Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Ruins of Rome beneath our feet

By Matthew Harffy
with Iona Harffy
"The city buildings fell apart, the works
Of giants crumble. Tumbled are the towers
Ruined the roofs, and broken the barred gate,
Frost in the plaster, all the ceilings gape,
Torn and collapsed and eaten up by age.
And grit holds in its grip, the hard embrace
Of earth, the dead-departed master-builders,
Until a hundred generations now
Of people have passed by. Often this wall
Stained red and grey with lichen has stood by
Surviving storms while kingdoms rose and fell.
And now the high curved wall itself has fallen.”
Hamer, R. 1970, A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse

These lines of poetry, taken from a piece commonly known as The Ruin, a part of The Exeter Book, were written in Old English sometime in the early medieval period. It may well have been composed about the Roman city of Aquae Sulis (modern day Bath), but wherever the author was describing, the Anglo-Saxons and native Britons of the British Isles would have been surrounded by such ruins. Buildings, with tiled roofs and beautiful mosaic floors and painted frescoes. Bridges of stone, spanning wide expanses of water, arches seeming to defy nature by not collapsing. Great walls and fortifications constructed of huge slabs of stone. Even the roads between key sites, perhaps cracked and overgrown in places now that the Legions were not there to keep them serviced, but still great feats of engineering.

Main bath at the Roman Baths, Bath.
After the Romans left, few, if any, could remember how to cut and work stone in this fashion. After a few generations, the knowledge had been forgotten. But the constant reminder all around them of a clearly superior technological past must have been unnerving. Did the everyday man and woman of the so-called Dark Ages have any idea who the Romans were? Or did they believe that a past race of giants had built the stone edifices and villas that dotted the countryside.  

The Romans left their mark on the world in many ways, not least in the fabulous constructions that those following them could not replicate.

“The massive structure, built by long-dead rulers of this land from grey slabs of stone, stretched to the horizon to the east and west. One of the fortified gates, that stood at intervals along its length, loomed near. The rocks that formed the edifice had been cunningly fashioned and placed together. None living knew how to build such things. Whenever he saw the Wall, or any of the tile-roofed buildings or stone bridges that yet stood throughout Albion, Scand felt a sense of awe and unease. People talked of giants having wrought these things, but Scand was no fool. The doorways and stone-hewn steps of the buildings were made for men, not giants. But how could men who ruled the land so absolutely have taken their leave of these lush shores? Had they all died? It was a quandary he would never solve, so he pushed it from his thoughts.”
Excerpt from The Cross and the Curse, by Matthew Harffy

Milecastle 39 on Hadrian's Wall

Even now, 1,600 years after they left the isles, their memories are seen everywhere, from the massive Hadrian’s Wall, to the amazing Roman baths of Bath. But one thing we don’t always think of is how much still lies undiscovered beneath the earth we walk on.

Or under the grass where our children play football.

In the town of Bradford on Avon, near Bath, the St Laurence School playing fields hide rich Roman remains. Whenever the weather was dry, the shape of buildings could be made out by discoloration of the grass, which was recorded by English Heritage. And back in 1976 a bath house had been excavated when some nearby houses were being built. But in 2003, excavations were carried out by the University of Bristol. These uncovered a wonderfully complex and nearly complete mosaic in the main villa building which has been dated to 360 AD.

St Laurence Roman Villa
There is a circular structure built over it at a later date which may have been an early Christian baptistery, predating the Saxon church in the centre of Bradford on Avon.

A geophysical survey showed that the Roman villa had at least fifteen rooms and more wings that extend under the nearby housing estate. The survey also revealed a second building of identical size and structure some 30 metres away. This second building appears to be an agricultural or industrial building, complete with hypocaust (underfloor heating), which may have been used to produce smoke for curing food.

St Laurence School and University of Bristol distributed find bags to 500 households and residents in the surrounding properties and people were asked to collect anything of interest they found while gardening. The finds included Roman coins, pottery and a Roman roof tile.

Both of my daughters have attended St Laurence School, and it is with a sense of wonder I have gazed upon some of the Roman finds and displays about the villa in the reception area when going to parents’ evenings or school theatre productions. One of my younger daughter’s teachers must have felt the same awe, for, back in 2003 he was a Physical Education teacher. After seeing the rich Roman remains unearthed from where he had officiated so many sporting events and cajoled so many reluctant children to participate, he became fascinated by all things of the past. He is now a History teacher!

