Oxfordshire was in Roman times, as it remained until quite recently, predominantly a rural county, given over to agriculture and pasturage. Yet, apart
from our knowledge that there were numerous villas, farmsteads, and villages
scattered up and down the county, we have not, nor can we expect to have,
any visible evidence of the existence of these industries here in Roman days.
There is no proof that ironstone was worked in the district, though we
may suspect that it was worked at Drun's Hill, Wood Eaton (p. 345), and also
that the concentration of settlement in the Bloxham-Banbury district had some
connexion with such working, and was not merely fortuitous. That the local
oolite of the Cotswolds was quarried for roofing slates and building-stone we
know from discoveries in excavated villas in the district. Doubtless also the
value of the Headington and Shotover beds for stone-quarrying was already
realized. But no actual Roman workings have come to light, and such industry
as they did give rise to is likely to have been only of local importance.
It is otherwise with pottery-making. A series of kiln-sites has been found
along, or not far from, the line of the North-South Roman road between
Headington and Dorchester, and the industry appears to have flourished from
at least the 2nd, if not the 1st, century a.d. up to the early-5th century. As
yet no student has undertaken the research necessary to show how far the pottery
made in these kilns was traded and peddled; the evidence exists: we know
what wares (Pl. XIX) were made at Sandford, Rose Hill, and Dorchester, and
it only remains for some one to work over the finds of pottery on Roman sites
in neighbouring counties in order to trace the extent of the trade. Meanwhile
Oxfordshire finds show that there are few if any Roman sites in our own county
which were not supplied to some degree with local wares. (fn. 1) Of the sites of kilns
along the Headington-Dorchester line, the farthest from the Roman road, that
at Rose Hill, Cowley, lies about 1¾ miles west; the nearest to it, that at Allen's
pit, Dorchester, lies only some 200 yards east. They were all very conveniently
situated for transport and supply, and their wares may well have had a wide
distribution in central Britain.
The first suggestion that these potteries existed was made as far back as 1850,
when Llewellyn Jewitt surmised, (fn. 2) from the discovery at Headington Wick
villa of a mould for an appliqué mask, (fn. 3) portions of vitrified flooring, lumps of
chalk, &c., that pottery-making had been indulged in at or near the villa-site.
Later, the Rev. E. Marshall (fn. 4) notes that traces of several small kilns with remains
of Roman pottery were found at Mountpleasant, on the west side of the Oxford
road between Littlemore and Iffley. But it was not until Rolleston in 1879
excavated four kilns on the site of the Mynchery Farm, Sandford, that the
importance of the industry was realized. Rolleston (fn. 5) published only a short
account of his finds and it was left for Thomas May, in 1922, (fn. 6) to issue the
definitive account of the fabrics discovered. Meanwhile Manning in 1898, (fn. 7)
as well as corroborating Marshall's site at Mountpleasant by recording further
discoveries there, noted another kiln-site in Harry Bears's pit, Headington, and
two other possible ones farther south, to the west and east of the footpath leading
thence to Cowley Marsh. So matters remained till 1935, when a kiln (with
traces of a second) was found during the laying out of Annesley Road, Rose
Hill, a discovery followed in 1936 by that of two kilns in Allen's pit, Dorchester. (fn. 8) More recently still the stoke-hole of a third kiln occurred in the east bank
of the Oxford road, 100 yds. east of the Annesley Road kilns, during widening
operations in 1937. (fn. 9)
The three kilns excavated recently, two at Dorchester (for the first see Pl. XX, a, and Fig. 27)
and one at Rose Hill, belong to Grimes's class A i 1, round or oval up-draught kilns with the potchamber supported on a central tongue. (fn. 10) A full account of their construction, as far as the extant
remains allowed, has been given in Oxoniensia (loc. cit.), and details need not be repeated here. The
furnace-chamber was built of hand-made, puddled-clay slabs in a hole excavated in the gravel; no stones
were used in their construction except to make supporting columns on each side of the mouth of the
chamber. The floor of the pot-chamber was built of similar puddled-clay slabs, and was pierced by a
series of vent-holes, about 4 in. diameter, to allow the heat to penetrate from the furnace upwards. In
all three examples the walls and roof of the pot-chamber had perished, only debris remaining. The
stoke-hole was always a simple pit in the gravel. All three kilns were roughly the same size, the
furnace-chambers varying from 6 ft. long by 4 ft. wide to 5 ft. long by 3 ft. wide.
The Sandford kilns (fn. 11) also appear to have been of Grimes's A i 1 class. Two (May, loc. cit.) were
apparently built on top of the gravel and had walls of rough stones set in clay; the other two were set
in a pit in the gravel, and built of puddled-clay slabs, like the examples more recently found. One of
the kilns built of stones is said to have been a double one (Rolleston, loc. cit.), but this appears to refer
not to two furnace-chambers, but to a single chamber with a partition, like that of Fig. 27. If so, the
other three kilns had presumably no such central partition, and were thus variations on the Rose
Hill-Dorchester type. The abundance of coarse, flattish pieces of clay with impressions of straw noted
by Rolleston led May to infer that 'the sides of the [pot-]chambers were probably substantial, more or
less domed or "beehive" shaped, with a central opening for packing the kiln and regulating the draught.
