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Thames oysters and roasted dormice: Roman cuisine revealed at Crofton Villa
Crofton Roman Villa in Orpington holds secrets to a civilisation which lived here more than 2,000 years ago. Reporter HELOISE WOOD gets a tour fit for an emperor.
NEXT to Orpington train station there is a Tardis-style haven of archaeology.
Crofton Roman Villa was initially discovered in 1926 when workmen were preparing the site for a car park for nearby offices.
But it was not fully excavated for more than 60 years due to lack of funds.
Finally, in 1988 Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit (KARU) revealed the fascinating history behind our Roman ancestors in Orpington.
They sorted through 800 tonnes of remains which included 10,005 pieces of pottery with many objects now housed in Bromley Museum in Priory Lane.
I met KARU director Brian Philp who now manages the villa.
Mr Philp explains: "The children have been trying some mosaic making and brass rubbing. They also have artefact training.
"We’ve been running the school programme for around 20 years and take schools from all around the south east."
The archaeologist, who recently received an honorary degree from the University Kent, first developed a taste for ancient civilisations when he was at Bromley Grammar School in Hayes Lane in the 50s and is keen to pass his passion on to other youngsters.
He says: "To be an archaeologist you need to be fit and determined and be prepared to work in difficult conditions. It’s hard work and sites are harder to come by now.
"I wouldn’t like to live in the Roman period because it was not at all democratic and was all based on slavery."
As I look around the site, I am amazed to see the range of everyday fragments which were discovered and what they show about the inhabitants.
Among the excavated treasures were gems from cygnet rings which would fall off in Roman baths and collect in the drains - apparently dozens were found.
However the children from Deansfield School in Eltham appear most entranced by a paw print left by a Roman kitten.
It is entertaining to see a history lesson in action. Edna Philp, who co-manages the villa with her husband, asks the kids why the Romans would not have eaten potatoes.
One pupil eagerly puts his hand up and says: "Because they had chips instead?"
She explains about how the vegetable was only discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1500s and they seem suitably impressed.
The KARU secretary says: "We also found oyster shells which would have come from the Thames.
"One of their favourite dishes was dormice.
"They would hunt them out, coat them in herbs and honey and roast them for a feast."
This information meets with a mixture of horror and delight.
And perhaps this shows the importance of preserving the past –the way in which which ancient civilisations continue to amaze more than 2,000 years on.
The villa is open each Wednesday, Friday and Bank Holiday Monday and on the first Sunday of each month there is a special guided talk.
Admission costs between £1 and £1.50.
For more information, visit the-cka.fsnet.co.uk
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