ENGLAND: Double anniversary for Chedworth Roman Villa
One of the largest Roman Villas in Britian celebrates two anniversaries in one year. Matilda Hickson finds out more
As always, it is the unexpected discoveries that are often the best, and one hundred and fifty years ago, a ferret chasing a rabbit down a hole led to the discovery of one of the most significant Roman finds in Britain today.
In 1864, an everyday ferreting expedition led to the chance discovery of one of the grandest Roman villas in Roman Britain, when gamekeeper Thomas Margett’s ferret was stuck down a rabbit hole on the young Lord Eldon’s estate in Gloucestershire.
As he dug the ferret out, Thomas spied a patch of mosaic pavement. Realising the significance of this, he reported it to Lord Eldon’s uncle and guardian, James Fareer, who was a keen antiquarian and member of parliament for South Durham, who quickly organised the excavation of the site.
Chedworth’s Roman villa lies just 8 miles north of ancient Corinium Dobunnorum (Cirencester) and just off the major Roman road known as the Fosse Way. It is situated near to a beautiful wooded coombe which overlooks the valley of the River Coln, where a natural spring arises. There have been settlements here since the Iron Age, and the first house built here in Roman times dates to about 120 AD. The house was one of 50 Roman villas in the Cotswolds, and one of nine in a 5 mile radius.
Over the course of nearly three centuries the villa evolved into the grand fourth century mansion whose ruins can be seen today. The house began as a modest settlement of three separate buildings to the south and west with a detached bath house to the north. In the third century, the south and west buildings were re built following a fire and the bath house was enlarged to the east.
But it was in the fourth century that it expanded to become a sumptuous dwelling. The existing buildings were linked by a covered portico, and an inner garden and outer courtyard were created. The northern half of the west wing was converted into baths, and the northern baths were converted to dry heat baths, so the house had both damp heat and dry heating baths.
Eleven of the floors were decorated with fine mosaics and a new dining room wing was added to the north building. The villa is thought to have been destroyed in the fifth century.
The mosaics at the villa form one of the largest collections in Britain of Roman mosaics still in their original positions. The tesserae (small cubes of coloured stone) were mostly sourced locally from the Cotswolds (whites, off-whites, olive), Somerset (blues, greys) and the Forest of Dean and south east Wales (purples, purple browns) with broken brick or tile for the reds. The workmanship varies widely, from the sophisticated work that can be seen in the dining room mosaics to the coarser gallery mosaics.
Most of the surviving mosaics have geometric patters, and this is a common pattern seen at other villas in the Cotswolds, Somerset and Oxfordshire. Popular patterns included the diagonal cross pattern, and filler motifs of triangles and lozenges. The scrolls of vegetation seen in the smaller dining room are very similar to details in the largest mosaics of Roman Britain found at the Woodchester Villa near Stroud.
Other remains at the site
A nymphaeum was built at the site of the natural spring, and the remaining rear wall, two metres high, is the original roman wall. There is also a Chi Rho symbol scratched on the edge of the pool. This is one of the earliest forms of Christograms used. It is formed by using the first two letters, chi and rho, of the word Christ, in capitals, to form the monogram. It is used to invoke the crucifixion as well as symbolising his status as Christ.
Eight hundred meters to the south east of the villa, the remains of a RomanoBritish temple has been found. It was a rectangular building, but only two corners of the building remain today. However, alter pieces in the villa museum are thought to come from here.
Another building lay just 150 m north of the Villa in the woods, but this was destroyed when a railway was built in 1869. Coins, pillar fragments, glass tesserae and
hexagonal tiles were found here. There is also a stone relief of a hunter with hound and deer, that came from one of these sites.
Past & present excavations
The excavations in 1864 took two years and were financed by Lord Eldon. He also built a mock tudor lodge which houses the museum and provided accommodation for the custodian of the site. The idea to build a museum on site, as well as to provide protection for some of the structures in the north and west ranges, makes Chedworth stand out. It became one of the first excavated Roman villas in Britain not to be re-buried or just left to decay, but to have its remains conserved and laid open to view.
The National Trust acquired the site in 1924, after a public appeal and subscription made it possible. So 2014 is a double celebration of one hundred and fifty years since the site was discovered, and the 90 years that it has been owned by the Trust.
But work is still being undertaken to preserve and record the site. In 2012 the site was re-opened following a major renovation project, with a new shelter building protecting the fragile remains of the West Range and allowing intimate access to its magnificent mosaics and new museum displays.
The new cover enabled more rooms and corridors of mosaics to be displayed to the public, accessed on suspended walkways, with new interpretation and conservation of the remains. The project was recently awarded one of the three Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awards for the South West and was one of the only two UK projects short listed for the prestigious World Architecture Awards.
On going archaeology
An ongoing programme of archaeology and conservation means that the site and the interpretation of the remains are constantly evolving. An impressive 34 m long corridor mosaic, previously hidden under tarmac, was excavated in July 2012, making it the longest intact mosaic in the country.
In 2012 a geophysics survey of the field below the villa revealed more extensive remains than had previously been realised. It showed that both the north and south wings extended east beyond the present fence boundary, with a possible grand approach to the villa, and an eastern edge to the entire complex.
In 2013, excavations in the North Wing revealed an earlier bath house next to the current one, thereby confirming that the villa residents carried out some home improvements.
In 2014, radio carbon dating of grain found in a pit in the South Range indicated that it was buried between 420 - 460 CE. By this time, Britain had been abandoned by the Roman Empire and provincial economies were in decline.
So the archaeological work continues from ground resistivity surveys, to laser scans of the site, to using ultra violet lamps to eradicate algal growth. Discoveries are ongoing, allowing visitors to be part of an exciting story as it unfolds.
The Villa, c.380 CE
Reconstruction of the villa in the 4th century