In 43 A.D. the Roman army invaded Kent in force, advancing swiftly to Rochester, already the most important town in West Kent. The Medway proved a barrier, however, and a two-day battle ensued. Specialist troops forded the river unseen by the Britons – and in an unexpected place – giving the Romans victory. In recent years Nigel Nicolson has proposed that Snodland may have been the point at which the main Roman force forded the river, perhaps assisted by knowledge gleaned from local inhabitants. Thanks to his efforts a stone commemorating the battle and crossing has been set up on the Burham bank of the river opposite Snodland’s All Saints church. The importance of Rochester as a military and economic centre, and its position as a crossing-point of the Medway, encouraged Romans to settle along the valley nearby. The quality of life for some Britons in the area may have improved with the introduction of better building techniques, but for others life is likely to have gone on much as before.
Evidence of Roman settlement is found in most of the villages in the Medway Gap today. In Snodland, such evidence has been coming to light for centuries. William Lambarde, in the second edition of his Perambulation of Kent (1596), writes:
‘As touching that Holboroe (or rather Holanbergh) it lieth in Snodland…and tooke the name of Beorgh, or the Hill of buriall, standing over it; in throwing downe a part whereof (for the use of the chalke) my late Neighbour, Maister Tylghman discovered in the very Centre thereof, Urnam cineribus plenam, an earthen pot filled with ashes, an assured token of a Romane Monument…’
A lease dated 3 February 1806, concerning the lands by the river belonging to Snodland Court Lodge, records 4 acres called ‘Stone Grave Mead’, clear evidence that a Roman burial (since re-discovered) was known by that time. There are – or were – two major Roman sites in Snodland, together with a few smaller remains. One was the barrow quarried by William Tilghman, the other was a villa by the river. Both have suffered much through later developments: the barrow site, following a full excavation, was eaten up by chalk quarrying, while the villa remains were subjected to great disturbance by the foundations of modern factory buildings and today lies under a housing estate. Recent excavation of the latter was possible, however, following closure of the works and clearing of the ground.
It was reported to the archaeologist Thomas Wright that around 1815 a Roman bath was discovered at the villa site. which had been covered up again. In 1845 Charles Roach Smith noted that he had seen foundations of a building in Church Field, together with walls and flooring of a small room exposed in the bank of the river. Occasional finds had been made since then, but the first serious excavation took place in the mid-1920s during alterations to the Gas Works occupying the site. A terra cotta mask and a rare bronze buckle-plate were found, together with pottery and five coins. More recent excavations in 1964 and 1971 have now been capped by extensive work prior to new building on the site by the Maidstone Area Archaeological Group and Wessex Archaeology.
Such a villa would have been owned and occupied by some high-ranking person in Roman society, although this one takes second place to the major house at Eccles, some two kilometres to the south-east. The excavation of ditches indicates that the site was occupied even before construction of the Roman building. In time an extensive house was built, forming three sides of a quadrangle facing east towards the Medway. To the south-west was an aisled barn, measuring some 40 metres by 25 metres, which was apparently built in the mid-second century and demolished in the late fourth. The bath house (presumably the one mentioned by Wright) seems to have stood separate from the main villa. Here a furnace at the eastern extremity led to the hot room (caldarium) and warmer room (tepidarium), both of which were hypocausted. The cold room (frigidarium) adjoined to the west and the whole was served by a separate water-tank to the south, probably connected by wooden piping. In time this bath-house seems to have been abandoned, for by the fourth century two rooms at the south-west of the villa were heated, one with an elaborate channeled hypocaust and the other with the normal pillored hypocaust. It is possible that these rooms were by then being used as a bath-house. With so much destroyed by later developments, the number of finds has been more limited than would otherwise be expected. Nevertheless, discoveries of coins, pottery and small domestic items all point to the villa having been occupied from the first to the fourth centuries.
A stone sarcophagus was found adjacent to the buildings in 1933. A small cremation cemetery was also discovered in 1923 in the garden at the back of “Holboro’ Garage” (now “Willowside”), a mile to the west, and another materialized at Ham Hill. But it was the barrow at Holborough which was reserved for the most prestigious burial. The site chosen was close to the prehistoric ring-barrow. The body of a man, probably about 40 years old – possibly an important official of Rochester – was carried here. A funeral pyre was set up just to the south of the burial site and he was cremated, possibly sitting on a bronze-mounted folding stool with a metal-fringed cushion, which was later buried in the barrow. Some glass vessels were also put in the fire and these fused in the great heat. Also placed on the pyre was an old coin, appropriately showing a cremation on its reverse side. A grave was dug and a temporary wooden hut was built over the spot, perhaps to afford shelter during the funeral ceremony. This included the ritual smashing of a group of five jars (amphorae). The man’s ashes were placed in a wooden coffin together with some of the chalk which had been removed to make the grave itself. A libation of wine or oil was offered and a feast (which included a fowl) was held. Later the remains were collected and buried, mostly in special pits. A dome of chalk and turf was erected above the grave and a larger mound covered the whole, rising to eleven feet above the original surface. The barrow was surrounded by an oval ditch and bank. The pottery remains suggest that all this occurred in the first quarter of the third century A.D. Before long, however, the mound was partially re-opened at its southern extremity to receive the burial of a small child, aged about one, in a fine lead sarcophagus (now in Maidstone Museum). Presumably this was a relative – perhaps a child or grandchild – of the man for whom the barrow was made. Within the sarcophagus with the body, which had not been cremated, was the remains of a purse – a luxury item suggesting the child had come from a wealthy family. This sarcophagus has been described as the most interesting found at any Romano-British site, because of its decoration of scallop shells and Dionysiac figures, which were symbolic representations of the after-life in Roman Mediterranean art. It seems likely that the maker was relatively local, but used a ‘pattern-book’ imported from abroad for the design. The use of such figures was widespread in Roman times and does not necessarily imply that the Snodland family were especially devoted to the worship of Dionysius.