Soon after his death in April 1936, William Evetts’ collection of more than 800 coins and tokens found in Tackley, including 138 Roman coins, was donated to the Ashmolean Museum by his son Edgar. They were collected by Evetts himself, his farm workers, village children and villagers. Some were found scattered around the parish, but others appear to have been in concentrations that would indicate archaeological sites. These are referred to in various unpublished letters in the archives of the Ashmolean Museum, and in short notices in journals between 1921 and 1952. However, in spite of a number of references to particular locations, we have so far been unable to identify most of them — some of which, including a ‘Roman cemetery’, are tantalising.
Solving the puzzle of where these sites are is difficult. Some of the people giving their locations had no personal knowledge of the village, and others may have been unintentionally imprecise or perhaps even deliberately misleading.
At first, all seems plain sailing. In a letter of 21 March 1921, Evetts told E. L. Leeds, assistant keeper of the Ashmolean and author of An Archaeological Survey of Oxfordshire in the same year, that “most of the Roman and Anglo-Saxon coins were found at Street Farm.” We now know that there was a villa there. But this is the only mention of Street Farm.
In 1929 Bryan O’Neill, the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, visited Evetts and reported to a colleague in the Ashmolean that “there undoubtedly is a Roman site near at hand xxxx (illegible) in allotments and a new rectory (red brick) has been built very close but set back from the road.”
In 1932 he visited Evetts again to assess his collection, and noted that the coins came mainly from three sites: the allotments just west of the new rectory; from around Wood Fam; and the ridge. The allotments were sizeable parcels of land, up to an acre or so, cultivated by village labourers, and in Tackley parlance ‘The Ridge’ refers to the high ground behind the Rousham and Nethercote roads which gives its name to the small housing estate on the Rousham road. All these are fairly precise, but no Roman pottery – which one would expect to find along with coins on a Roman site – has so far been found on any of them.
Evetts’ coin collection was generating scholarly interest and had been mentioned in a survey of discoveries about ‘Roman Britain in 1926’ published by Taylor and Collingwood in the Journal of Roman Studies, 1926, p. 226. They devoted one paragraph to Tackley and identified several sites (my emphasis):
“At Tackley, where Akeman Street crosses the Cherwell, there is a Roman inhabited site on the hilltop North of the road and West of the river. Drainers assert that they have found an ‘underground passage’ here, and many coins have turned up. There are foundations, perhaps on the lower ground between this and the river. Mr W. Evetts has a large number of coins from the immediate neighbourhood (including a cemetery a little further to the north) ranging from Claudius to Arcadius and Honorarius.”
None of these locations fit the Street Farm villa site. Many hours of field-walking north of Akeman Street and west of the river have produced only a few pieces of Roman pottery that were most likely associated with traffic along Akeman Street. There are no indications of an inhabited site, an underground passage, foundations or a cemetery.
The first volume of the Victoria County History of Oxfordshire published in 1939 compounds the confusion. Under the heading ‘Romano-British Remains’ on page 343, the entry for Tackley states:
“An occupation site occurs on the line of Akeman Street on the hill-top south of the village. Pottery and 138 coins ranging from Claudius to Arcadius were collected by Mr. Evetts and have been presented to the Ashm. Mus.”
The only hill-top on the line of Akeman Street is Sturdy’s Castle, and that is to the west rather than the south of the village.
In May 1952 Edgar Evetts brought speculation about where the sites might be to an end when he met H. W. Catling an assistant keeper at the Ashmolean. Catling had gone to see him at the request of Leo Rivet, of the Archaeological Division of the Ordnance Survey and wrote:
“Re your problem about the Roman site at Tackley. I have been to Tackley and spoken to the son of the Evetts mentioned in VCH, I, 343. He knew of no Roman site (properly speaking) within the parish. He made it clear that the coins his father donated to the Ashmolean were found all over the parish, over a number of years. VCH therefore contains a slight suggestio falsi in that it rather looks as though the ‘pottery and 138 coins’ come from the alleged occupation site, which is definitely not the case.”
Edgar Evetts was perhaps pleased that as a result, future editions of Ordnance Survey maps did not have a symbol for Roman remains plonked in the middle of his fields.
We now know of thirteen Roman sites in the village. Are there more? Or were the foundations, occupation site, underground passage and cemetery a combination of misremembered conversations and over-receptive imaginations, together with a dose of deliberate obfuscation? It would be interesting to know.
Research and text: John Perkins