Many readers of Current Archaeology will have visited Chedworth, one of England’s largest and best-preserved Roman villas, which is a National Trust property near Cirencester. If that trip was before 2010, you would have seen a layout little changed since the middle of the 19th century, with stub walls topped by curious ‘rooflets’; cramped sheds standing over the site’s mosaics; and indecipherable concrete settings that looked like garden paths. In other words, a period piece, but one that did not make much sense to many people seeing the site for the first time. Since 2010, though, the site has been transformed: today, visitors encounter the large new cover-building standing over the villa’s west range of rooms, as well as new signs and audio and printed guides to explain the site.
These changes are all thanks to a major grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to upgrade both the villa remains and the site’s visitor facilities – but another key aspect of this work has reached completion only this year, with the long-awaited publication of a major monograph documenting archaeological work on the Roman villa between 1864 and 2010. Released a mere 158 years after the site first saw the light of day, this is slow even for archaeological backlog – but the fact that it has finally seen the light of day is a major tribute to the staff of the National Trust, who surmounted so many hurdles (not least COVID-19) to bring the site to publication in partnership with the Roman Society (see ‘Further information’).
The story of Chedworth’s discovery has been told before in CA (see Joe Flatman’s column in issue 356 for a round-up of the magazine’s coverage of the site), but to summarise: the villa remains were first uncovered by James Farrer, whose antiquarian tendencies had already seen him eviscerate the great Neolithic chambered tomb of Maeshowe in Orkney – and he had the chance to exercise these tendencies again at Chedworth, as he happened to be a relative of the landowner, the Earl of Eldon. When Farrer was shown fragments of pottery brought to the surface by an under-gamekeeper’s ferret, he quickly recognised the material as Roman and, in one remarkably productive summer in 1864, uncovered almost all of what can be seen at Chedworth today. It was quick work, but unfortunately Farrer’s enthusiasm for digging was not matched by an enthusiasm for publication: he left no records to help us understand his work, and the great majority of his finds were simply discarded.
Nevertheless, Farrer did four things that put the Chedworth villa at the forefront of Romano-British sites. First, he conserved the villa rather than reburying it. Second, he partly rebuilt the Roman walls, capping them with the ‘rooflets’ that have confused generations of visitors. Third, he constructed shelter-buildings to protect the colourful mosaics that adorned many of the rooms. And, fourth, he built a museum to exhibit the selection of particularly notable finds that he had retained: apparently the earliest on-site villa museum in Europe. Unusually, Chedworth has been open to visitors since its discovery, greatly influencing contemporary views of the Roman period in Britain.
In 1924, the Earl sold the Stowell estate on which Chedworth lay and, at the instigation of the wonderfully named Welbore St Clair Baddeley, the villa was separated off, purchased by public subscription, and presented to the National Trust. Little more was done to the site, though, until Sir Ian Richmond conducted an important series of excavations in the 1950s and 1960s, works that clarified much about how the villa had developed, but also bequeathed the concrete ‘pathways’ that in fact mark out the lines of buried walls. There is a sense that the Trust did not really know what to do with a villa at this time; indeed, the waspish writer and expert on country houses James Lees-Milne (who worked for the Trust at the time) advocated turning it over to the Ministry of Works. Since then, though, there has been a series of small-scale, targeted interventions that have shed illuminating light on the site. In particular, in the last decade Martin Papworth has undertaken a fascinating series of excavations on the villa’s north range, which he will discuss later in this article.
Building on the past
How much of Chedworth is Roman? This might sound like an odd question, but little of the Roman stonework in the walls at the site today is actually in its original position. Ever since Farrer’s reconstruction work in 1864, the fabric has undergone numerous modifications, and unpicking which features belong to which period has been a key aspect of the recent research project on the villa. To this end, a laser scan of the whole site has been undertaken to record, analyse, and better understand the fabric of the complex – something that will be an invaluable research and management tool in the future. These results were then combined with a stone-by-stone on-site visual recording and analysis, but other key insights came from a rather earlier resource. This was a series of detailed surveys of the villa produced by George Edward Fox, an architect and archaeological illustrator who visited the site in 1886. His remarkable measured plans and elevation drawings, today conserved at the Society of Antiquaries, give 3D-effect plans of the villa along with detailed representations of some areas. Crucially, Fox omitted everything he did not consider Roman, thereby providing a baseline for identifying what was 19th-century and later, and his images proved a huge asset to our work, without which full understanding might not have been possible.
