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
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
keepers 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
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).
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
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.