, Abbey tracery and ceiling bosses, a Roman well in situ and ‘listed’ at Somerdale.

Then what of Trajectus which lies sleeping still? English Heritage are going to schedule the site as an Ancient Monument, and Taylor Wimpey insist the remains will lie under playing fields and not be disturbed, but it is a shame more of Keynsham’s identity will not be brought into the light.

A little market town with an amazing past squeezed between the two ‘book-ends’ of  Bristol and Bath. Bristol would no doubt be happy to absorb the town into a house-filled hinterland  and maybe Bath would prefer all the glory of the area’s Roman past to be reflected and focused solely in the steaming waters of its Great Bath.

Give Keynsham back its birthright l say. A new identity and vision. Replacing office and retail blocks with more office and retail blocks is not the only way of regenerating a town. While other fine examples of history and heritage nearby are  financially blessed with large sums from benefactors – public and private –  just maybe someone will consider Keynsham a cause worth taking on.

Richard Wyatt.