Another invaluable resource was the large number of photographs of the villa that were published as postcards and fashionable cartes de visite in the 19th century. These images start to appear not long after 1864, and examining them has allowed us to identify many of the subsequent alterations that had been made to the villa walls, and to deduce when they happened. Finally, we have also drawn on the National Trust’s archives of documentation referring to works since the 1950s. As a result, it has now been possible to create a series of interpretative drawings identifying which interventions were 19th-century in date, which early 20th-century, which later 20th-century, and which of this century.
All of this is not to say that modern visitors to Chedworth cannot see any upstanding Roman masonry. The best place to spot such remains is in the west baths, where the stump of a field maple cut down in 1864 still sits on stonework which must therefore be Roman, its jointing wider than the modern reconstructions. However, Farrer also used Roman debris to supply the stone for his rebuildings and Roman roofing-slabs for his ‘rooflets’ – this latter material was also employed during the construction of the lower parts of his shelter-buildings. This means that, at first sight, much of the walling looks ‘Roman’, but the differences in jointing and the Roman remains underlying some Farrer masonry give the game away. In addition, sometimes Farrer’s wall-lines deviate from their Roman predecessors, and he took no account of doorways: one room, according to Farrer, had no door at all.
After Farrer, further rebuilding was undertaken as and when needed, such as the reconstruction of the central parts of the west range and much of the south range after the Second World War. Meanwhile, Ian Richmond’s work in the 1950s and 1960s involved him rebuilding large parts of the west end of the north range, during which he capped the walls with concrete tiles. This was done without reference to the National Trust, and caused much unhappiness – both with the final effect and with Richmond. More recent work has been more sympathetic to the site’s Roman appearance, though: we have, for example, removed Farrer’s ‘rooflets’ as being too confusing for visitors, though alternative ways of capping the walls against the weather satisfactorily have yet to be found. Nonetheless, the fabric survey and analysis will underpin future conservation of the villa remains, and these efforts will now be much better informed, literally building both on the Roman and more modern works.
Exploring the finds Emma Durham
As mentioned above, most of the finds that Farrer uncovered at Chedworth in 1864 were thrown away, with only choice pieces being retained for the on-site museum. We do, at least, have material from more-recent excavations, but understanding them collectively has, historically, been difficult. Although individual finds have been published by researchers over the years, previously there had been no consistent effort to report on the collection as a whole. Even groups of finds, such as sculptured stone from the site, were not completely published due to missing pieces or difficulties in accessing them – and reports on finds uncovered during some of the smaller interventions had not been possible at all.
Producing the monograph gave us the opportunity to examine the surviving finds collection in its entirety, and even for materials that have been published, the large scale of the project allowed authors to re-evaluate their reports and include additional material that has been discovered since their reports were written. It is now possible to compare Chedworth to other villas, both in the Cotswolds and further afield, and while the Chedworth assemblages are very similar to those from other sites, there are a number of interesting features that stand out. Chedworth is particularly notable for the large number of locks and keys that have been recovered from the site, suggesting highly security-conscious occupants, which may be related to the possibility that the villa was not in occupation throughout the entire year, being locked up when the owners were absent. It has also produced an unusual quantity of evidence associated with bone-working, and of large ceramic mortaria imported from a range of sources in southern and midland Britain and also from the Rhineland.
Three groups of material in particular deserve special mention, though. One of the more neglected assemblages from the site was its building stone, but we have now been able to delve into this material in depth, shedding light on how the villa was built and decorated. For example, Kevin Hayward’s contribution to the project has not only given full descriptions of the construction materials, architectural elements, roofing, and paving, but also provides more precise descriptions of the stone types, and has even pinned down possible quarry sources in the vicinity of the villa itself and further down the river Coln towards Bibury. Other stones for special purposes came from the Forest of Dean and as far away as Kimmeridge in Dorset for mosaic tesserae. Meanwhile, Susan Walker’s study of marble fragments has revealed that this material was imported from a wide range of sources, and was of unusually high quality for a Cotswold site. Some veneer fragments have now been identified as Proconnesian marble from the Sea of Marmara in modern Turkey, while another piece, probably part of a decorative panel, was quarried on the Greek island of Euboea, and still more fragments have been traced to the wider eastern Mediterranean area.
Another significant aspect of the villa finds is its collection of sculptures, carved in local stones. Martin Henig has examined several statue fragments that he had not previously seen, and he has identified these as probably parts of depictions of Diana, goddess of the hunt. Such a subject is not surprising at a site where there is evidence that hunting was an important pastime – as we will discuss further below.
