Fieldwork at East Farleigh
Last Updated 15/2/19

Maidstone Area Archaeological Group (MAAG) has been excavating a group of Roman buildings
at East Farleigh since 2005. This would not have been possible without the kind
and generous patronage of the owners of the site who invited us onto their property.

1839 Plan from 'The Topography of Maidstone and its Environs'

A Roman building was discovered on land referred to as 'Combe Town' owned by Mr I H Lewis Esq.  in the 1830s and a measured plan of it was published in a small book called The Topography of Maidstone and its Environs
by J. Smith in 1839. This is the first reference to 'A Roman Villa'. However, in the nineteenth century all Roman buildings in rural settings were assumed to be 'villas', but the buildings that MAAG have uncovered do not appear to be what we would now consider to be a Roman villa. On late nineteenth century maps a series of trackways, presumably for accessing the hops, can be seen bisecting the site, and maybe responsible for the loss of some of the buildings in the nineteenth century. More wall foundations were discovered in 1938 - probably when the site was further landscaped as part of the hop gardens. In 1995 the hop gardens were replaced by a tree plantation, although the area around the supposed buildings was retained as grassland to prevent damage by roots.

Excavations by the group have continued each year since 2005, and the story of the site has
been gradually unfolding, but it is very far from being complete. Based on the information that we have gathered during twelve years of excavations this is the story so far.

We know that there was some pre-Roman activity in the area due to scattered finds
of iron age pottery and crucially an iron age silver minim dated to around 1AD found
in the backfill of a Roman drainage ditch. However we have not so far found any
structures that we can attribute to a time before the Roman period, 43AD to

Iron age silver minim dated to 1AD found in the drainage ditches

The earliest features that we have uncovered on the site are a pair of impressive
ditches, one a little larger than the other. We have so far seen a straight
section with no changes in direction. The two ditches are seemingly parallel to
one another. Pottery dating from the lower fills of these ditches puts them somewhere between 50BC to 50AD. So they could be late iron age pre-Roman, or conquest period Roman. Pottery from the upper fills suggests that they were still open until the mid second century, giving us an approximate potential date for the construction of building two.

Earliest features, two substantial ditches

It is difficult to estimate the original size of these ditches as the ground level
from which they were originally dug has been much altered in the intervening
period, however, the depth of the larger ditch from base to Roman ground level
appears to be about 2 metres, and the other ditch is slightly less at about
1.75 metres. The material dug from these ditches would probably have been
banked up alongside these ditches, effectively doubling the size of the
structure, creating a very formidable obstacle in the landscape. It is
difficult to come to any other conclusion than that these ditches were
constructed for defensive purposes.

Remains of Building 2 build over earlier ditches

The next phase of development on the site was building two. The ditches must have
been completely filled in and the ground levelled before it would have been
possible to build this ragstone building. There is very little remaining of
this structure, we only have one wall and a corner. The rest of the building
has been removed by later construction in the Roman period and the building of
the revetment and trackway in the nineteenth century for the hop garden.
However it has been possible with careful excavation to see the imprint of the
robbed-out wall beyond the western wall of the later Roman building, and it is
likely that the corner turned under an un-excavated baulk. This would give the
length of this building as approximately 25 metres. The width of the building is
impossible to know for sure, but it is likely that it was a similar proportion
to the later structure that replaced it. The other feature that remains is a
three meter wide doorway in the southern wall. There is no firm date for the
construction of building two, but pottery dating would indicate mid second

At some point building two was replaced by building three, and it is likely that
the stone from one was used to build the other, although we will never know how
much time elapsed between the demise of one building and the construction of
the next.

