Archaeologists Unearth Sprawling Roman Ruins Unlike Any Found in the U.K.

An ancient complex in Yorkshire may have been a luxury villa, a religious sanctuary or a mixture of both

The villa's unique layout includes a central circular room and a bathhouse. © Maparch / Historic England

Archaeologists in the English town of Scarborough have discovered the foundations of what may have been a luxurious Roman villa.

The complex appears to be the first of its kind found in Britain—and possibly the only known example in all of the former Roman Empire, reports Joe Cooper for the Yorkshire Evening Post.

“This is a really exciting discovery and definitely of national importance,” Keith Emerick, inspector of ancient monuments at Historic England, tells the Guardian’s Alexandra Topping. “I would say this is one of the most important Roman discoveries in the past decade, actually. Easily.”

The Scarborough site housed a complex of buildings, including one with a circular central room and several rooms leading off of it, as well as a bathhouse. The structures’ unique layout has never been recorded in Britain before, according to a statement.

“We’ve spoken to a number of leading Roman academics about it and we’re all trying to find a comparable site and we are struggling,” Emerick tells BBC News. “So in that sense it is really significant. It’s really exciting as well.”

In the statement, Historic England suggests that the buildings were a high-status home or a religious sanctuary. The site may have combined both uses, or shifted from one to another over time.

“[I]t is something like a religious building that is almost like a gentleman’s club, there’s a bathhouse as well,” Emerick tells BBC News. “So it’s a really interesting hybrid building at the moment.”

villa overview
Excavations in Yorkshire unearthed a complex of buildings, including a bathhouse. © Maparch / Historic England

Per the York Museums Trust’s History of York, Romans arrived in the city of York—about 40 miles southwest of Scarborough—around 71 A.D., more than 25 years after establishing a province in southern Britain. York served as the Romans’ local seat of government between 208 and 211, under Emperor Septimius Severus, and again under Constantine the Great in 305.

The city remained an important provincial capital until the turn of the fifth century, when Roman forces left Britain. Other ancient sites of interest in the county of Yorkshire include the former city of Isurium Brigantum, where two Roman mosaics remain standing in their original positions, and a camp and possible Roman road, both of which are found in the moorlands just northwest of Scarborough, notes Britain Express.

Housing developer Keepmoat Homes hired archaeologists to investigate the site ahead of construction. As Grace Newton reports for the Yorkshire Post, researchers had expected to find Iron Age and Roman remains at the site, but they had no idea just how significant these discoveries would turn out to be.

Keepmoat has now amended its plans to avoid building houses over the archaeological site. Instead, the area will be maintained as open space within the housing development. Historic England plans to seek scheduled monument status for the site, in addition to funding more archaeological work there.

“This is a remarkable discovery which adds to the story of Roman settlement in North Yorkshire,” says Karl Battersby, corporate director of business and environmental services at the North Yorkshire County Council, in a separate statement quoted by CNN’s Jack Guy. “Work by North Yorkshire archaeologists has already established the buildings were designed by the highest quality architects in Northern Europe in the era and constructed by the finest craftsmen.”

Battersby adds that further study will investigate what the building complex was used for and why it was built so far from other Roman centers.

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