Hidden Roman history beneath Kettering’s streets

Steve Sharpe with the head of Diana or Minerva statue found in Kettering
Steve Sharpe with the head of Diana or Minerva statue found in Kettering
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Most people digging around in their gardens will consider themselves lucky enough to find a few earth worms or perhaps a beetle or two, never mind anything particularly rare or valuable.

But across the Kettering area, in ordinary residential streets and gardens, archaeologists – both amateur and professional – have been unearthing hoards of sometimes rare Roman artefacts.

Many of these finds are now on display in a special exhibition, entitled History Beneath Our Feet, which is currently running at the Manor House Museum in Kettering.

Put together in partnership with Kettering Council, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Northamptonshire County Council, the exhibition aims to raise people’s awareness of the town’s hidden Roman history.

Museum worker Steve Sharpe, who curated this exhibition, said: “Partly what we are trying to do is raise awareness of what can actually be dug up in people’s gardens.”

It is believed that the north area of modern Kettering is built on top of an early unwalled Roman settlement, which has its origins in the late first century and was in use until the late fourth century.

And some fascinating finds have been discovered over the past century beneath the streets of Kettering.

One display which includes a dog’s skeleton, pottery and oyster shells dating from the Roman era was discovered by owners of one back garden in Mitchell Street.

Steve said: “A couple of years ago I was invited to a barbecue and I was talking to a couple there who had an interest in archaeology. They said when they were building their garage, about 40 years ago, they had found this Roman stuff.”

He continued: “We have some brilliant cow bones and oyster shells which was the Roman’s food and drink. This was probably where they put their rubbish.”

One find in Mitchell Street included an intact section of a Roman mosaic, which Steve believes could indicate there was once a high status property located here.

One of the most interesting finds in this collection, according to Steve, is a piece of Roman-age pottery which has clearly been made as a cheap copy of the more expensive Samian ware.

Steve said: “This is such a bad copy. We think about copies of designer makes being a modern thing, but they were doing it back then.”

Some artefacts in the exhibition include pieces found in the 1960s by the Kettering Grammar School Local History and Archaeological Society. This group had been founded by the then head John Steane, who had a keen passion for archaeology, and its members carried out excavations in the Mitchell Street and Kipling Road areas.

Their investigations uncovered some genuine Samian ware.

Steve said: “Samian ware was made in what was called Gaul, in the south of France and Germany. It was made for export and was very high status, a designer ware.”

One particular Roman find, discovered in Walnut Crescent in 1938, is now housed in the British Museum, but a copy of it can be found in the Manor House Museum display. This particular find is a mould relief showing a man playing a game which looks similar to hockey. For this reason the find is known as the ‘hockey player relief’.

Steve explained: “It was given to the British Museum by Robert Brady, building inspector to the borough of Kettering. The relief shows a curved stick very like a hockey stick or golf club. We can see one ball in the air and another in his hands.”

Some early finds were donated to the museum by collectors such as the Earl of Dalkeith. Frederick Bull is another name which is featured prominently in the display, due to the interesting artefacts he excavated in the Kettering area.

Steve opens one cabinet for our photographer and takes out the tiny bronze head of a statuette which is believed to have once depicted the Roman goddess Diana or Minerva. Found in Weekley Hall Woods between 1902 and 1912, it is thought the statue was once part of a home shrine.

Although some materials have clearly survived due to the hardy materials from which they were forged, one particularly fragile remnant of Roman times included in the exhibition, is a pair of very ragged old sandals, discovered in a 14ft well between 1903 and 1912.

Steve said: “There is a written report of the time done by Frederick Bull, who was an antiquarian, and in that he mentions a Roman well in Blandford Avenue and these sandals were discovered at the bottom of it. Water can help to preserve items if they have been cut off from oxygen so very wet conditions can sometimes help.”

The exhibition also features a photo album showing excavations in Stamford Road during 1903, carried out by Frederick Bull. This was where an Anglo-Saxon cemetery was found.

The display also tells visitors something of how Romans would protect their more valuable items. Certain pieces of more expensive pottery have been inscribed with the potters’ names as well as those who owned the pieces. So some pottery fragments bear names such as Cacasi, Sabini and Ivnia.

Steve said: “Sometimes people used to scratch their names into things and some of these names are the earliest known names of people in Kettering.”

With so many people still unaware of Kettering’s rich Roman past, Steve hopes the exhibition will prompt locals to pay closer attention to the kind of history they could find in their own back yards.

He said: “It is really to encourage people to be more aware of what they may find and hopefully this will add more to our knowledge of what was once Roman Kettering.”

The museum is free to enter. For more information, follow the links on www.kettering.gov.uk.

Factfile:

History Beneath Our Feet is the culmination of a project partnership between Kettering Council, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Northamptonshire County Council, in celebration of Kettering’s archaeological history.

Northamptonshire’s finds liaison officer Julie Cassidy will be presenting a talk on the exhibition and the project’s discoveries on Friday, January 11, between 1pm and 2pm at the Manor House Museum.

Booking is recommended and tickets cost £5 per person or £2.50 with a Kettering Leisure Pass.

The exhibition will run until January 19.