Monday 30 April 2018

Roman Villas of Chedworth and North Leigh - Cotswold 2018

Artist's impression of the Roman villa at Chedworth in the later fourth century 
With all the fun putting together my collection of Warbases Roman buildings I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the inspiration behind creating them, namely the archaeological sites that I have visited recently and reported about in previous posts including Carolyn and my visit to the Cotswolds in February where together with a visit to Roman Cirencester we took in visits to two Roman villa complexes at Chedworth and North Leigh.

These two very different sites reached their zenith in the early to late fourth century with the original buildings having developed into magnificent centres of agricultural endeavour dominating their surroundings.

The first seen above and below is the villa at Chedworth, a site discovered in 1864 by a gamekeeper out ferreting for rabbits and later dug up and revealed by Lord Eldon in the later 19th century with the protective stone capping he fixed to the exposed walls still in situ today.

The site today is owned and administered by the National Trust and they have taken the initiative of Lord Eldon further by building a modern protective building over the main living quarters of the west wing and north wing bath house and thus providing all weather protection to the archaeology revealed.

As mentioned in the visit to Cirencester, the land surrounding the city was not declared Imperial property and thus was open to wealthy citizens to set up villa complexes to provide food for the army and a good profit for the owners.

Thus as the map below reveals, this part of Gloucestershire is spoilt for the number of Roman villas that have been discovered over the years since Chedworth.

The first buildings to be built under the Roman occupation at Chedworth Combe (valley) were three simple detached buildings each of a few rooms together with a small bath house, constructed in the second century AD and thought to have formed the core of the later complex we see now.

As the model above reveals, the complex was built in an east-west valley, with the principle buildings and kitchen at the head of it, close to a natural spring that was used to feed the shrine in the north west corner.

From the 330's to 380's AD the villa was extended with the courtyard separated by a cross gallery and a large residential wing added to the north, with several large reception rooms decorated with elegant floor mosaics and heated by hypocaust floor and wall systems to add to the luxury.

In contrast the southern wing seems to have been used as a service area and accommodation for slaves and servants with the kitchen and latrines situated in the south west corner which is where you enter the villa today.

The villa latrine built right next door to the kitchen area - nice!

Next to the latrine building to the right the walls of the south wing can be seen following the valley down hill

The remains of the south wing and its service buildings, with the linking gallery to left alongside the Victorian hunting lodge and museum building

The first set of buildings in the south wing as you enter the complex, with the National Trust office top right

Looking along the south wing, thought to be the service buildings in the villa

Below is the area of the kitchen built right next to the dining room in the west range, thus ensuring hot food delivered to the table.

The kitchen building attached to the end of the west range and adjacent to the dining room

The west range is covered by a new building built in 2011-12 that covers the recently revealed mosaic floors now visible to the public, and the display boards below, at the entrance explains the history and development work since 1864.

The beautiful mosaic floor of the connecting corridor gallery

The National Trust have done a magnificent job in displaying this amazing building and I hope my pictures do justice as the light has to be controlled in the building to protect the now exposed floors.

The dining room in its heyday.

Since its discovery in 1864, the room seen below has been interpreted as the dining room or triclinium, latin for 'three couches', and the artists impression above gives a good idea of the room in use in its heyday designed to impress and show off the wealth and good taste of the host.

The dining room in 2018

The dining room would be accessed via a lobby, seen below, similarly decorated with a fine mosaic.

The lobby extends along the length of the west range connecting to the dining room, other apartments and the bath house at the far end

The exposed parts of this building are under constant attack from three key areas, moisture in the ground, moisture in the air and biological growths.

The moisture content can cause damage from freezing and drawing out the mineral salts within the building which can crystallise causing the mosaics and wall plaster to flake and crumble around cracks caused by freezing.

Left unchecked a lurid green algae can soon cover the exposed finds and this has to be dealt with by regular exposure to ultra-violet light that has proven to be very effective and without causing damage to the remains seen.

The large dining room floor mosaic is split into two halves with the geometric pattern flanked by plant scrolls at one end, where it is thought the couches would have been arranged, giving way to an octagonal layout depicting Bacchus, God of wine embracing Ariadne with the four seasons in each corner panel including a depiction of winter with byrrus Britannicus in a hooded cape carrying a hare and a leafless branch.

The dinning room floor with myths associated with Bacchus in the centre and winter Britannicus in the top corner

The view from the Bacchus mosaic to where the dining couches would have been arranged

The figure depicting 'Spring' 
The gaps in the dining room floor reveal the remains of the upgrading the villa received in the middle of the fourth century when this, the oldest part of the complex received a hypocaust system which would have only made the dining experience that more comfortable.

The addition of hypocaust heating with vented flue tiles in the walls would have made the building very comfortable

The remains of the hypocaust floor system

One of the other apartments between the dining area and the west range bath house

At the same time the hypocaust was put in, a smaller bath house, one of two, was also added to the west range, accessed by the same lobby.

The cold plunge pool in the west-range bath house

Roman bath houses are very regular, no matter what size, with hot and cold rooms and plunge pools interspersed around areas to sit and chat.

The bath house was heated on the same hypocaust system with the water boiler room seen below. The walls were similarly warmed with hot flue-tiles set in them that vented at roof level and thus drew in more hot air from the stoke hole by the created up-draught.

At the end of the west range the visitor comes to the natural spring that flowed into the valley and was incorporated into a shrine consisting of an octagonal basin which in turn supplied the villa.

This area was open and covered the angle between the west and north range of buildings and is thought to be a shrine to the nymphs or a nymphaeum, but it is likely that the spring already had a British Goddess before the arrival of the Romans who would have continued to rule over the place only under a Roman guise.