This opening was apparently covered in with grass or straw after each charge and then roofed with
little slabs of clay'. He recalls that at Castor Artis found similar evidence of such a method of roofing
kilns. (fn. 12) This tallies well with similar debris found at Rose Hill and Dorchester, as well as at Mountpleasant, (fn. 13) and goes to prove that all these kilns were so roofed and not, as was suggested in Oxoniensia
(loc. cit.), with a wattle-and-daub construction.
Apart from the actual remains of kilns, the Sandford, Rose Hill, and Dorchester sites produced
other remains of the pottery-works that had existed there. At Sandford what appears to have been an
extensive potters' waste-heap was excavated, which is claimed to have been 100 ft. long (May, loc. cit.),
and also a well, situated to the NW. of the kilns, which contained much pottery, including some
complete pieces. In the earth adjoining the largest (double) kiln were found two human skeletons.
At Rose Hill extensive remains of habitation, in the form of hut-floors, occupation-pits, and ditches,
as well as one or more potters' waste-heaps occurred; and here, also, two skeletons, presumably of
Roman date, were found in the bank on the east side of the Oxford road, 100 yds. east of the excavated
kiln, near the stoke-hole of the third kiln. (fn. 14) At Dorchester not only was there a large pit full of potters'
wasters and a dump of clay mixed for potting, carefully laid out on a rectangular platform of stones, (fn. 15)
but also a hole sunk in the gravel to water-level and lined with wooden staves and with a square wooden
frame-work at the bottom; this last was presumably the puddling-hole, where the clay was mixed.
Near or on top of the waste-heap a cremation-burial was found of the 1st or early 2nd century a.d.
Fig. 27. Kiln I, Dorchester.
a. Longitudinal section through stoke-hole and furnace-chamber.
b. Cross-section through furnace-chamber.
c. Ground plan of stoke-hole and furnace-chamber.
d. Ground plan of pot-chamber.
(After Oxoniensia, i, fig. 14)
The pottery from the various waste-heaps, combined with the fragments found in the actual
kilns, gives a very fair conspectus (Pl. XIX) of the ware which these factories made, and thereby of the
inclusive date of their activity. May has analysed in detail vases and fragments from Sandford, which
include the following varieties:
1. Imitations of early Samian shapes (Drag. 27, 29, 30, and 33) in hard grey ware or soft red
ware, often with white barbotine or with combed linear patterns of the 1st or 2nd century.
2. Ollae, bowls, dishes, and beakers of grey smother-kiln ware, often coated wholly or in part
with bitumen, and dating from the 1st to the 4th century.
3. Jugs, amphorae, bowls, and mortaria of white ware, dating from the 2nd to the 4th or early
4. Bulbous beakers, resembling Castor and New Forest types, often decorated with rouletting,
thumb-indents, or barbotine; rosette-stamped bowls with vertical sides; mortaria imitating
the Samian form 45 with lion's-head spout; bowls imitating Samian forms 31, 36, 38, 40;
all of red colour-coated ware of various dates from the 3rd to the early 5th century.
At Rose Hill the only well-excavated kiln was apparently used for making
grey smother-kiln ware of the 2nd or less probably of the 3rd century, but
fragments and wasters found elsewhere on the site suggested that it was occupied,
presumably by potters, from at least the 2nd, if not the 1st century, up to the
early 5th century, and that kilns also existed here for making white ware and
red colour-coated ware (groups 3 and 4 above). Similarly at Dorchester, though
the two kilns discovered were of the latest period, and both used for red colourcoated ware, the finds in the puddling-hole and in the waste-heap proved that
here, too, pottery-making was in progress from at least the 2nd century onwards, and that there was a considerable output also of grey smother-kiln ware,
as well as of white mortaria, jugs, and the like.
On all these three sites, therefore, pottery-making appears to have begun
during the 1st or at least the early 2nd century and to have continued uninterruptedly up to the early 5th century. The few coins discovered in association
corroborate this. At Dorchester none has yet been found, but at Sandford
occurred 1 Antoninus Pius and 1 Radiate, and at Rose Hill 2 Radiates, 1
Constantius II, 1 Valens (?), 1 House of Valentinian I (?), and 1 House of
It only remains to mention a few other sites in Oxfordshire where it has
been alleged that Roman pottery-kilns existed. We need pay no attention to
Warton's vague theorizing about a Roman officina near Stonesfield. (fn. 16) At Fencoton-Otmoor (fn. 17) and at Stoke Row, Ipsden, (fn. 18) the finding of large quantities of broken
pottery has been claimed to prove that a potter's works existed. Passing references are made to kilns found at Shotover (fn. 19) and at Wilcote (fn. 20) but, lacking evidence,
they must be considered as unproven. That there was such a kiln at Shotover
is likely, for Jewitt, our authority for this statement, was a particularly competent observer in such matters, and the site is in the centre of the Oxfordshire
pottery area; it is otherwise, however, with Wilcote. Finally, in Camp Spinney,
north of Spring Farm at Hanwell, Manning (fn. 21) notes that an 'oven with several
rough pieces of pottery in it' was discovered, and that 'the soil around the oven
was burnt red'; this may have been merely a bake-house, but it is equally
possible it was a kiln.