Building 3 and building 2, showing 'corn-drier' oven

Most of the outer walls of building three survive, with only a small section of the
north eastern corner being removed in the 19th century with the
construction of the revetment and hop garden trackway.  The southern and western walls survive
to eight or nine courses of stonework in places.  The building is 27 meters long and 8.3 meters wide. It is
subdivided into three internal rooms, the largest of these being the central
section, which is accessed by a large doorway in the southern wall just over
three meters wide, similar to building two. It is not clear whether there was
access internally between the rooms, as the dividing walls have been removed to
a level below floor level at sometime to make one large space. At the eastern
end of the building the remains of a metalled floor surface were found over the
foundations of the removed dividing wall suggesting that the building continued
in use after these walls were removed. At the other western end a door
threshold was found in the northern wall leading out of the end chamber. It is
not clear what this building was used for, although it was well constructed,
but did not appear to have any wall plaster, and this might indicate some sort
of agricultural use such as a barn or granary. The finds from this building are
noticeably fewer and coarser than elsewhere on the site, and indicate a
construction date of around 250AD.

Building 3 and 4, showing the later inserted ovens

Building four unfortunately has all but been lost to us due to the modern landscaping of
the site. All that we have is the south western corner stones which are very
close in alignment to the corner of building three, leading us to guess that
this may have been a mirror image of building three. It is connected to
building three by a short stone wall, which was subsequently removed. There is
also another wall heading west from the corner of building four, which again
was removed at some point, possibly to facilitate the construction of building
five. A similar wall connects the corner of building three to the eastern wall
of building five, but again this wall appears to have been removed for some
reason unknown to us during the lifetime of the buildings. There is evidence
that this wall had a number of openings, one of which would have been large
enough for a doorway, but as it has been removed to ground level it is
difficult to know for sure. If all of these interconnecting walls were standing
at the same time it would have made moving from one building to the other
difficult and would have created some enclosed spaces that it is hard to see a
reason for.

Building five is one of two buildings that we have a complete floor plan for, and is
perhaps the most intriguing structure on the site. It was fully excavated
following a grant from the Mayor of Maidstone’s Charity Fund which
enabled the hire of a machine to remove most of the overburden over the whole
of the building and the backfilling of the site afterwards was very generously
provided by Gallagher Aggregates Ltd. 

Building 5, and the later ovens

The building measures about 13m by 11.5m and consists of two rooms surrounded on
three sides by a 2.5m-wide corridor. The walls are of mortared ragstone
standing to over a metre high in places and probably built around 250 AD. It is
oriented roughly east west, and has a large doorway in the northern wall with
semi-circular door jams, which was found to be walled up with stone when
excavated. There is also a smaller doorway with a tiled threshold on the
eastern wall near the corner, which was not blocked. One unusual feature of the
building is the survival of painted wall plaster on the outside of the building
showing a simple geometric pattern in pink blue/white and black to a height of
approximately 45 centimetres. It is thought that it was not unusual in the
Roman period for buildings to be plastered and painted on the outside, however
due to the British climate this very rarely survives in the archaeological
record. Interestingly it is only the western wall that appears to have been
plastered. Although the outer walls, with the exception of the western wall
seem to have been substantially reduced, there is still no evidence of
plasterwork. This maybe because the work was never completed for some reason,
or maybe only the western wall was deemed suitable, we will never know.

Wall plaster on the outside of west end wall of building 5 

We believe that the building was build as a ‘Romano-Celtic’ temple. These were
very common in Roman Britain and can be found in urban centres, on villa sites
and on their own in rural settings. In the case of East Farleigh it is
significant that the site runs down to the river Medway only a few hundred
yards away, with the large blocked door facing the river.

Building 5 seen from the south east

The walls of the central section or ‘Cella’ are significantly thicker than the
outer walls, suggesting that the central section rose above the outer corridor,
possibly giving another storey or more. The outer corridor only runs around
three sides. There is a stone wall and doorway forming a separate room along
the southern wall, which appears to have had a rough earthen floor, suggesting
that it may have been some sort of store room. The corridor also has evidence
that there were once timber partitions at the north eastern corner and
immediately on the right hand side of the large north facing entrance. To get
from the corridor into the central section was a large door in the north wall,
and another doorway in the east wall which appeared to have been enlarged at
some stage. The cella was subdivided into two rooms with a door between.

Two oven-like features built into the corners of building 5

In the cella there are two structures that we believe are part of the construction
of the original building. In the north western corner of the inner room of the
cella is a small rectangular stone oven which may have been used for burning
offerings. In the first chamber in the south western corner there is a large
square stone raised platform with a depressed circular central section that
appears to have been used as a large bread oven. However was it always used as
such? This is a very elaborate structure for a bread oven which has no place in
a temple. Could it have been used for something else originally?