Finally, Chedworth is particularly well known for its colourful geometric mosaics. Farrer had reburied all but four of the ‘best’ examples that he uncovered in the 19th century, but later repair and conservation works on the site had uncovered tantalising glimpses of what lay beneath the surface. Some of these have since re-emerged thanks to the investigations carried out since 2000: a colourfully floored corridor was excavated in the west range in 2010, while several decorative surfaces in the north range, which had not been seen since Farrer’s day, were uncovered in 2013 (see CA 284 and 305). These latter works also exposed a completely unknown mosaic, one of the largest yet found from Roman Britain, in what is thought to have been a grand reception room (CA 297). Stephen Cosh has studied the mosaics for the new monograph, and the similarities that have been identified between the Chedworth mosaics and those at sites like North Leigh in the Cotswolds and Stonesfield in Oxfordshire shed light on how these expensive floors were created and used.
In terms of layout, the villa as bequeathed by Farrer and curated by the National Trust is essentially the villa at its maximum elaboration, around the middle of the 4th century AD. But, as with almost all 4th-century Romano-British villas, this was just one phase of a prolonged development, one which began c.AD 120 and which, thanks to Ian Richmond and now Martin Papworth, we are much better placed to understand. From the 2nd century, the villa seems to have had three independent ranges of buildings to the north, south, and west, but around the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries these were welded into a single complex by the addition of a series of ‘galleries’ or porticos – creating the layout that we still see today.
Opulent Late Roman villas such as Chedworth were very much machines for entertaining, where the proprietor (dominus) could show off his wealth, culture, and taste. At Chedworth, this is manifested in the apsidal rooms at the west end of the north range that could have been used for receiving guests, the baths where the villa owner could relax with them, or the cenatio (dining room) where he could show off the quality of his cuisine, tableware, and entertainments. The cenatio at Chedworth contains the site’s highest-quality mosaic, depicting scenes of the myth of Bacchus and Ariadne and showing off the Classical learning of the dominus. There may well have been a parallel but separate female social life and entertainments presided over by his wife, though this is not so evident in the archaeological record.
Some entertainments were less sedentary: as we have discussed above, Chedworth seems to have had a strong association with hunting, and perhaps with the goddess Diana. Ever since Farrer in 1864, excavators at Chedworth have remarked on the quantity of red and roe deer antlers and boar tusks recovered from the villa, while quantities of spear- and arrowheads have also been found there. Hunting was a favourite Late Roman aristocratic pastime, though statues of Diana demonstrate a religious dimension, too.
Chedworth is more famous for echoes of another religion: Christianity. A local spring had been captured in the octagonal basin of an apsidal nymphaeum, a shrine to the nymphs. Later, the coping-stones of the basin wall were inscribed with the Chi-Rho motif, a Christian symbol, so presumably the nymphs had been exorcised from the living waters by this time. Interestingly, though, these Chi-Rho stones were found removed and recycled as building material for the steps up to the west range cenatio and baths. It seems Christianity may not always have had it all its own way at Chedworth.
The villa in its settings
Chedworth’s Cotswold setting boasts the greatest concentration of villas in 4th-century Britain. This includes some of the largest late villas such as Woodchester, with its huge mosaic, or the villas of North Leigh and Stonesfield in Oxfordshire. Chedworth itself was just one of a series of villas in the upper part of the Coln valley about which we need to know more, such as Compton Abdale and Withington. A 4th-century traveller passing through this ‘landscape of prestige’ would have been well aware of these rich residences, and of the very particular nature of the countryside which would have been managed to facilitate the breeding and hunting of game around sites like Chedworth.
The Cotswolds were not the only area of Late Roman Britain with these aristocratic residences, however. To the south and south-west, Gloucestershire, Somerset, and Dorset were also home to elaborate villas, while still more major sites lay along the ‘Jurassic ridge’, a sweep of limestone from the Cotswolds on through Oxfordshire and up into Lincolnshire – those in Lincolnshire are equipped with splendid mosaics. Clearly, in some regions, aristocrats competed through the size and splendour of their fixed assets, particularly villas. But in other regions, for instance East Anglia, there are few late villas of any consequence – but signs of material wealth are still in abundance. It is the region that has yielded the greatest concentration of portable wealth in the form of hoards of silver plate and jewellery, such as those from Hoxne and Mildenhall in Suffolk.
