A site plan taken from the geophysical survey of the winged-corridor villa to the west of Rossett.
In this and the next two posts I will talk about the Rossett Roman villa. Part 2 talks about the legwork, geophysical surveys and discoveries that built up to the Rossett Villa excavation, and part 3 will describe the truly excellent Rossett Villa Open Day on Saturday 18th September 2021, what visitors learned about what has been surveyed and excavated at the site to date, and what the plans are for the future. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted early next week.
In Part 1 today, I simply want to look at what a Roman villa in Britain actually was and what we know about them in general terms. I am far from being anything resembling a Roman expert, so this is intended to provide a top-level context for the discussion of the Rossett villa itself. Obviously this is a very short summary of an complex subject, so in Sources at the end, I have highlighted in orange the books, papers and websites that might be most of use to those wishing to read more about British Roman villas.
The archaeologist who guided us so excellently on the Open Day was Stephen Grenter, Heritage Services Manager at the Wrexham Museum, who balanced a natural gift for delivering information to a mixed crowd, with an encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject. He was great. Only a few points from his talk have been repeated here because most of his excellent explanations are incorporated in parts 2 and 3, but I just want to start with a huge thank you for such a great tour of the site, the enthusiasm with which so much information was imparted, and the friendly clarity with which the visitors’ many questions were answered. For those wanting to keep an eye on the Rossett villa excavation, its aftermath and future plans, use the hashtag #RomanRossett on Twitter to keep you updated.
This is a very long post, something of an essay, so if you might find it easier to save it or print it off. The entire post can be downloaded as a PDF here: Rossett Roman Villa #1 – What are Roman Villas
This page is divided up into the following short sections:
- The arrival of Rome in England and Wales
- Rome in the ground
- What is the purpose of a Roman villa?
- What features make up a Roman villa?
- Who lived in a Roman villa?
- Dating Roman villas
The arrival of Rome in England and Wales
The Roman Empire first dipped its toe into Britain’s Iron Age waters in 55BC, when Julius Caesar mounted an expedition to Britain. It was not, however, until AD43 that the Emperor Claudius decided to expand the empire and shore up his precarious position by providing himself some kudos as a military leader, and sent in the legions once again. This time, Rome came to stay for a very long visit, not leaving until the early 5th Century. That, as author David Johnston evocatively points out, is as long as the time between Queen Elizabeth I and the present day. For many generations life under Roman rule was simple normality. 400 years of Roman presence in Britain left an indelible stamp in the form of hundreds of archaeological sites, assemblages and individual objects, all connected by a phenomenal network of roads.
Aulus Plautius was the chosen commander of Emperor Claudius. He was the man who led an invasion force to Britain and landed in the southeast before expanding throughouth southern Britain. Aulus Plautius first found himself in the territory of the prosperous and sophisticated Catuvellauni tribe, whose reach extended from Essex to Surrey under the leadership of Caratacus and his brother Togodummus. Caratacus and Togodummus were defeated when confronted with the 40,000 men in four legions and supporting auxiliary forces. Caratacus abandoned his family and fled to the Silures tribe in southeast Wales to rethink his strategy. An alliance with the Ordovices was struck.
It was not until AD 47 that the Romans felt the need to turn their attention to the tribal areas of what is now known as Wales. Wales had many benefits from a Roman point of view, including rich mineral resources, fertile valleys and a long coastline. It would also have been a good source of manpower via voluntary enlistment or conscription. Perhaps most important, strategically, without peace in rebellious Wales, all Roman-controlled land to its east was potentially under threat. The first period of military hostilities between Rome and Wales lasted between AD 47 and AD 60, with multiple campaigns against the Marches and Welsh communities, starting in the southeast.
A gold stater (coin) of Caratacus, showing him on horseback in suitably fearsome mode. Source: Sunday Times
A significant event was the Battle of Caer Caradoc in AD 50, where Caratacus led armies composed of the Ordovices and Silures against the Roman military. In spite of the strategic advantage of Caratacus and his armies, holding the high ground, the Roman forces under the governor Publius Ostorius Scapula had weaponry, body armour and military experience that outclassed Silurian and Ordovician resources. Caratacus was defeated and ultimately taken into custody and carried to Rome where the Roman senate were sufficiently impressed by his speech that he earned a pardon from Claudius and lived out his life in Rome.
During the later 1st Century Rome began to expand out of the south of England towards the north. Towns were expanded and administrative civic centres were established. As well as soldiers, other professionals began to arrive from elsewhere in the empire, including officials, professional classes, traders and craftsmen, slaves and freed slaves. Some of these arrivals may have brought their families with them. Some of these newcomers stayed only on a temporary basis, others will have settled permanently, and all beginning to change the character of many areas of Britain.