The octagonal pool of the nymphaeum

The same spring that welcomed the Romans still flows today

The next set of buildings are those of the north wing where one encounters the second bath house complex with the addition of a laconicum or very hot, dry heat room, named after the Spartans of Laconia probably in recognition of the fortitude needed to sit in it for any length of time.

The remains of the boiler room heating the second bath house complex attached to the north wing buildings

The covered remains of the the north wing bath house

The fact that this villa has two very separate bath house complexes has caused some debate as to why and for what reason. This has caused theories to arise that perhaps this was to allow for separate bathing facilities for men and women, a popular theory among the Victorians!

The fact was that Roman men and women tended to bathe separately any way and indeed mixed sex bathing was to have likely attracted unfavourable comment in the Roman world.

What ever the reason for the creation of two bath houses the likelihood is that they were both used to entertain and discuss business with important guests and as the villa grew over time there was a need for more accommodation and the facilities to go with them.

The North Wing is where the future work to understand more about this impressive building is needing to be done.

The illustration below gives an idea of what this suite of reception rooms, guest accommodation and a second dining room may have looked like and already a new set of impressive floor mosaics have been revealed in archaeological digs.

The North Wing with its luxurious bath house and guest apartments and second dining room

Looking from the north wing bath house along the range of rooms that made up this impressive addition to Chedworth villa

There is still more work to be done to more fully understand and interpret these rooms

With the recent work done and more to come I am sure we will re-visit Chedworth in the future to see what new discoveries are made in the years to come.

The wood chippings help to cover and preserve yet more mosaics revealed in recent digs

The area looking towards the Victorian shooting lodge and the site of the discovery of the floor mosaic seen above

The tile pillars of the hypocaust system protected from the recent snow and winter weather reveals this to be a room of high status

The hypocaust vents can be seen throughout the buildings in the north wing leading right down to its eastern perimeter wall
The last buildings of the northern wing give way to a splendid view along the lower valley and at the time of year we visited, valley sides carpeted in snow drops.

The snow drops were in abundance and glorious to see on a sunny February day

The last bit of Chedworth was a tour around the Victorian shooting lodge now home to a small museum of artifacts recovered over the years from the site.

The Roman tile maker's hand print preserved for eternity

And likewise his cat

The range of items link the place to the people and the work and the animals that would have called Chedworth home.

Helix pomatia

Some of those inhabitants are present to this day with the distinctive Roman snail, Helix pomatia, a species introduced by the Romans as an edible delicacy originating from northern Italy and found in abundance around the villa.

Coins, jewellery and decorative fittings discovered at Chedworth

A box wall flue brick (centre) that vented hot air into the walls, with lead piping above it

Stone relief of a hunter god

The villa had food preparation at the heart of its work with lots of evidence of pots and cutlery in use

The spear and arrow heads could be military but more likely for the gentleman owner to use on hunting expeditions. The coins at the top of the picture range from Nero 64 - 68 AD, Lucilla 164 - 169 AD, Commodus 178 - 192 AD, Caracalla 211 - 217 AD, Elagabalus 218 - 222 AD, Valerian 253 - 260 AD and Constantine I 306 - 337 AD.

Parts of a spring lock and key show that doors could be secured without the need for a guard

Furniture fittings, decorated wall plaster and other items suggesting a sophisticated lifestyle for the times

Thus we concluded our visit to a fascinating building with, it seems, still very much more to be revealed in the coming years and well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. 

The second Roman villa we visited was very different in its presentation and size, though no less interesting and captivating with its revelations and situation.

North Leigh Roman villa in the early fourth century - Peter Urmston

This visit took us over towards where we stayed last year outside Oxford at Dorchester on Thames, on the north western side of the city near Woodstock.

North Leigh is very rural, and that's putting it mildly, and so we switched on the sat-nav to point us in the right direction that eventually led us to parking up in a muddy lane lay-by, opposite the English Heritage sign pointing along an equally muddy track heading down hill, to who knew where.

So after putting on the walking boots and trusting to the custodians of the national heritage that they might know where this place was we were eventually rewarded with the view below of obvious signs of buildings laid out in what is now pasture land.

The view of North Leigh Villa from the narrow footpath leading down from the lane

This venue is free to the public to visit and well signed with information viewing boards situated around the site to inform the uninformed exactly what they are looking at.

As you can see from the map of the layout, the villa is similarly laid out around a central courtyard or garden area as at Chedworth and dates to a similar period for its construction and later development.

Abandoned in the fifth century the villa would come to include four bath suites, eleven rooms with underfloor heating and nineteen mosaic floors.

The circular wall of the north bath house part of the north west range of buildings

The north west range looking towards the building covering the exposed mosaic floor in the dining/reception room of the south west range

Iron age pottery discovered on the site would suggest that this area close to the River Evenload was in previous occupation before the arrival of the Romans.

Hypocaust system in the north west range apartments

Just as at Chedworth, it would seem North Leigh went through periods of later development that added to its size and complexity.

North Leigh is one of the larger known Roman villas in Britain and may have been owned by a prominent Roman official but just as likely a high status member of the local population taking full advantage of their Romanised live style and the luxury it had to offer.

The information provided by English heritage was really good and made interpreting the site very easy with the added pictures by Peter Urmston to make the view even more vivid in the imagination.

The north-west corner bath house

Even to the addition of information about the archaeological finds on the site that included this coin forging kit discovered in the north west bath house.

Though very different in their history and presentation both these villa sites were thoroughly enjoyed by Carolyn and me and if you are interested in Roman Britain well worth visiting.

The final piece from our 2018 trip to the Cotswolds moves from the fifth century to the seventeenth century when I conclude this series of posts with a look at the last battle of the first English Civil War.