HOLT ROMAN TILE WORKS
The site of the Roman works depot was excavated in 1907 by T Arthur Acton, FSA, of Wrexham. The work continued for eight years with the costs being borne by him. He died in 1925 and no trace of his notes of the excavation could be found.
The material from Holt was acquired by the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and the interpretation of the evidence was carried out by W F Grimes MA, Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the Museum, based on Acton’s extensive plans and photographs.
Why did the Romans choose to build a tileworks in Holt?
In short, raw materials were readily available. The red sandstone provided stone for the buildings. The Clay suitable for pottery and tile making was close at hand as was fuel in the form of vast oak forests. Importantly, transport via the River Dee to Chester would have been very easy compared to roads and tracks, yet the works were no great distance from the Roman roads.
The works would have required a good water supply and it is not clear how this was arranged. The course of the Dee may have been closer to the works at that time. Lifting water from the Dee would have been possible but time consuming. It appears possible that there was a gravity supply from Devon Brook although this is not certain. Recent LIDAR information indicates that a ‘canal’ may have connected the jetty to the Dee, thus making transport and water supply easier.
The site is described in Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions (Roman Holt, G R Stephens.)
"The Roman site at Holt was a military "works-depot". It was established to provide pottery and building materials for the legionary base at Chester, although its facilities were also utilized by at least one auxiliary unit. Coins from the site show that occupation commenced in the last quarter of the first century....."
"The excavated buildings at Holt include a barrack compound. This enclosed five ranges of buildings, the three most northern of which bear some resemblance to military barrack-blocks and presumably housed the site's personnel. This, if correct, implies the billeting of a large number of men...."
"The officer in charge of the unit's kiln would, until the third century, normally have been an "optio figlinarum". (He probably held the rank of principalis- that is ranked below a centurion, but receiving enhanced pay at the rates of pay and a half or double pay).
"Such evidence as there is suggests that the men serving under an optio figlinarum were soldiers of the rank of immunis - that is, men paid at the normal rate but enjoying exemption from military service.
If the barrack compound at Holt normally housed somewhere between 50 and 150 men, and if each potter required three workmen to prepare the clay and the considerable quantities of wood required for firing, there would have been 15-35 potters actually engaged in production. Empirical evidence suggests that this number of potters could have produced around 20-45000 tiles per six day working week. Thus if the site was occupied for only four months in any one year, 350-750000 tiles, or 120-270000 pottery vessels could have been produced. These figures seem impossibly high. They suggest that the labour force was normally much less than 150 men, and that therefore Ranges 2 and 3 were probably used for storage, rather than for accommodation." G.R.Stephens.
Acknowledgements: Tiles: Chester Museum Objects: National Museum of Wales, Cardiff