The Romans did not have it all their own way. For example, the Silures went on to defeat a Roman legion in AD 52, and there was a brief respite for British dignity when the Boudiccan rebellion in East Anglia in AD 60 required the redeployment of troops, including those stationed in Wales. Full-scale invasion of Wales was temporarily abandoned and a strategy of containment was practised in Wales, with all of the only permanently occupied military bases lying along the border. David Mason, in his book Roman Chester, argues that “while there is no evidence of military activity at Chester in this period, the whole of Cheshire and the neighbouring portions of north-east Wales was undoubtedly in the firm grip of the Roman Army by the mid-50s” and that Roman forces had been active in the area for more than 20 years before the fortress was founded at Chester.
Wales in AD47. To the east of the Deceangli, in what is now Cheshire, was the tribal area of the Cornovii, who were based at Wroxeter. Source: Emerson Kent
In AD 73 under the Emperor Vespasian, Sextus Julius Frontinus was appointed Governor of Britain (AD 73-77), and it is during his tenure that much of Wales was fully conquered. Three legionary fortresses were established as campaign bases, at Caerleon (Isca Silurum), Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) and the port of Chester (Deva Victrix) the latter on the river Dee, navigable at that time to the Irish Sea. A number of temporary camps were also set up within Wales itself, setting the scene for “a network of garrison posts, incorporating fortlets and watchtowers, eventually linked by an all-weather road system” [Arnold and Davies] which was used to maintain control over rural areas. David Mason comments on the strategic value of Chester’s location:
Although of limited strategic importance during the initial phases of Roman penetration into the region, Chester came into its own with the expansion of the province in the AD 70s. The occupation of the Cheshire Plain as a means of driving a wedge between the Ordovices and the Brigantes had long been recognized and in the period of consolidation following their subjugation it made sense to exploit this natural advantage by installing a legion in the area.
Northeast Wales, in which Rossett and Burton are located, was the territory of the Deceangli whose territory abutted that of the Cornovii in what is today West Cheshire. Although there are a number of Iron Age hillforts in their territory, particularly along the Clwydian Range, there is no sign of conflict. Unlike other areas of Wales it seems as though the Deceangli offered no significant resistance to the arrival or Rome, and probably functioned as a useful buffer zone between the Ordovices and the troublesome Brigantes in the northeast.
Plan of the Chester legionary fortress at around AD75 showing the main features, including headquarters (principia), barracks (centuriae), the legionary commander’s residence (praetorium), workshops (fabrica), granaries (horrea), and baths (thermae). Source: Mason 2007, p.50, fig 20a
The establishment of the legionary fortress at Chester, the appearance of Roman roads and the presence of soldiers would probably have been seriously alarming to local inhabitants. A legion was made up of around 5500 men but together with slaves, servants and ancillary personnel this could have reached a number in excess of 6600. In addition, there were those who followed the legions, civilians who supplied the legions with the small luxuries of everyday life, as well as inamorata and unofficial families. How this impacted the Deceangli residents is impossible to assess at the moment because no Iron Age homes or villages have been found in northeast Wales. If Iron Age farms and/or villages had existed, It is difficult to assess whether any impacts caused by the legionary fortress would have been good or bad for local livelihoods. It is possible that local villages could have benefited from opportunities to sell their goods, because food would have been an urgent and ongoing requirement for the Roman fortress in Chester, and farming communities would have supplied it, probably via middlemen who lived in the sprawl of buildings that grew up outside forts. It is, however, also likely that the countryside was scoured for recruits to be pressed into the army, and taxes would have been imposed, which would not have been popular. The arrival of the Roman legion was always going to be a mixed blessing.
Rome in the ground
Some of the structural remains of Roman buildings in Britain are visible above ground level, like bits of Roman walls in Chester that were later repaired and expanded in the Middle Ages, and still visible when you know where to look. Some of Roman Britain was below ground until excavated and is now on permanent display, like the Chester amphitheatre. Some sites have been excavated and reburied to preserve them, and others are currently under excavation. Other buried sites have been identified via aerial photographs or geophysical surveys, but have not yet been excavated, and there must be dozens of sites that have not yet been recognized. One of the most complete sites in Britain, under excavation for decades, is the walled town of Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) in Hampshire, which is remarkable for not having been built over in modern times, apart from one or two farm buildings. It is a complete Roman town, in the middle of farming country (and it was my first ever dig!).
Fortunately, even if you can’t see the remains of buildings in the field, you can learn about Roman Britain via its objects. Finds from Roman sites fill museums throughout Britain, including the Wrexham Museum and Chester’s Grosvenor Museum. The current Hidden Holt exhibition at the Wrexham Museum (open til January 2022), which I reviewed on an earlier post, is a brilliant example of how objects and information boards based on surveys, excavations and ongoing research can continue to illuminate Rome’s impact on Iron Age Britain.
