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Archaeology Report Spring 2021


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Selected Article from the BHAS Bi-Annual magazine "Flint" Spring 2021


Littlecote Roman Villa

Covid 19 prevented us from taking exotic holidays abroad during 2020, but I did manage a few trips in England. One of these was a 4-day break at Littlecote House Hotel (Warner Leisure Hotels) near Hungerford.

Littlecote Roman Villa is free to visit and is situated within the extended grounds of Littlecote House.

The villa complex comprises of 4 ranges, known as the East, North, South and West Ranges on the banks of the River Kennet.

The East Range of buildings formed the entry to the villa complex. In the early 4th C it was developed into an im-pressive twin towered entrance gateway, flanked by single storey buildings on either side.

This once lofty building formed the main entrance to the villa and is the most impressive gate house yet found on any villa in Britain. Triple arches supported two towers flanking a tunnel-like entrance passage. On either side of the tunnel there were two small rooms which may have been the gate keeper’s lodge and possible storage area. The building itself had massive buttress foundations which may have supported a large first floor hall above, approxi-mately 40 feet x 25 feet wide (13 x 7m). The building could have functioned as a grain store. There would have been further rooms above for storage or accommodation for workers. Attached to the Gate House on the south side are remains which have been interpreted as a stable block. The building to the north side of the gate was quarried away for building material in medieval times.

The North Range appears to have gone through 7 stages of development, from a round house in approx. AD60, through a series of domestic work buildings, to the unusual and exotic ‘Orphic’ structure of AD360. During the medieval period the last standing Roman structures were gradually demolished and used for building material.

Between 1650 and 1780, over the remains of the east end of the ‘Orphic’ building, a brick-built cottage was converted into a well-appointed house, probably the hunting lodge for Littlecote Park. It was in the garden of this house, whilst digging post holes for a new fence that the mosaic wasfound in 1727.

In AD360 the agriculture buildings along the river bank, with a small workers’ bathhouse, were demolished with only the west, north and east walls retained. They then formed part of an unusual building which has been interpreted by its ex-cavators as a telesterion, a sacred precinct dedicated to the cults of Orpheus and Bacchus. A decorated entrance hall, or narthex, was added onto the original east wall, looking di-rectly down the curve of the river.

From this a double door led into an enclosed and paved pri-vate courtyard. At the far end a small door gave access into an ante chamber with a newly enlarged bath suite to the right and steps on the left leading to an exotic triple apsed hall, a triconch, unique in Britain. This was paved with the most elaborate and evocative mosaic. Possibly a summer dining room (but such chambers are incredibly rare in Britain and they should have a fine view into gardens or open land-scape, which this does not appear to have) or could this be a cult building (it does date to the time of the pagan emperor Julian and a resurgence/restoration of the old religions, with temples and shrines being repaired and new ones built).

The Mosaic

Although usually referred to as the Littlecote Orpheus mosa-ic, the predominant feature throughout the floor is an illusion to the late Roman philosophic interpretation of the cults of Bacchus. The main figured area of the mosaic depicts at its centre a traditional image of Orpheus, the musician and priest to Apollo the sun god. In the surrounding quadrants, 4 goddesses representing the 4 seasons, dance a pirouette in front of fast running beasts.

These have been interpreted as four of the animal transfor-mations of Zagreus-Bacchus, the son of Zeus, when flee-ing his enemies, the Titans. The mosaic is a complex se-quence of imagery relating to birth, death and resurrection as depicted in Greco-Roman Art.

The West Range. Roman buildings evolved in this area of the site over some 330 years. Commencing soon after the Roman invasion of AD43, a possible small military base was established beside the Roman road, no doubt intend-ed to protect a fordable point across the river. By AD70 this had been removed and a small native community had settled on the site constructing circular timber-built houses. Early in the 2nd C, rectangular timber buildings replaced the earlier round one (This could be regarded as the first or proto-villa period). Shortly after the middle of the 2nd C,these were demolished and the first stone-built villa farm-house was constructed. This incorporated a suite of baths at its southern end. A detached smoke house, for curing meats and fish, stood just to the north of the house. Modi-fications and additions took place over the next 100 years up to AD270, when a major rebuild of the house took place. The internal baths were scrapped and a well, just to the south, was filled in and covered by a new courtyard wall. The under-floor heating system (hypocausts) and the internal furnace room (praefurnium) were also infilled and levelled to receive new solid floors. The outer corridors and rooms around the sides of the house were demolished and completely rebuilt on a much grander scale. Towers were built onto the front of the house at the north and south corners and mosaics laid in the principal rooms. Around the middle of the 4th C the south tower was made larger and an external stair gave access onto the first-floor veranda. The house at this time consisted of a more for-mal arrangement of residential rooms, as opposed to the earlier villa farmhouse and baths.

At the north end of the house, a narrow barn-like structure, probably a utilitarian store building replaced the earlier smoke house. A fallen wall of this building indicated a roof to the height of at least 26 feet (8m). The adjacent rooms formed a small cottage (around AD280) consisting of 2 liv-ing rooms and a corridor leading into a substantial kitchen, probably the residence for a high-ranking servant to the household. To the southwest corner of the house, founda-tion remains could indicate the site of a small cottage, or a replacement smoke house.The South Range. Originally an agricultural building of the early 3rd C, the South Range underwent extensive altera-tions around AD270 at the same time as the main house on the west side of the garden court. It is difficult to determine its intended function. Much of the superstructure of the building was removed in medieval times, reducing the build-ing to its foundations.

The building would have been striking in its appearance; its principal entrance consisted of a small flight of steps be-neath a twin columned porch of stone pretension (see pho-tograph). The steps would have led up to an elevated floor inside the building at least 3 feet (1m) higher than that seen today. A large central hall with a row of 6 stone columns down the centre would have supported the roof. This hall was later sub-divided when the bath suite was inserted. The unusual narrow front corridor gave access to a bi-partite chamber at the east end. At the west end of the building an intended bath suite appears not to have been built.

The Medieval Village

A large section of a medieval village of the 10th – 14th C, ex-tending between the river and the bridleway at the edge of the field overlay much of the Roman foundations. Pottery and other finds suggest that this village may have evolvedfrom a smaller Saxon settlement of the 8th – 9th C and which may lie beyond the excavated area to the rear of the villa.

A linear group of buildings developed along one side of the compacted roadway. These consisted of longhouses, work-shops, barns and a courtyard farm complex. These individ-ual plots extended towards the river and were separated by property boundaries. The foundations of these structures, along with fireplaces, post-holes and other features, had all been constructed with materials stripped from the ruined Roman buildings. Around the middle of the 15th C the vil-lage appears to have been systematically dismantled, in what is referred to as ‘imparkment enclosure’ and the whole area was converted into a deer and hunting park for the manor of Littlecote.

Jo Miller




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