Building 5 seen from the west

On the floor we see different finishes in different parts of the building. There are earthen floors in the southern store room and in the section of corridor to the right of the entrance; most of the corridor and inside the cella there is a surface of compacted white stones overlying a ragstone sublayer; however at the

end of the corridor in the south eastern corner there are the remains of

architectural mouldings on the wall and a decayed mortared Opus Signinum floorsuggesting that this was a special part of the building. 

Building 5 seen from the north

This building has been the focus for many of the best finds on the site, but two of them stand out. A lead scroll or ‘Defixio was found in the collapsed stone of the western wall. These were often written as messages to the gods and placed at sacred sites. The one at East Farleigh was a list of Roman and Celtic names inscribed into the lead. The other significant find was a hoard of 154 coins, many of which were tiny clipped coins used for making offerings, such as can be seen today at a coin fountain or wishing well. There were only a handful that could be identified, and they were all local copies of coins from the House of Constantine, dated to 335 - 365 AD.

Building 1

The other building on the site is the one that started it all in 2005, building
one. It was located using a geophysical survey and subsequent excavation
uncovered a building measuring 29m by 15m and consisting of three rooms
surrounded on three sides by a 2.7m-wide corridor. Unfortunately only the
un-mortared ragstone foundations of the building remained so there was little
evidence of its original purpose. Pottery and the odd coin showed the building
to date from the mid 3rd Century (about 250 AD). Interestingly the
partial plan produced in the nineteenth century does not match the recent
excavated site plan. This could mean that it was drawn badly the first time or
that there is another similar building nearby that we have not yet found.

Looking at the site plan it can be seen that buildings 1,3,4 and 5 are all on roughly
the same alignment, and even if they were not build at exactly the same time,
all of the buildings are likely to have been standing at the same time.

Site showing the third phase buildings

There is evidence that the buildings went out of use for their intended purpose not
that long after they were built. The large north facing doorway in building
five that was blocked up had obviously been walled up for a reason at some point
before it was ruined. Although a great deal of tile fragments have been found
on the site, there is nowhere near enough to have roofed the known buildings,
suggesting that the roof tiles were removed at some time. Similarly there are
relatively few tile fragments amongst the collapsed cella walls from building
five. Some of the walls seem to have been carefully removed and the stone taken
off site - the connecting walls between buildings 3 and 4 and 3 and 5 for
example. It is known that when rural buildings go out of use, particularly when
there is a change of regime, the buildings are often sealed and the roofs
removed, presumably to prevent their re-use. In this case we have a temple
building that must have gone out of use sometime in the second half of the
third century which was a very turbulent time with many changes of Emperor in
Rome and associated changes in religious practices.

But the site was not totally abandoned at the end of the third century. There was
extensive re-use of what was left of the buildings. The majority of this
activity focussed on buildings three and five and is characterised by numerous
ovens and hearths and a deep terracotta coloured discolouration of the
surrounding soil and clay. There are at least ten ovens in these two buildings.
Interestingly it is notable that there are none outside the walls. There have
also been found numerous pieces of quern stones and fragments of mortaria used
in food preparation. In one place two whole pots had been buried into the floor. 

Some of the oven structures are substantial, taking the
form of the classic frying pan shaped ‘corn-drier’, in one place in a corner of
building five one such structure has been built directly on top of an earlier
one that has gone out of use. Elsewhere very rudimentary hearths have been dug
into the earth, and then re-dug when the ash and burnt material clogged it up.
From the coins that we have found associated with these features we know that
the site continued being used until the end of the fourth century.

There are other elements that we can attribute to this later phase of use. between
and around the buildings we have found post holes that suggest there were
structures erected around the main stone buildings. It has proved very
difficult to date these post holes, but they seem to be firmly within the Roman
time period and cutting through some of the occupation layers. It seems
inconceivable that anyone would be living in the roofless ruins of the stone
buildings amid numerous oven structures and the attendant mess of embers and
clinker, so perhaps they erected round houses and lean-tos where they actually
lived. It is also possible that this population was not permanent. This part of
Kent would have been fertile agricultural land which would have needed
harvesting and the crops picked just as migrant workers do now, so perhaps this
was a seasonal re-occupation of the site rather than a permanent re-settlement.