Rome’s impact on Britain, dotted all over the urban and rural landscape and preserved either in the ground or in museums and excavation reports, is remarkable.
What is the purpose of a Roman villa?
Artist’s hypothetical reconstruction of Sparsholt villa in Hampshire under construction. Source: Johnston, D.J. 1991 (cover photo)
A simple definition would state that villas are essentially rural farms or farming estates, with residential facilities, which were common to many areas of the western Roman empire. Villas are usually associated with well-watered lowland areas suitable for agricultural exploitation. Buildings described as villas were dotted through the landscape at reasonable distances from one another to avoid conflict over land.
Kevin Greene in his book The Archaeology of the Roman Economy (p.89), makes it clear that defining a Roman villa in terms of its job description is by no means straightforward:
Most British archaeologists would agree about the definition of perhaps 80 per cent of supposed villa sites in Britain, and will entertain no doubts about those endowed with fine mosaic floors and bath-houses. The problem arises over borderline cases – when does a farm become a villa? Excavation in Italy, Germany and Britain has demonstrated that many indisputable villas had humble origins, and developed gradually over several centuries from pre-Roman ‘native’ houses to rectangular buildings, first in timber and then in masonry or half-timbering. . . . At what point did they become villas rather than Romanised farmhouses?
It is a similar problem with much later landed estates, from the Middle Ages to the present day. When does a wealthy farm become a grand estate? Often so-called stately homes have rather more humble beginnings, sometimes as farms, and some of them have burned down by accident or have been deliberately demolished and, in both cases, rebuilt more than once over the centuries.
An artist’s impression of the Roman villa Latimer in Buckinghamshire, showing some of the main external features of a winged corridor villa. There is always a lot of guesswork in reconstruction pictures, because all that is left are the foundations of the buildings, and some post-holes of wooden structures if lucky. It is a useful way of visualizing what a building might have looked like, a way of imagining the past, rather than a set-in-stone vision of what it actually did look like, which is impossible to recreate. Source: Johnston 1994, p.35
There are at least three ways of answering Green’s question. The first is to say that all rectangular homes consisting of a run of rooms arranged along the horizontal axis are villas, whether simple or complex. That certainly makes life simple, but function. Another way of defining them is to say that they are Romanized rural homesteads attached to specific economic activities, made to a model that re-used a basic idea that was elaborated over time (i.e. the started off simple and became more complex). Ken and Petra Dark distinguish between the more luxurious villa and four types of “non-villa,” the latter defined as enclosed farms, unenclosed farms, dispersed settlements and villages.
Greene makes the point that not all villas were built for agricultural enterprise, but could be associated with other economic activities and that still others might have very little to do with income generation, but were built where they were because they were nice places for non-resident owners to visit. All these types of activity are very recognizable in today’s society. This is explored below in Who Owned and Lived in Roman Villas?
Two different ideas about the appearance of Abermagwr in Ceredigion, a small villa dating to c.AD 230, both views drawn by one of its excavators, Toby Driver. This demonstrates that although foundations may look much the same from one villa to the next, the actual appearance may differ considerably. The two interpretations also usefully suggests that the survival of inorganic building materials, particularly wood, may potentially offer an alternative interpretation. Sources: RCHAMW (top) and Wales Online (bottom)
If the purpose of a villa is essentially analogous to a farm, or as a base light industry, like pottery manufacture or metalworking, one would expect the internal rooms of the villa to reflect the way in which people lived in them. In the case of the more elaborate villas, some of the rooms can be understood as reception rooms because they have walls covered with decorative painting, and floors covered with sophisticated mosaics, but these were confined to the homes of the wealthy. Sadly, most of the time, the archaeologist is left with rubble and rubbish, and these scattered remains rarely make it easy to decide which room was allocated to which everyday function. As well as reception rooms, there will have been bedrooms, a dining area, a kitchen and storage areas, but it is not always possible to determine which room corresponds to which function.
Roman villas arrived rapidly, first appearing in southeast England during the 1st Century AD. Various types are known, and most correspond to areas where there was fairly dense occupation during the late Iron Age, where tribal elites were in power, and with whom sophisticated material remains were associated. Some villas were built over the top of Iron Age structures. In south Wales, Whitton in Glamorgan is a particularly good example of an Iron Age farm that developed into a simple villa within the enclosure that had defined the earlier building. Unless the Rossett Villa excavation reaches levels below the villa itself that change the picture (which would be terrific) no Iron Age sites are known in the immediate area, in spite of its water sources and excellent agricultural potential.
