Published: 15:53, 29 September 2021
| Updated: 22:17, 29 September 2021
A temple built when Romans ruled Britain can now be viewed again thanks to painstaking work by archaeologists.
The 2,000-year-old flint remains were discovered in 2018 by surprised builders as they set to work on a 124-home housing estate at Newington off the busy A2 near Sittingbourne.
But when retired journalist Richard Thompstone, a member of the village’s local history group, heard they were to be covered up again after an 18-month dig by archaeologists he leapt into action.
He recalled: "I thought we can't let that happen and lose some of Newington's heritage. So I asked if it was possible to rescue it."
With just 48 hours before bulldozers began covering the ruins with earth he had enlisted the help of Paul Wilkinson, the director of Swale and Thames Archaeology (Swat), and managed to convince developers Persimmon Homes to give them time to save the relic.
That was in August 2019. Two years later the stones have been moved 70m to a field off Watling Drive near a children’s playground and rebuilt in their original orientation so they can viewed by visitors.
In a ceremony yesterday (Tuesday) attended by the mayor of Swale Cllr Paul Stephen, history buff Ellie Wolfe, 12, cut a giant pink ribbon to officially unveil the attraction.
Video: Ellie Wolfe
Ellie, 12, who attends Rainham Mark Grammar School, lives in a house overlooking the site and helped lay some of the flints during the reconstruction. She had visited the excavations and spoken to archaeologists during an open day in 2019 and now wants to become a social historian.
She said: “I am very interested in archaeology and can now look outside my window to see it every day. It was a brilliant honour to be asked to unveil it. It was a dream come true.”
Although she was given the morning off from lessons, her history teacher has told her to write an article about the event for the school's newspaper.
Her father Steve has volunteered to keep the grass surrounds mowed.
Richard Thompstone said: “Ellie has created her own history today by cutting the ribbon but her role will continue. She has made it her mission to keep an eye on the temple from her bedroom window to ensure it isn't damaged or spoiled by litter.”
His partner Sue Flipping of the Newington History Group said: “As a history group we like to think we do a huge amount to protect and preserve and let people know about their local heritage. It is nice to leave something tangible for future generations.
"It's not always about looking backwards into the past. We like to look forwards, too, because today will become tomorrow's history.”
Paul Wilkinson, 75, from Faversham who has been on TV's Time Team and the Richard and Judy Show, described the discovery as a Romano-Celtic temple and “one of the most significant sites” in Kent. |He said it was of "national importance" and described its preservation of buildings and artefacts as "exceptional" and "amazing".
Experts have even suggested Newington could be the site of the long-sought and much-disputed Roman trading station Durolevum.
It has yielded rare iron furnaces, sunken pottery kilns, track ways and a 7m-wide highway that appeared to pre-date, and take an alternative route to, Watling Street (now the A2), the first Roman road in Britain which linked Dover and Canterbury to London and beyond and which runs alongside the development.
Video: Paul Wilkinson
Mr Wilkinson said: “The temple would have been the focus of the community. Where the new houses now stand there would have been a small but very industrial Roman town making pottery, iron and tools."
He said unlike later Christian churches where the congregation confesses and asks for forgiveness, residents would use the temple ask God for favours to improve their lives. "If the request was successful they would return with a gift or offering. It was very aspirational," he said.
He added: "We are very grateful to Persimmon for helping us move the flints and donating this land. They didn’t have to do that.”
Martin Crick, Persimmon’s managing director said: “We wanted to give something back to the community. It’s not every day developers get a good press!”
Year 3 pupils from Newington Church of England Primary School entertained guests by singing Just Like A Roman complete with hand gestures.
Selections of Iron Age and Roman artefacts uncovered from the 18-acre site were also on display.
Several tonnes of pots, pottery sherds, jewellery and gold and silver coins were removed and recorded. There were also expensive imported wares found including a fragment from an Assyrian glass vessel, table ware from Gaul in France and a child's bracelet made from Whitby jet, indicating the inhabitants would have been of high status.
Funerary pottery has been ploughed up at nearby Keycol Hill indicating a substantial Roman cemetery. Cremated ashes and bones have been found.
It is believed the first phase of the site was industrial and settled between 50BC and AD250. The second phase dates to the third and fourth centuries and was more arable with shallow field boundaries, corn-drying kilns and granaries.
The Watling Place temple foundations measure 12.5m x 11.5m and would have been topped by a roof, possibly supported by columns. The temple was surrounded by two ditches and pits for the receipt of "offerings" such as coins, brooches, pins and pottery.
The site where the temple was first discovered is now a pumping station which serves the housing estate.
The remains are on permanent open display in Watling Drive, ME9 7FX, along with an information board explaining the importance of the site and the history of the Romans in Newington.