Highlights of the British Collection:

Shakenoak Farm

The Roman farm built at Shakenoak, near Witney, in the later years of the first century AD is the only example known in Britain of an inland fish-farm. It was extensively excavated in the 1960s and 1970s, revealing interesting information for the rural history of Roman Britain.

The fish-farm prospered for over a century. Three fishponds were dug, the water retained by oak timbers. The flow between the small, breeding pool, the main pool and the holding pool by the exit to the farm was controlled by timber valves. We do not know which fish were bred at Shakenoak - trout are a likely option.

The owners lived a Roman lifestyle in a fine villa overlooking the ponds. Beyond the ponds stood a heated bath-house with glazed windows and an agricultural barn. The owners commissioned sculpture and architecture of classical form, carved in local stones. They painted the walls of the farmhouse to match exactly the colours of exotic marbles unobtainable in the north Thames Valley. They drank and dined from Roman red ware cups and bowls signed by well-known potters and imported from Lezoux in central France. Scraps of coloured glass from northern Italy and enamelled bronze fittings from Germany suggest there was once a wider range of imports.

For unknown reasons the fish-farm collapsed about AD 200. The ponds were filled in and the inhabitants - presumably now of a different family - built an Iron Age-style round-house over the site of the large pond. Though large by the standard of such buildings, and equipped with strong stone foundations and an elegant porch. This is a radical change of lifestyle, unexpected at the height of the Roman empire. The owners of this and subsequent buildings used pottery made in or near Oxford.

About AD 250 the fish-farm’s agricultural barn was converted to serve as a residence with a bath-house. The round-house was demolished. In a complete exchange of function, the former farmhouse became an agricultural building used for drying corn, and the bath-house became a store.

In the fourth century AD Shakenoak was probably a dependency of the much larger villa at North Leigh, a short distance to the north-east.

In the early fifth century the Roman authorities withdrew from Britain. By then the access routes to and across the farm had been changed, and the original villa was fortified with towers.

More finds suggest a military end for the Roman farm. Some belt-fittings from military dress in Germanic style were found in or near the residential barn. Distinctively decorated bracelets may have been worn by women migrants from Germany, either accompanying soldiers or permanent settlers. Most strikingly, young men some of whom had met a violent death were buried in neat rows in the farmyard.

The farm at Shakenoak continued to be inhabited by people who evidently kept sheep and wove wool. However no new housing was discovered, and it is likely that they lived in the ruins of the Roman villa.

There is a display about the Shakenoak Farm site in the 'Rome' gallery on the ground floor.

Click on image below to see a plan of Shakenoak AD70-180

Shakenoak Villa AD70-180 (Click to see plan)

Drawing of Shakenoak Villa AD70-180. A villa funished in the Roman style with fishponds, baths and a barn. (Reconstruction drawing by Joseph Wilkins)

Oak Valve

One of the oak valves which controlled the flow between pools (AN1974.316)

Occulist's stamp

An occulist’s stamp advertising an eye-salve made by Maurus(AN1970.133). The farmer’s family had access to cures for eye disease. These stamps are usually found in military sites, and the family may have had some link with the Roman army.

Click on image below to see a plan of Shakenoak AD180-250

Shakenoak Villa AD180-250 (Click to see plan)

Drawing of Shakenoak farm AD180-250. The fishponds fail, the villa becomes a barn, the baths a store and the inhabitants build an Iron Age-style hut. (Reconstruction drawing by Joseph Wilkins)

Set of Clay Pan-Pipes

A set of clay pan-pipes (AN2005.34) from the second phase of occupation, used for controlling herds of animals. The herdswoman and man have Celtic names - Bellecina and Catavacus, elegantly inscribed in cursive Latin script.

Click on image below to see a plan of Shakenoak AD250-400

Shakenoak Villa AD250-400 (Click to see plan)

Drawing of Shakenoak Villa AD250-400. Towers are added to the stumps of the original villa. The hut is demolished and the former barn upgraded as a dwelling with a bath. (Reconstruction drawing by Joseph Wilkins)

Plan of Shakenoak Villa AD400-420

Plan of Shakenoak AD400-420. The barn dwindles to a hut and only part of the dwelling is lived in, perhaps by soldiers. People continue to live in Shakenoak, probably in and around the Roman ruins, until about AD750.

Further Information

Brodribb, A.C.C., Hands, A.R. and Walker, D.R., The Roman Villa at Shakenoak Farm, Oxfordshire. Excavations 1960-1976 (Oxford: BAR British Series 395, 2005).

Henig, M.and Booth, P., Roman Oxfordshire (Stroud: Sutton, 2000)

Wilson, D.R.and Sherlock, D., North Leigh Roman Villa Oxfordshire (2nd edition, London: English Heritage, 1991)

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Susan Walker
4 December 2011