What features make up a Roman villa?
Villas are usually understood only from the surviving foundations of the building. Most were robbed of their walls for other building projects, and wood has mostly rotted into oblivion. There are very few clues about the appearance of internal and external walls. Gaps in walls indicating doorways may provide evidence of points of access and the width of a given doorway, but give no indication of what the doors looked like or how impressive they may have been. The location, size and character of window openings is only rarely preserved. Furniture almost never survives.
Of the four types listed by Ken and Petra Dark, aisled houses are shown at the top, and winged corridor villas (like Rossett villa) are shown beneath. Source: Dark and Dark 1997, p44-45
The foundations, however provide a lot of information, including the layout, scale and complexity of a building, and sometimes the floors and bits of fallen external and internal wall are preserved. Thin outer walls sometimes suggest a single storey building whilst wide walls suggest that two storeys may have been present, although de la Bédoyère points out that even thin lower walls could support a second storey superstructure built of wood. Imbrex and tegulae, Roman roofing tiles, found in amongst the rubble will suggest a tiled rather than thatched roof, but how the roof was built and what it looked like are rarely entirely clear. It is worth remembering that buildings with similar floorplans may actually have had very different appearances above ground level.
Ken and Petra Dark, building on the foundational work of the archaeologists R.G. Collingwood and I.A. Richmond from the 1960s, describe four main types of villa, based on the layout of the ground plan. A simple “cottage villa,” a simple rectangle subdivided into rooms with no corridors or wings. The “aisled house” was a slightly more refined version, with parallel internal walls or columns running the length of the rectangle to create parallel aisles, much like many churches today. Most common in Britain is the “winged corridor” villa like Rossett villa, which includes a separate corridor or veranda running along the rooms, and has two or more protruding rooms that form the wings. A “courtyard villa” extends the wings to create a u-shaped plan in which the house and its wings frame a square or rectangular space. A “corridor house” is the same as a winged corridor villa, but minus the wings. As with all typologies, these are just the basic forms, but of course there were many variations on these basic layouts.
The fully evolved villa shares some or all of the following features that are combined to make a recognizable entity:
- A rectangular house consisting of a row of rooms. The more elaborate buildings had a long corridor at the back of the rooms, and a wing at each end, sometimes a long veranda at the front
- Located in a rural area, usually lowland, often floodplains
- Consisting of a number of rooms separated by internal walls, usually including reception rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and a food preparation area
- Thatched, slated or tiled roof
- Stone walls with doorways and windows. Windows were rarely glazed due to the expense
- Plastered interior walls (the wealthiest of which were painted with patterns or scenes)
- Floors that could be surfaced in a number of ways (the most luxurious of which were mosaics, but which were usually a lot simpler)
- Storage areas, including under-floor storage (a cellar)
- Internal columns and sculpted stonework
- Use of decorative stones like imported marble (for very wealthy owners)
- Underfloor heating in the main reception rooms or just a central brazier to provide warmth (you would require something in Wales!)
- A central courtyard around which other structures were built
- Garden / kitchen garden / orchard
- Ancillary buildings, sometimes including bathing facilities that included of one or more heated rooms on raised floors, but also including storage facilities and stables
- High quality objects found within the confines of the villa building
- Fields surrounding the villa
Some houses were very simple and included only a few of these features whilst others could be very elaborate. Most lay somewhere in between, and no two were precisely alike. Some began as a simple row of rooms, and were later modified with the addition of a corridor to allow rooms to be accessed individually. Wings were often included in the original design but they too could be added later as the family grew, or the owner acquired more wealth and wanted to make the villa more impressive. Some villa complexes included outbuildings that created a courtyard, and some grew to include a second courtyard. These elaborations simply extended the original concept of the villa, and did not re-invent it. Even the so-called palace of Fishbourne in West Sussex is still recognizable as a villa, albeit a very ambitious one.
An undecorated tesselated floor made with chunky stone pieces under excavation in Bath. Source: Wessex Archaeology
Looking a little more closely at some of the features that often survive, there are many that tell us a lot about how villas were built, as well as what sort of financial resources the villa owners had available to them.
When one thinks of Roman flooring, the word “mosaic” springs immediately to mind, but even in the most impressive of the villas like Bignor, mosaic floors were restricted to only a few rooms. A mosaic floor is made up of up to thousands of individual pieces of stone called tesserae. Ornamental mosaics made of very small tesserae in different colours are arranged in complex patterns to form patterns or scenes. Very beautiful, these are works of art, and were correspondingly expensive, unambiguous indicators of wealth and status as well as good taste. The costs involved in the creation of individual pieces of the right shape and colour, the copying of patterns and scenes, and the laying of the pieces to create the required scene must have been enormous. There are much simpler versions as well. Some tessellated floors are very simple arrangements of blocks of about two inches (5cm) square and all of the same local stone. Nothing like the expense of an ornamental mosaic, they were still a significant investment. More common were floors of opus signinum (a mixture of mortar and crushed pottery sherds or stone). Examples of opus signinum have been found at the Rossett villa site.
