Skip to comments.Roman villas found under playing field
Posted on 08/17/2002 10:13:48 PM PDT by LostTribe
Roman villas found under playing field By Catherine Milner, Arts Correspondent (Filed: 18/08/2002)
The remains of two Roman villas have been found under a football pitch in Wiltshire in what is believed to be one of the most significant archaeological discoveries since the early 1960s.
The houses, which were built for Roman aristocrats in about 350AD, have 40 rooms each and feature an extensive mosaic which is thought to be one of the biggest and best-preserved Roman examples ever found in Britain.
Archaeologists from Bristol and Cardiff universities, who are carrying out the excavation, have also exhumed the body of a Roman teenage boy, whose head had been cut off and placed at his feet.
The excavation, which began last week on the sports fields of St Laurence's School, Bradford-on-Avon, is expected to last for five years and will be conducted by a team of 40 academics and their assistants.
Dr Mark Corney, a lecturer at Bristol University's archaeology department, who is leading the dig, said that the villa complex was akin to the Blenheim Palace of its day.
"It is the most significant site since the discovery of a Roman palace at Fishbourne in West Sussex in the early 1960s. The condition of the mosaic is the most incredible feature. The walls of the original building and roof tiles collapsed on top of it, so it has been preserved in mint condition for more than 1,500 years," he said.
"The people who lived in these houses had a lot of money. The mosaic is very high quality, made, we think, by the top workshop of the day that was based in Cirencester."
So far only a small part of each villa has been excavated, although aerial photographs reveal that they cover an entire football pitch.
The mosaic, which measures 16ft by 30ft, covered the floor of a large hall which joined the two houses. Made up of tesserae - tiny tiles - of different coloured limestone, it features an interlocking design of squares and a vase flanked by dolphins - symbols of rebirth and good luck in the ancient world.
Fragments of some delicate glass cups imported from the Rhineland have also been dug up, while the academics are especially interested in the discovery of the remains of a teenage boy. He was buried on his front with his head, which was removed after death, placed by his feet.
"This was a late Roman burial rite," said Dr Corney. "However, the reasons behind it are far from clear. The current interpretation is that it was for people who had particular powers in life. The Romans believed that the head was the seat of the soul and so they had to chop it off to ensure that those with these special powers didn't come back to haunt those still living."
The villas are thought to have been part of an estate that stretched across about three miles and included a family cemetery. Flanking the houses are traces of formal gardens - possibly including ornamental pools - and the remains of raised structures that could have been flowerbeds.
Dr Corney said that the complex was likely to have been built on profits from the wool trade, which in the fourth century made the West of England one of the most affluent parts of the country.
"The villas also seem to have had three separate bath houses," he said, "suggesting that there were separate, though probably related, family units dwelling in the same complex. It could have been occupied by grandparents, parents and children, or two brothers and their families.
"There may have been smaller buildings further afield. In some aerial photographs you can see track marks and the networks of old fields and the remains of buildings like barns."
The decision to excavate was taken after teachers noticed how, in the summer, the football pitch became scored with yellow lines of parched grass which corresponded with the Roman walls beneath.
Ian Bolden, the school's bursar, said: "Children at the school often used to graze themselves on bits of Roman brickwork or pottery sticking out from the ground while they were playing football. The remains were remarkably close to the surface - just one foot or so below ground."
Public access to the excavation is currently limited and the mosaic has been covered with earth to protect it. English Heritage, the school and the local council are, however, in discussion about how they can open the site to the public.
Mr Bolden said: "At the moment, we are liaising with the universities and other archaelogical experts, but if there is a way to make it profitable and also for the children to benefit from learning about archaeology, too, then that is what we will try to aim for."
Roy Canham, the archaeologist for Wiltshire county council said: "This is a major find. It appears to be a much larger site than we first thought and is in superb condition."
Mr Canham added that the Cotswolds appeared to be popular among the rich Romans. "Perhaps the views reminded them of Tuscany," he said.
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The Cotswolds, the region where this was found is west of London, in the region of Oxford University, famous for it's archeology department, and where the Ashmolean Museum is located. I think this site is on the old Roman travel route between London and what the Brits today call "The West", where so much mining activity took place during Jesus time.
Joseph of Arimethia was in the shipping business big time, hauling tin from "The West" of England to Palestine, and probably to Rome as well. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he undoubtedly had lots of business clout (and of course owned the tomb in which Jesus was buried, briefly).
Interesting. The head of a Roman household, the Pater familias, legally held the power of life and death over members of his family and the household staff including slaves.
For example, the wife of Claudius Ceasar was executed on his order. She was beheaded by a Praetorian guard.
I don't know how archeologists at the site would have determined the teenager had his head separated from his body after death; it seems something a forensic pathologist would have to determine. But I can imagine an enraged Roman father or grandfather killing a young man for dishonoring the family in some way.
Roman writings of the period record such incidents.
Those had to be tough times, even for the wealthy.
Yes, it's rare to stumble into a find of this magnitude. Especially since this part of England sometimes seem so well "picked over" already.
There has been a lot of nonsense about how much Amaricans and the Romans are alike. They were no where near being like us.
Bob Villa ---"Norm will repair the plumbing in the vomitorium, while I talk to the architect about converting the slave quarters to a new family room and entertainment center complete with colleseum style surround sound."
Give us a few more years. Wait and see!
Isn't this also the site of the of the tin mines of the Carthaginians (Phoenicians) of the 8th century BC? I've read that the Carthaginians ran a shipping blockade at Gilbralter to protect the source (England) of their tin.
Beautiful mosaic! IMHO, The "tile work" in Italy is the best in the world... but they got nothin' on America when it comes to stucco!