Marks found in Roman tiles show that workers were “more of a mix” of people than first thought.
A woman’s sandal print and a written name have been found on items recovered from a 3rd Century tile factory at Priors Hall Park, Corby.
Experts said they showed the workers were not just young slaves but “literate men and women in nice shoes”.
Nick Gilmour, from Oxford Archaeology, said the marks showed it was “not clear” who the Roman workers were.
Archaeologists have been working on and off the Northamptonshire site for around 12 years, leading the development of more than 5,000 homes.
The Little Weldon Roman Villa was first discovered in the 18th Century, but in 2011 during a geophysical survey a second Roman Villa was uncovered.
Oxford Archeology undertook the excavation in 2019 when Urban & Civic took over the development. A temple/mausoleum converted into a pottery, brick and tile manufacturing center was discovered sometime in the 3rd to early 4th Century, to make building materials for Roman Villas.
The latest results come from the analysis of recovered material, including six tonnes of discarded tiles which are now being recorded.
Mr Gilmour said the Romans in the area were producing tons of tiles weekly for distribution around a network.
While many are just rudimentary tiles, “maybe one in 10,000 is really interesting”, including a “big thick tile” where someone used their finger to trace letters, he said.
Individual tilers would often mark about one out of every few they produced for signature, so that they could be paid for what survived the kiln.
But these tile signatures were usually patterns and symbols that indicated that workers did not have a high status.
Mr Gilmour said the latest discovery was “very unusual” because it reads “Potentius fecit”, which translates as “Potentius made me”, or as some linguists would say, “Potentius I made”.
“They’ve written their name with their finger,” he said.
“It shows that the tiler was literate – perhaps surprising for someone who was usually in the role of an indentured servant … so they were of a 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 is not certain that it is the only example, but we have asked many experts in the field so we are almost certain that there is not another one,” he said.
“The irony is the reason we’ve got it is because it failed, it wasn’t even vaguely fair and it wasn’t used on Villa or it wouldn’t be in the top of the tile bin.
“So maybe he was literate, but maybe he wasn’t as good a tiler.”
Tilers also used to check every few tiles with their feet by tapping them lightly, to see if they were dry and ready to fire.
The second colored terra cotta tile with small indentations is believed to be a nail print on the bottom of a woman’s sandal, as it showed a very narrow foot shape.
“It looks like there were women working in tiling too, so it’s not as clear cut as we thought,” said Mr Gilmour.
“The workers weren’t just young male slaves – these markings show that there were also well-heeled literate men and women, so it was more of a mix.
“There was definitely still a hierarchy … the man in the villa would be in charge, but it’s not clear who the workers were.”
He also said that animal tracks and leaf tracks found in the tiles would also be studied, to find out if the work was seasonal and what the environment was like.
Mr Gilmour also said the discoveries in Corby showed the “potential scale” of the tile industry.
During the second phase of work in 2021, they found an intact Roman road which shows how Corby joined with the surrounding settlements.
“It’s not uncommon to find a kiln next to a villa, but it wouldn’t be a small one just to make tiles for the one villa,” he said.
“But at Corby they were producing tiles to sell to a wide range, which is much more modern.
“The next step is to examine them scientifically under a microscope to see what’s in the clay, so we can see in the long term where they were moving to.
“Was it two or three miles or across [the now] county or further?”
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