Imbrex and tegula tile arrangement. Source: Wikipedia
Roofing tiles, called imbrex and tegula (plural imbrices and tegulae), worked. The arched imbrices, sit snugly over the upright edges of two facing tegula tiles, as shown in the above photograph, and the the triangular antefix tiles were placed to cover the ends of the imbrex. Less wealthy homes could thatch their villas.
In some of the rooms that would have been used for receiving visitors and entertaining, where mosaics would have been laid, plastered walls were sometimes painted with either patterns or scenes derived from Rome. Again, this represents a serious investment. A piece of painted plaster was discovered at the Rossett villa, but no details about it have yet been released.
Screengrab of a YouTube video of the hypocaust at Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight, showing how their hypocaust works to heat a room. Arrangements could be different, with the heat delivered by pipes instead. An excellent way of visualizing how a hypocaust worked. Well worth a look – and there are other excellent animations on the Brading YouTube channel. Source: Friends of Brading Roman Villa YouTube Channel
Under-floor heating was a sign of wealth. Some homes were heated only by braziers in the main rooms, but under-floor heating (a hypocaust) was a sign not merely that the owner had the wherewithal to afford its installation, but sufficient slaves to maintain it. See the animation to the left from Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight to show how a hypocaust works.
Bath houses, operating in the same way as under-floor heating, were common even in some of the simpler villas. They consisted of up to three rooms: a hot room, a warm room and a cold room. The floors of the hot rooms were built on short pillars called pilae, creating a space beneath the floor. The space was heated by creating a fire in a furnace, the heat from which was passed through a short arched tunnel or pipes into the underfloor space before being expelled through the walls. A separate bath building and, again, the slaves necessary to keep the heat coming, were indications of wealth, and was probably used to puff off a villa’s status. It is thought that a side-building at the Rossett Villa may have been a bath house, but this has yet to be confirmed through more excavation.
Pottery is usually found in large quantities at Roman sites, and villas are no exception. Pottery was used for preparing food, cooking, eating, drinking, storing, transporting, and at the top end, was displayed for its decorative properties. The most prestigious of Roman pottery is terra sigillata (or samian), which was imported from what is now France (eastern Gaul) and often featured beautiful decorative motifs in relief. These are often very complex and detailed patterns and would have been much-valued by their owners. Another form of pottery, black burnished ware, is a very common in sites in southern Britain because it was manufactured in Dorset, but it is also found on sites in the north, where it must have been imported because of its desirable properties. Sherds of both have been found on the Rossett site, together with other types as well.
Who owned and lived in Roman villas?
Whether they were simple or elaborate, villas were built by people who had ideas about what they wanted out of a building that would be both a home and a base for whatever commercial activity they were engaged in, usually on agricultural land, sometimes incorporating light industry, and were usually located in rural lowland areas. But who were the people building them?
Museum of London hypothetical but informed reconstruction of a villa room, including the original mosaic, from Bucklesbury villa. Source: Archaeology Travel
Guy de la Bédoyère comments that as well as having no names of any villa owner in Britain, we do not even know if a house remained with one family throughout its occupation, whether it was owned by one person and rented to another, whether a town resident employed a manager to care for the operation, or whether, in the bigger and more complex arrangements of multiple buildings, multiple families occupied the villa. It is not even known whether villas were inherited by family members on the death of the owner, although it is assumed that this must have been the case, unless the villa was built with a financial loan, in which case it may have reverted to whoever had made the loan. There’s no single answer to who owned both the villa and the surrounding land, but archaeology is always the realm of multiple possibilities.
First of all, building a villa required wealth. Coinage was in use, but payments could be made in the form of farm produce (e.g. barley, wheat and oats), livestock (e.g. cattle, sheep and pigs), manufactured goods, and anything else that builders and craft specialists particularly required. The arrival of Rome probably created wealth amongst the best-positioned farmers and craftsmen. As the requirements of the Roman army and Rome’s administrators became clear, middlemen will have thrived, and certain craft specialists will suddenly have become important suppliers. Farmers produced the food that fed the army. There were doubtless many downsides to the arrival of Rome, but for those in a position to take up the opportunities offered, there was the chance to become very wealthy very quickly. The opportunity to contribute to an organized economy, may have created layers of wealth in the areas around forts and towns. “Romanization” of British people, at first a tactic, will have created its own momentum, and as this happened the once alien styles of Roman life were copied.
