Villas, Sanctuaries, and Settlement in the Romano-British Countryside


Did all the buildings in the Roman countryside that we call ‘villas’ perform the same function? Were they mostly nicely appointed homes of people who had done well at farming, or country residences of the well-to-do with little connection to the surrounding land? The opening premise of this book is to challenge the notion that all villas were farms, which is tackled in a collection of papers from a 2009 conference. While there has been a little updating, readers should be mindful that much of what is written here is more than a decade old. There is a noticeable emphasis on western Britain, and the volume contains some interim essays on excavations not yet fully published, plus some regional and thematic studies. Architectural studies are to the fore, which poses the question of whether the study of a building’s plan can reveal its function.

Two papers by Bryn Walters and David Rider re-evaluate the Gloucestershire sites of Chedworth and Great Witcombe, which can both be visited. Whereas Chedworth has benefited from investment, Great Witcombe is in a somewhat sad state these days. The papers develop an idea first promoted by Graham Webster in 1983 that these two sites were not farms nor country houses, but shrines. A recent study of Chedworth by Simon Esmonde Cleary favours an interpretation of seasonal occupation, which I find attractive as, if you go there in winter, you will appreciate just how cold the spot can be. Great Witcombe is a curious structure, both in terms of its location, on a hillside riddled with springs, and its plan. It might well be rather different to most other Romano-British villas.

There are many interesting ideas in this book, but in most cases hard evidence is lacking. The way forward for villa studies is likely to be through an integrative approach. Geophysical survey of the environs of the villa house often tells us much about context, especially when combined with rigorous analysis of the finds and biological evidence. In time we might be able to develop analytical ‘villa fingerprints’ which will allow us to compare and contrast these familiar, but still perplexing structures.

Martin Henig, Grahame Soffe, Kate Adcock, and Anthony King (eds)
Archaeopress, £58
ISBN 978-1803273808