Another aspect of Roman buildings that we have discovered is the use of the buildings
for burial purposes. We have found a number of infant burials, mostly tucked
away near corners of the building, where presumably the position of the burial
could be identified more easily. These burials seem to all come from this later
phase of re-use of the site.

Drainage ditches at the eastern end of the site 

In 2015 we started to work on the eastern end of the site beyond the end of
building three where we were picking up on an earlier trench containing a
feature running east/west which could have been a ditch or possibly a robbed
out wall. This area provided some challenging archaeology and we finished the
season with four excavated trenches containing a large drainage ditch running
east/west cutting an earlier ditch running north/south and two other ditches
connecting with the main east/west ditch at right angles. There were also
another two features dug into the top of the ditches which look like beam slots
or gullies. Subsequently we were able to establish that the western end of the
main ditch terminates a few feet from the eastern end of building 3, thereby
suggesting that the ditch is contemporary with or later than the building. We
also put in a trench to the south to pick up the tributary running off at right
angles and this was still running, along with the other two ditches previously
observed, some 30 metres away. It is curious that on the side of a valley running
down to a river there should be a ditch running along the line of slope, the
only conclusion is that the ditches were intended to divert water away from
something, suggesting that there maybe as yet undiscovered buildings to the
north of the ditch.

Newly discovered building 6 in the northwest corner of the site
In 2016 we started with some exploratory trenches in the north eastern corner of the site adjacent to the trackway running down to the river, and unexpectedly uncovered a very narrow, yet well made wall footing running roughly north/south.  This proved to be just the start of an exciting run of discovery in this part of the site. Returning to this area of the site in 2017, we uncovered a very enigmatic, yet small building, roughly 5m by 5m, sitting astride another larger wall. This building, although small has undergone several phases and we are still trying to make some sense of the mass of information that we have gathered. However it is clear that the original central wall was removed, leaving the building standing. We can see signs of alterations and repairs in different mortar types. It went from being two chambers to a single chamber and then later, the small narrow wall that we found in 2016 was added to its north western corner. Its purpose is far from clear, and it may have been used for different things at different times, but the clue to its original purpose lies in the substantial wall that runs through the middle of the structure indicating that it is part of a walled enclosure. Unfortunately due to the very dry weather in recent years and the proximity of the trees, the digging was extremely hard, and progress slow. But what we can say for sure is that there is much more archaeology on the eastern side of the site than we previously imagined.

Building 6 as seen from a drone in August 2017

A number of other trenches were dug to the north and south of building six in an attempt to answer the question of what was going on in this part of the site. These trenches were tantalising, because they confirmed that the central wall only extended 7.5 meters to the south and probably not much more than 5.5 meters to the north. We encountered two metalled surfaces, which were possibly trackways heading N/S and NE/SW respectively. One of these cut through several small hearths that may have been used in small scale lime production. Also glimpsed was a deep ditch feature, running roughly N/S, which maybe part of the twin ditch system underlying buildings 2,3 and 5. Time ran out for us at the end of 2017 and we had to leave these features for future examination.

In 2018 Attention moved to an adjacent piece of land where we had done some work previously in 2013, uncovering a cremation deposit and a small hearth-like structure. We were also looking for a continuation of the drainage ditches running uphill to the south away from building three. We put in several trenches which proved a negative for the drainage ditches on their original alignment. However the other trench around the hearth structure proved more fruitful, and we uncovered two intersecting ditches underneath it. Pottery from these features places the ditches at 50BC - 50AD, and the hearth feature as 5th century. In 2019 we will be doing some magnetometry and resistivity survey work in this area, and we hope to do more excavation work thereafter.

The members of MAAG who participated in the many activities associated with the East Farleigh site can be very proud of their hard work which has resulted in uncovering an exceptional archaeological site.