I bought this piece of willow pattern china on eBay for £2.99 for a post I am writing about objects that I dig out of my garden. No-one would mistake it for a piece of 17th or 18th Century Chinese porcelain because for one thing it’s not porcelain (it is dishwasher proof, microwave proof and a very solid piece of crockery) and it is clearly not hand-painted. Finally, willow pattern was invented in Britain, not China. It illustrates how something exclusive, prestigious and elite will always eventually find a path to the lower echelons in the form of something with a similar appearance but much less refined in all its elements.
Whether looking at buildings or objects, it is worth remembering that grand cultural innovations, originally exclusive to invaders or the super-rich, inevitably trickle down from the wealthiest upper echelons to those further down the status ladder as cheaper versions become available. The process of fashion tied in with social ambition is an ancient phenomenon, but a useful analogue is Chinese porcelain in the 17th and 18th Centuries. At first only the super-wealthy could afford Chinese porcelain, but as it became popular in Britain, local potteries began to make inferior copies and cheaper ways of producing it were invented, making it even more affordable. Eventually, tea-sets and dinner sets that looked like Chinese ones were fashionable in all but the most impoverished households. It’s the same with imported foods, like exotic spices and interior design. As Rome became part of everyday life, and the wealthy, whether Roman or Romano-British, conspicuously differentiated themselves from the poor by their adoption of Roman ideas and designs, those who could eventually afford to copy the rich, even in small, simple ways, would do so, differentiating themselves from their own social inferiors. Quality and integrity of concept was usually compromised in this process, but a degree of the original idealized vision would be reproduced.
Gorhambury villa, near St Albans, was built within an Iron Age enclosure. Source: Neal et al 1990 (cover image)
Some of the villas were probably built by what are known as Romano-British landowners on their own land. Romano-British is a term used to describe indigenous British people living under Roman occupation. Rossett and Burton were on the land of the Deceangli, who were mentioned above. Although not much is known about them, the absence of any records of conflict implies that the transition to a life under Roman rule was relatively painless, with life continuing much as it had before. Still, the influence of Rome filtered within a generation into many areas of life, and villas began to spring up in the landscape. Sometimes rectangular villas are built over the remains of circular Iron Age roundhouses, which suggests that they were built by local people rather than Roman opportunists and may have had something to do with the relationship between these villa builders and the Roman economy.
Julian Baum’s reconstruction of the fortress at Chester and the outer buildings in the mid 3rd Century. Source: Take27 Ltd
Where a villa does not appear to have been built on the site of an earlier Iron Age farm, this may have been the result of new opportunities being taken up by Romano-British entrepreneurs in the vicinity of major Roman centres. Urban areas were a new concept in Britain in the 1st century AD, and they will have changed the economic landscape of Britain where they were established. Agriculture and livestock herding, once exclusive to the support of families and the local elite would now be feeding the Roman army, and although there may have been tensions about how this happened early on, some form of commercial arrangements must have been arranged as time went on, and this could have lead to considerable improvements for farmers who could take advantage of such arrangements. As discussed above, some of these new opportunities may have been converted into wealth-producing commercial ventures, and the role of middle-men in these commercial times would have been conspicuous. Perhaps they too invested some of their newfound earnings into the building of villas where they could emulate Roman traditions, entertain in style, and display their growing status.
Artist’s impression of Great Witcombe Roman villa, Gloucestershire, in the 4th century. Source: English Heritage
Other villas may have been established by Roman arrivals, long term occupants of Britain such as retired legionnaires who wanted to remain, perhaps because they had families. As mentioned above, legionnaires were not permitted to marry, but there was little to stop them forming unofficial relationships with local women and having families. The illegitimate children of such alliances were given Roman citizenship if they enlisted in the army. So in some cases, retired legionnaires may have wanted to stay either to remain with their families or because they could see a viable way of making a living, and in doing so incorporated Roman cultural and aesthetic ideals into their new homes or investments.
Villa owners would have shared the landscape with other Romanized sites such as burials and small temples, as well as more traditional farmsteads that owed more to Britain’s Iron Age past than Rome’s arrival. In the Rossett area none of these have been discovered, but the discovery of the villa suggests that many more sites, of various periods, have yet to be located. It is not known what sort of relationship, if any, villa owners will have had with more traditional neighbours.
Whilst we have no idea who lived in these villas, or even if they were all lived in on a full-time basis, they represent a considerable investment of money and time, and they were clearly highly valued as places of relaxation, commercial activity and social display.
