Above: Roman roof tile with maker's mark
Above: Reconstructed high-status child's shoe from the impression left in the floor tile.
Perhaps the Manton Lane site was a tax collecting point like our modern HMRC
The Story So Far...
In 2010, building works at Edith Cavell Lower School uncovered evidence of a Roman site that had been continuously occupied since before the Claudian conquest of 43 AD. Wealthy local landowners had been importing fine pottery from both France and Italy even before Britain became part of the Roman Empire.
Archaeologists speculate that in Roman times, Manton Heights would have been prime real estate. As the highest land in Bedford, on a warm south facing slope, it is close to the River Ouse, yet above the flood plain, made it ideal for a villa. The presence of natural mineral springs, with therapeutic properties, would have drawn not just the Romans but earlier Mesolithic settlers to the site.
Sometime in the mid to late first century traditional native round houses were exchanged for a square wattle and daub protovilla.
When a new care home was built at the top of the hill, a pipe trench led to the discovery of a later, much grander complex of buildings on the other side of the road from Edith Cavell School, replacing these earlier structures - datable to the second century AD onwards. Excavated remains included a 9 metre section of building wall and inner floor.
Also discovered was the base of a possible cold plunge pool, in which was impressed the footprint of a child's high-status shoe, fashionable between 250 and 300 AD and worn only by very wealthy men and boys.
Other high-status items include the evidence for a hypocaust, a Roman under floor heating system, including supporting pila and box flue tiles.
Evidence for a luxurious life style is also supported by the presence of mortaria for grinding the exotic spices used in Roman cuisine, and painted wall plaster of at least 16 different colours, including Egyptian Blue, the third most expensive pigment in the ancient world. Some walls appear to be covered in imitation marbling, as well as linear designs.
Several Roman coins, datable to between the 260s and 390s AD, have been discovered. Minted in London, Italy, Germany, Croatia and France, they have found their way across the empire to Bedford, underlining that those living in the Ouse Valley were part of one large international commercial network. In fact we now know Bedford and the Ouse Valley are at the very heart of the wealthiest part of Roman Britain.
The presence of fragments of window glass whose chemical composition shows it was from Egypt after 350 AD, shows that the building was being maintained to a high level late into the imperial period when many other rural establishments were being abandoned or in decline.
This may suggest that by at least the 4th century AD the complex at Manton Lane had become an Imperial Estate Centre, administering a large section of the Ouse Valley, and the production of wheat for the Roman army in Britain and the Rhine. It was most likely to have been a tax collecting point, like a local HM Revenue and Customs, since it was central government who had the resources and the motive to keep such a building in a good state of repair.
The site may have continued to have been occupied even after the end of Roman Britain, evidenced by the presence of Mayern Ware, which was imported from Germany up to 480AD.
But what makes this villa so special, is the stucco work, which is unique to Roman Britain.
Putting all the evidence together, we are looking at a very significant Roman complex of buildings, that are without parallel in the rest of Roman Britain, and once held possibly one of the mostly richly decorated set of rooms ever found in the Britain.