Marks found in Roman tiles showed the workers were “more of a mixed bag” of people than previously thought.
The imprint of a lady’s sandal and a written name were found on items salvaged from a 3rd century tile factory in Priors Hall Park, Corby.
Experts said they demonstrated that the workers were not just young male slaves, but “educated men and women in fine shoes”.
Nick Gilmour, of Oxford Archaeology, said the markings showed it was “not clear” who the Roman workers were.
Archaeologists have been working on and off at the Northamptonshire site for around 12 years, with a view to a development of more than 5,000 homes.
The Roman villa at Little Weldon had first been discovered in the 18th century, but in 2011 a second Roman villa was revealed during a geophysical survey.
Oxford Archeology undertook excavations in 2019 when Urban & Civic took over the development. They discovered a temple/mausoleum that was transformed into a pottery, brick and tile manufacturing center in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, to make building materials for Roman villas.
The latest results come from an analysis of the recovered material, including six tonnes of waste tiles which are now being logged.
Mr. Gilmour said Romans in the area produced tons of tiles weekly to be distributed in a network.
While many are just basic tiles, “maybe one in 10,000 is really cool,” including one “big, thick tile” where someone used their finger to trace letters, he said.
Individual tilers often marked about one of every few they produced with a signature, so they could get paid for what survived the kiln.
But these card signatures were usually patterns and symbols showing that the workers were not of high status.
Gilmour said the latest find was “really unusual” because it reads “Potentius fecit,” which translates as “Potentius made me,” or as some linguists would say, “I was made by Potentius.”
“They actually wrote their name with their finger,” she said.
“It shows that the tiler was literate – perhaps surprising for someone who was in a role usually played by an indentured servant…so they had a higher status than we thought.”
He said his team has been trying to find other examples of this type of signature, but hadn’t seen one yet.
“It’s definitely not the only example, but we’ve asked a lot of industry experts, so we’re pretty sure there isn’t another one,” he said.
“The irony is that the reason we have it is because it failed, it wasn’t even vaguely flat and it wasn’t used on a mansion or it wouldn’t have been in the tile dump.
“So he may have been literate, but maybe he wasn’t such a good tiler.”
The tilers also checked every few tiles with their feet, tapping them lightly, to see if they were dry and ready to fire.
A second terracotta colored tile with small indentations would be the imprint of nails on the bottom of a women’s sandal, as it showed a very narrow foot shape.
“It appears that women also worked in tiling, so it’s not as clear-cut as we thought,” Gilmour said.
“The workers weren’t just young male slaves – these markings show that there were also educated men and women with nice shoes, so it was more of a mix.
“There was certainly still a hierarchy… the man in the villa would have been responsible, but who the workers were is not clear.”
He added that animal footprints and leaf prints found in the tiles would also be studied, to find out if the work was seasonal and what the environment was like.
Mr Gilmour added that the finds at Corby showed the “possible extent” of the tile industry.
During a second phase of work in 2021, they found an intact Roman road showing how Corby joined the surrounding settlements.
“It’s not uncommon to find a kiln next to a villa, but it would be small just to make tiles for a villa,” he said.
“But in Corby they were making tiles to sell to a large area, which is a much more modern idea.
“The next step is to scientifically examine them under a microscope to see what’s in the clay, so that in the long run we can see where they were moving them.
“It was two or three miles or more [the now] province or something?”
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