Dating Roman villas
A reconstruction of how the early villa at Sparsholt may have looked, based partly on excavations. Source: Wikipedia
Although the earliest villas were simple, and the most complex appear only in the 3rd and 4th centuries, there is no straightforward progressive model that leads us from simple=early to complex=late, because although the earliest types are simple forms, the building of simple forms continues throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. As complex villas were built over a period of two centuries, being able to state that they were “later” than more simple ones is not actually particularly helpful.
Size, internal complexity, external flourishes, the presence of mosaics and painted plaster, underfloor heating, and a separate bath house, sometimes very large, would be examples of wealthier villa complexes. These may have been ambitious from the start, but more usually they grew in scope over time either as their owners became wealthier, as new generations tried out new ideas, or for that matter, as they changed hands. Putting villas into their correct chronological, social and economic context therefore requires more than a simple model of progression. Small and simple villas were built at the same time as complex villas and so, it should be remembered, were traditional round houses.
A selection of pottery found in Roman Britain showing some of the variety of shapes and styles available. The British Museum display includes Black-burnished ware jars, a Rusticated Ware jar, a Central Gaulish Colour-Coated Ware beaker, Trier Black-slipped Ware with white trailed decoration, Nene Valley Colour Coated Ware, a coarse ware cheese press and other fine wares. Source: Wikipedia. Photograph by AgTigress
For most archaeological structures, typology is a useful analytical tool for describing structures, but in order to place villas in a chronological sequence additional information is required. The objects found within the villa during excavation are much better indicators of date than the building itself, and can help to build up an idea of not merely when a building was first erected, but what happened to it through its life, and how long it was occupied for. Some objects are more diagnostic than others. Coins are invaluable, as they were produced during fairly narrow date ranges, which are known. The value of pottery to dating depends on the type and the style. Some pottery types were found throughout the Romano-British period, whilst others were specific to certain time ranges and are more useful. Mosaics, where they appear, may be used to help date a building, thanks to research that has focused on putting known mosaics into a chronological framework.
At the top is Lullingstone villa in Kent in the 1st Century, in the middle is Lullingstone villa in the 4th century (both from the English Heritage Lullingstone website, and the photo at the bottom is Lullingstone as it is today, from Guy de la Bedoyere’s book Buildings in Roman Britain.
One of the best known villa sites is Lullingstone villa. It is extremely useful for demonstrating the multi-period nature of some of these sites, and the odd things that can happen on their route from one state to another. It was apparently built in the decades immediately following the Claudian invasion, in the 1st Century A.D.
- The earliest phase was very like the Rossett villa, a winged-corridor construction, with a row of rooms backed by a linking corridor and two short wings. One wing contained a single room, beneath which was a late 2nd century cellar, that has sometimes been interpreted as a cult room. Unfortunately, later modifications of the building have eliminated more information about the earliest phases. Little is known about this phase of the structure as it is obscured by later modifications and reconstructions.
- In the early 2nd Century another building was added to the north of the house, an unusual circular shape that may have been a shrine.
- In the later 2nd century, a number of improvements were made, suggesting either that the owners were doing rather well for themselves, or that the villa had changed hands. A bath suite was built onto the side of the house, with an external door at the far end, perhaps indicating that it was used by visitors rather than the owners. The cellar, whatever its use in the past, was now unambiguously a cult room, decorated with wall paintings. Again, external access was provided.
- The most elaborate and luxurious version of the villa dates to the mid-4th century when gorgeous mosaics, a clear indication of wealth, were put down.
The greatest and best known of the villas are in southern Britain, and are deservedly regarded as the most impressive of Rome’s contributions to British cultural life. These include Bignor, Woodchester and Fishbourne (the latter built on top of the remains of an early Roman military installation).
Screengrab of a YouTube animation of the Roman villa at Brading on the Isle of Wight, complete with mosaics and painted internal walls. Even though this is a late villa, in the 4th Century AD, it is a simple wing and corridor type. Source: Friends of Brading Villa YouTube Channel
The Rossett villa appears to be along the simpler end of the scale, a step up from a simple aisled house, and typical of the winged corridor type that make up the majority of the villa types found in Britain. Pottery from the 2nd to 4th Centuries has been found. If Trench 1 turns out to be a bath-house, this would indicate an additional level of comfort and display, although I personally wouldn’t fancy the short walk from villa to bath-house on a typical Welsh wet winter day 🙂 Stephen Grenter was saying on the Open Day that surprisingly little pottery has been found, but as the dig continues, both this week (its final week in 2021) and next year, when they hope to open the site for another six weeks, hopefully a lot more diagnostic material will be pulled out to help to define more clearly both the date (including duration) and the character of the villa and its surroundings.
