Markings found on Roman tiles have shown that the workers were “more of a mix” of people than previously thought.
The imprint of a woman’s sandal and a written name were found on items recovered from a 3rd century tile factory in Priors Hall Park, Corby.
Experts said they showed that the workers were not just young male slaves, but “literate men and women in nice shoes.”
Nick Gilmour of Oxford Archaeology said the markings showed it was “not clear” who the Roman workers were.
Archaeologists have been working on and off at the Northamptonshire site for around 12 years, prior to a development of more than 5,000 homes.
The Little Weldon Roman villa was first discovered in the 18th century, but in 2011 a second Roman villa was revealed during a geophysical survey.
Oxford Archeology took over the excavations in 2019 when Urban & Civic took over the development. They discovered a temple/mausoleum that became a center for the manufacture of ceramics, bricks, and tiles sometime between the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, to make building materials for Roman villas.
The latest findings come from analysis of recovered material, including six tons of discarded roof tiles that are now being logged.
Gilmour said that the Romans in the area produced tons of tiles weekly to distribute in a network.
While many are just basic tiles, “maybe one in 10,000 is really interesting,” including a “big chunky tile” where someone used their finger to trace letters on it, he said.
Individual potters often marked one out of every few they produced with a signature, so they could receive payment for what survived the kiln.
But these mosaic signatures were generally patterns and symbols showing that the workers did not have high status.
Gilmour said the latest find was “really unusual” because it says “Potentius fecit,” which translates to “Potentius made me,” or as some linguists would say, “Potentius made me.”
“In fact, they have written their name with their finger,” he said.
“It shows that the setter was literate, perhaps surprising for someone who was in a role usually filled by an indentured servant…so they were of higher status than we thought.”
He said his team had tried to find other examples of this type of signature, but had yet to see one.
“It’s definitely not the only example, but we’ve asked a lot of experts in the field, so we’re almost convinced there isn’t another,” he said.
“The irony is that the reason we have it is because it failed, it wasn’t even remotely flat and it wasn’t used in a villa or it wouldn’t have been in the tile dump.”
“So he might have been literate, but maybe he wasn’t that good at laying tiles.”
The masons also used to check every few tiles with their feet by lightly tapping them, to see if they were dry and ready to be fired.
A second terracotta-colored tile with small indentations is believed to be the imprint of nails in the sole of a woman’s sandal, as it showed a very narrow foot shape.
“It appears that the women also worked in weaving, so it’s not as clear cut as we thought,” Gilmour said.
“The workers weren’t just young male slaves: these markings show that there were also literate men and women with nice shoes, so it was more of a mix.
“There was definitely still a hierarchy… the man from the village would have been in charge, but it’s not clear who the workers were.”
He added that animal tracks and leaf tracks found on the tiles will also be studied to find out if the work was seasonal and what the environment was like.
Gilmour added that the finds at Corby showed the “possible scale” of the tile industry.
During a second phase of work in 2021, they found an intact Roman road showing how Corby joined the surrounding settlements.
“It’s not uncommon to find a kiln next to a villa, but it would be a small one just to make tiles for a villa,” he said.
“But in Corby they were producing tiles to sell over a wide area, which is a much more modern idea.
“The next step is to scientifically examine them under a microscope to see what’s in the clay, so that in the long term we can see where they were moving them.
“Was it two or three miles or wide [the now] county or further away?”
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