Markings found on Roman tiles have shown that workers were “more of a hodgepodge” of people than first thought.
The imprint of a women’s sandal and a written name were found on items recovered from a 3rd century tile factory in Priors Hall Park, Corby.
Experts said they showed that workers were not just young male slaves, but “literate men and women in fine shoes”.
Nick Gilmour, of Oxford Archaeology, said the marks showed it was “not clear” who the Roman workers were.
Archaeologists have been working on and off at the Northamptonshire site for some 12 years, anticipating a development of more than 5,000 homes.
Little Weldon’s Roman villa had first been discovered in the 18th century, but a second Roman villa was revealed in 2011 during a geophysical survey.
Oxford Archeology took on the excavations in 2019 when Urban & Civic took over development. They discovered a temple/mausoleum that was converted into a pottery, brick and tile manufacturing center sometime in the late 3rd to early 4th century to make building materials for Roman villas.
The latest findings come from the analysis of recovered material, including six tons of discarded tiles now being recorded.
Mr Gilmour said the Romans in the area were producing tons of tiles every week to spread across a network.
While many tiles are just basic tiles, “maybe one in 10,000 is really interesting,” including a “big fat tile” that someone had used their finger to trace letters into, he said.
Individual tilers often marked about one in the few they produced with a signature so they could be paid for what survived the kiln.
But these tile signatures were mostly patterns and symbols that showed that workers did not have high status.
Gilmour said the latest find was “very 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,” he said.
“It shows that the tiler was literate – perhaps surprising for someone who was in a role usually filled by an indentured servant … so they had a higher status than we thought.”
He said his team had tried to find other examples of this kind of signature, but hadn’t seen any yet.
“It’s certainly not the only example, but we’ve asked a lot of experts in the field, so we’re almost convinced there’s no other,” he said.
“The irony is the reason we got it because it wasn’t even vaguely flat and wasn’t used on a villa or it wouldn’t have been in the dump.
“So he may have been literate, but he may not have been such a good tiler.”
Tilers also checked every few tiles with their feet by lightly tapping them to see if they were dry and ready to be fired.
A second terracotta-colored tile with small indentations is believed to be the imprint of nails on the bottom of a woman’s sandal, as it showed a very narrow foot shape.
“It looks like there were women working in the tile factory too, so it’s not as obvious as we thought,” said Mr Gilmour.
“The workers weren’t just young male slaves — these markings show there were also literate men and women in nice shoes, so it was more of a mix.
“There was certainly still a hierarchy… the man in the villa would have been in charge, but who the workers were is not clear.”
He added that animal footprints and leaf prints 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 Corby finds showed the “possible scale” of the tile industry.
During a second phase of work in 2021, they found an intact Roman road showing how Corby joined surrounding settlements.
“It’s not uncommon to find a kiln next to a villa, but it would be a small one to make tiles for that one villa,” he said.
“But at Corby they produced tiles to sell to a large area, which is a much more modern idea.
“The next step is to examine them scientifically under a microscope to see what’s in the clay, so we can see where they moved them in the longer term.
“Was it two or three miles or about [the now] province or further?”
Look up BBC News: East of England Facebook, Instagram And Twitter. If you have an email with a story suggestion firstname.lastname@example.org