A final word
The winged corridor villa’s footprint is so familiar that it is almost an icon in books about Roman Britain, but at the same time villas are not well understood. It is not known what most of them looked like, from the ground up, and they could have looked very different from one another in spite of the similarity of floor plans. It is not known who lived in them or for how long, and although it is generally thought that they were owned by their inhabitants, exceptions may have occurred and there are few indicators to suggest which were owned, which rented (if any), whether there were absentee owners who left managers in charge, how often they changed hands, and what they cost to build or buy. It is not even known how they relate to the local and Roman economies. In spite of all the unanswered questions, archaeologists have done a great job of building what is known from the clues within and surrounding the villas distributed across Britain.
I would like to leave the very last words with an expert, so here are Ken and Petra Dark’s conclusions about villas and the landscape in which they existed:
Through the Roman period both the villa landscape and its extent changed and acquired new attributes. Likewise, the social and cultural system that produced it, and was enacted through it, changed. However, the villa landscape never came to cover the whole of Britain, despite its centrality to the society and economy in those areas in which it was established. In other parts of Britain other landscapes continued to co-exist with it, whether the ‘barbarian’ native region to the north of Hadrian’s Wall . . . or the ‘native’ landscape of the north and west [Dark and Dark. p.75]
Hopefully, the Rossett villa will contribute more to our developing understanding the landscape of northeast Wales.
For those wanting to keep an eye on the Rossett villa excavation, its aftermath and future plans, use the hashtag #RomanRossett on Twitter to keep you updated
Sources (for parts 1 – 3):
Good further general reading about villas are highlighted in orange
Books and Papers:
Arnold, C.J. and Davies, J.L. 2002. Roman and Early Medieval Wales. Sutton Publishing
de la Bédoyère, G. 2001. The Buildings of Roman Britain. Tempus
de la Bedoyere, G. 2003. Defying Rome. The Rebels of Roman Britain. Tempus
Clark, J. 2003. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Farndon. Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
Clark, J. 2003. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Tarporley. Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council
Collingwood, R.G. and Richmond I.A. 1969, 2nd edition. The Archaeology of Roman Britain. Methuen
Dark, K and Dark, P. 1997. The Landscape of Roman Britain. Sutton
Davies, J.L. and Driver, T. 2018. The Romano-British villa at Abermagwr, Ceredigion: excavations 2010–15. Archaeologia Cambrensis, Vol. 167 (2018)
Davies, J. and Lynch, F. 2000. The Late Bronze and Iron Age. In (eds.) Lynch, F., Aldhouse-Green, S. and Davies, J.L. Prehistoric Wales. Sutton Publishing
Greene, K. 1986. The Archaeology of the Roman Economy. Batsford
Johnson, P. 2002 (fourth edition). Romano-British Mosaics. Shire
Johnston, D.E. 1994. Roman Villas. Shire Archaeology
Mason, D.J.P. 2007 (2nd edition). Roman Chester. City of Eagles. Tempus.
Morris, M.G. 1982. Eaton By Tarporley, SJ57176341. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 8, p.49-52
Morris, M.G. 1983. Eaton By Tarporley, Roman Villa. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.67-73
Neal, D.S., Wardle, A., and Hunn, J. 1990. Excavation of the Iron Age and Medieval Settlement at Gorhambury, St Albans. English Heritage
Richmond, I.A. 1969. The plans of Roman Villas in Britain. In Rivet, A.F.L (ed.) The Roman Villa in Britain. Routledge
Rowe, J.E. 2015. Roman Villas of Wales. M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
Salway, P. 1984, 2000. Roman Britain. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press
Cefn Caer, the Roman auxiliary fort at Pennal. By Andie Byrnes. 3rd February 2019
Based in Churton
A touch of Rome just east of Churton #1 – Background to the Roman Road. By Andie Byrnes. 3rd April 2021
Brading Roman Villa YouTube Channel
The Abermagwr Roman Villa, Cerdigion
Lane Farm Cropmarks, Rossett
CPAT Regional Sites & Monuments Record
PRN 100020 – Ffrith Roman site (multiple site). Scheduled Ancient Monument FL164(FLT)
PRN 86912 – Ffrith, Roman Road
History of Lullingstone Roman Villa
Historic England Research Records – Monument Number 71430 (Eaton by Tarporley villa)
Abermagwr: The remote Welsh Roman villa which produced a unique cut-glass bowl and early evidence for the slater’s craft in Wales
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales
The Roman villa that made history: Abermagwr Villa, Ceredigion
U3A Ruthin and District
Mineralisation and Mining at Minera, North Wales. By Peter Appleton. Date unknown.
Rossett Roman villa dig underway in ‘history-changing project. 6th September 2021
Wrexham County Borough Museum and Archives
The Rossett Lead Pig