This pattern of regional presences and absences of elaborate villas in Britain fits with other areas of the Western Roman Empire. There are notable concentrations of large, ostentatious villas in Aquitaine, in north-central Spain, and on the Mediterranean coast, and around the imperial residence of Trier in Germany. These villas share many characteristics with their British counterparts: elaboration of plan, ambitious reception rooms, richly equipped bath-suites, and an abundance of mosaic, though they use marble much more than in Britain. So Chedworth and the British villa concentrations form part of a wider pattern, not just a British peculiarity. This shows that Romano-British aristocrats felt themselves part of this wider imperial aristocracy of wealth and influence and taste, and were linked into high-level power networks. We must envisage the 4th-century domini of Chedworth not just as powerful local nobles, but ones operating also on the imperial stage.
Recent excavations Martin Papworth
Having discussed work at Chedworth in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, what have more recent investigations revealed? The nine years from 2010 to 2018 saw a number of excavations at the site, carried out by National Trust archaeologists and volunteers. One such undertaking spanned 2010-2012, during the construction of the new protective cover-building that was constructed over the west range. There, three mosaics were re-exposed, including a 34m-long floor surface running the whole length of the west range’s ‘gallery’ corridor (see CA 284 and 305). We also found evidence of alterations to this space: the mosaic was overlain by two flights of stone steps leading to the west baths and the dining room, while doorways from the gallery had once led to rooms at ground-floor level, before the hypocausts were constructed and the floors raised.
Between 2013 and 2018, it was the turn of the north range to be examined. During this time, trenches were dug beside the nymphaeum, as well as within the baths and further to the east in various reception rooms (see CA 373). Although most of the upper stratigraphy had been removed in the 1860s, our excavations were able to add considerably to the understanding of the villa’s development. Though not plentiful, some pottery and a few coins were recovered from sealed contexts enabling various phases of the villa to be more closely dated, backed by radiocarbon dates from charcoal found in foundation-trench fillings and other buried deposits.
The earliest walls revealed under the west and north ranges were narrower and reddened by burning, suggesting a catastrophic fire destroying a largely timber-framed building in the earlier 2nd century. Meanwhile, a few scattered fragments of Late Iron Age pottery, found in various contexts, hint at pre-Roman use of the site – and we could also trace how the villa itself had evolved over time. The north range bathhouse, for example, had been altered on several occasions; in 2013, we uncovered the apses of the tepidarium and caldarium, and found that these had originally been plunge baths that were later converted into hypocausts before being demolished and buried within a colonnaded portico. Steps from there led up to the new bathhouse changing room, floored with crushed tile, and beneath this surface was an even-earlier hypocaust infilled with packed building debris, including fragments of various patterns of painted plaster and chunks of mosaic. A group of coins found above the debris and below the floor dated this phase to the mid-4th century.
Then, in 2018, on the east side of the baths we uncovered the entire mosaic floor of Chedworth’s 18m by 6m reception hall and, beyond its eastern doorway, the mosaic floor of the gallery which once led to the various private rooms of the villa, some of which had been investigated the previous year. Radiocarbon dates have shown that the western rooms were built in the late 2nd to early 3rd century, while the eastern block of rooms was added in the later 4th century. There was a bigger surprise to come, however. Unexpectedly, the wall dividing Room 27 and Room 28 in the north range was dated to the 5th-6th century, suggesting that Room 28’s mosaic – which was created after the space was divided – is unusually late (CA 373). Further radiocarbon samples will be collected from these rooms next year.
There are further archaeological revelations to come: while the new monograph considered some of the evidence from our 2010-2018 excavations, the full results will be published in a separate volume, with details of the 2020 LiDAR survey of Chedworth’s wider landscape, once all the specialist reports have been completed. Watch this space for more information about what is proving to be a truly significant villa site.
Further information Simon Esmonde Cleary, Jason Wood, and Emma Durham (2022) Chedworth Roman Villa: Excavations and Re-imaginings from the 19th to the 21st Centuries (Britannia Monograph Volume 35, ISBN 978-0907764496) is published by the National Trust and the Roman Society. It can be purchased through Oxbow Books or at Chedworth Roman Villa bookshop. Chedworth Roman Villa is a property of the National Trust. It is open daily between February and the end of November. Usual opening times are 10am to 5pm, but from 31 October until 27 November the property closes at 4pm. Last entry is half an hour before closing. See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworth-roman-villa for more details.
All images: National Trust, unless otherwise stated