In Britain, with its complex and many-layered history, one does not need to look very far to see evidence of past inhabitants. But it still amazes me, that in a landmass that is so densely populated, veritable treasures are unearthed with startling frequency. Roman villas under a few inches of grass, the magnificent Anglo-Saxon finds of the Staffordshire Hoard, even a former monarch beneath a car park. In 2013 alone, there were 73,000 reported archaeological finds in Britain!

Staffordshire Hoard

Unlike our Anglo-Saxon forebears we may know more about our past and those who lived before us, but next time you go out for a walk, ask yourself what secrets might be mouldering in the earth, just beneath your feet.


Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of historical novels set in seventh century Britain. The first is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, The Serpent Sword. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse, was  released on 22nd January 2016. The third in the series, By Blood and Blade, will be released in the summer of 2016.

Buy The Serpent Sword
Buy The Cross and the Curse

Twitter: MatthewHarffy
Facebook: MatthewHarffyAuthor

Hamer, R. 1970, A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse

Main bath at the Roman Baths, Bath. ---- Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 15 September 2005. [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Milecastle 39 on Hadrian's Wall ---- By Adam Cuerden [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
St Laurence Roman Villa ---- Photograph © Roddy Smith [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Staffordshire Hoard ---- By David Rowan, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Staffordshire hoard) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Lovely mosaic. Is the central rose part of the original design? Looks more modern.

  2. The mosaic is from the villa and dated at about 360 A.D. You can see a bit more images here:

  3. It must be wonderful to think of all those ancient remains beneath your feet, though where I live you're unlikely to find anything Roman or Saxon. ;-) We do have archaeology here. It's amazing what people have found in their back yards, such as evidence of an old murder or two. There was a dig in one of Melbourne's streets some years ago, in what is now the CBD but was a place where people lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And, of course, we're home to the world's oldest living culture.

  4. We are certainly blessed in Britain with lots of diverse archaeological remains, but wherever you are in the world, there will be memories in the ground of the men and women who have gone before.

  5. Wonderful post!

    But the constant reminder all around them of a clearly superior technological past must have been unnerving.

    Indeed. Fantasizing that these sites were there for them to think about and experience in the dark ages. They did not have the luxury of thinking the given social order is imputable...not that they needed that lesson! What is unnerving for me today is how quickly things can fall apart.

    In 2013 alone, there were 73,000 reported archaeological finds in Britain!


    1. Thanks! Yes, the transience of all things would have been very present for people in the so-called Dark Ages. It is something that we all too often neglect to think about in the modern "civilized" west.

  6. This was so fascinating. My husband and I go to northern Spain frequently--Galicia--and there are many Roman relics there, too, as well as Roman bridges everywhere. Also Celtic traces. Historical buildings are not very old in America (where we live), and so England and Europe astound us with their history etched in stone and lasting for centuries.

    1. I lived in Spain for a long time and one of the most impressive Roman edifices I have ever seen is just to the north of Madrid: Segovia Aqueduct. Look it up on Google - it is truly impressive and was still bringing water to the city nearly into the 21st century! And all without mortar to hold the rocks together! In the Middle Ages, the inhabitants apparently thought it had been built by the devil - but that didn't stop them using the water it delivered!

  7. My daughter's school is also built on a Roman site, at the western end of the Antonine Wall. There's no ruins or anything to see though, unfortunately.

    1. And to think most people think the Romans never got further than Hadrian's Wall! It seems all schools in Britain are built on Roman remains!

  8. My daughter's school is also built on a Roman site, at the western end of the Antonine Wall. There's no ruins or anything to see though, unfortunately.

  9. When I was 11 and at a recently opened school, bulldozers flattening what was to become the playing fields laid bare a settlement of Celtic roundhouses. I watched the archeologists all the summer term from my grandstand view of a desk by a first floor window. My concept of history never looked back.

    1. That must have been fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

  10. I've been to Britain twice and enjoyed many of your Roman sites. I envy you that for there is little sense of history where I come from. We plow it under, scrape, it clean and build something to profit some developer.


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