North Yorkshire archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a rare and enigmatic Roman settlement which will now be preserved as part of the county’s heritage.

Archaeologists from MAP Archaeological Practice working on behalf of Keepmoat Homes discovered the remains of high-quality Roman buildings during a routine excavation in advance of a new housing development in Eastfield, Scarborough. The finds are so important that plans for housing in the area have been redrawn to ensure they are not destroyed.

County Council experts have worked with Scarborough Council, alongside Historic England, developers Keepmoat Homes and MAP Archaeological Practice to ensure the best outcome for this unique site.

The excavation has not been without its problems, first dreadful weather meant much of the site was waterlogged for long periods, followed by the pandemic. The site was even hit by illegal metal detectorists who raided the site at night following initial publicity.

Although it is clear to the experts that the buildings were very important, the discovery has thrown up questions which currently remain unanswered about the exact purpose of the building and why the development took place so close to the coast – a long way from other notable Roman communities.

It is expected answers to those questions will emerge as more work is done on finds and environmental samples off-site, but in the meantime the work has ensured the site will be preserved for the future – with open days for visitors planned.

The site of the main building – thought to be a high-status villa or possibly a religious sanctuary – covers a site of approximately 100 metres square and options include marking out the boundaries of the buildings, maybe with hedging, with information panels to explain what is known of the site.

Buildings of that nature have not been found before in this country, however, and the County Council’s principal archaeologist, Peter Rowe, said: “The people who established this site had access to the best of the best, the best architects in northern Europe and the best builders. The quality of the buildings is second to none.”

However, there are still mysteries around why such grand buildings appeared in that location and Peter said: “It is baffling people, we don’t really know what it is. Why was it built on the North Yorkshire coast, away from towns and major Roman infrastructure? There are more questions than answers at the moment.”

It is hoped those mysteries will be answered by follow-up work done off-site, with the prospect of work to allow the site to tell its story to the public in future.

Historic England is recommending the remains are given Scheduled Monument status, with the core remains of the site now to be located beneath a public open space, which will avoid damaging what rests beneath the surface.

Karl Battersby, the County Council’s Corporate Director for Business and Environmental Services, said: “This is a remarkable discovering which adds to the story of Roman settlement in North Yorkshire. Work by our archaeologists has already established the buildings were designed by the highest quality architects in northern Europe in that era and constructed by the finest craftsmen.

“Because of the significance of this, it is excellent to see that the layout of the new housing has been redesigned so this important part of our history can be preserved.

“There will be further work on the finds and environmental samples to try to establish exactly what this enigmatic site was and why it was created so far from other Roman centres.”

We provide archaeological services to Scarborough Council as part of an agreement to cover planning applications.