Excavating the CA archive: Roman villas – part 1

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 7 November. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI357, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman

Last month’s column on Chedworth villa in Gloucestershire got me thinking about Roman villas more broadly as both site-types and visitor experiences. I am willing to bet that almost without exception every reader of Current Archaeology has visited a villa at some point in their life, and that many have helped excavate one too. The best-surviving villas are some of the most evocative archaeological sites that it is possible to visit, and thanks to generations of schooling, some sites like Fishbourne are household names. In my next few columns I will explore villas, both well and lesser known, that CA has visited down the years.


The cover of the first issue of CA showing the well -preserved swimming pool in Hemel Hempstead, a site under excavation back in 1966, but now buried under the grass of Gadebridge Park.
CA’s very first cover star was the well-preserved swimming pool in Hemel Hempstead, a site under excavation back in 1966, but now buried under the grass of Gadebridge Park.

The first ever mention of a villa in CA came in issue 1 (March 1967) – right on the front cover! These are, arguably, the definitive site-type, with well over 100 villa sites mentioned in the magazine, some multiple times over many years. The first cover image starred the well-preserved swimming pool at Gadebridge in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. The site isn’t open to the public (although it survives under grass within Gadebridge Park), but the local Dacorum Heritage Trust undertakes excellent work to promote its history. CA visited Gadebridge in the summer of 1966 prior to the publication of issue 1, along with a number of other villa excavations then underway, including those at Eccles in Kent and at Rudston in Yorkshire.


The Roman villa at Sparsholt in Hampshire is a site that has featured regularly in the pages of CA, from issue 3 (July 1967) to, most recently, issue 304 (July 2015). Constructed in phases between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD, the villa is little-known since nothing is visible at the site today, which lies deep in a forest some 6km to the east of Winchester. The villa’s national significance is marked more subtly through finds on display in Winchester City Museum (where one of the fine mosaics from the site is the centrepiece of the Roman galleries) and also at nearby Butser Ancient Farm, where one wing of the villa has been reconstructed as both an exercise in experimental archaeology and also as a piece of public engagement. Fieldwork had been led at Sparsholt by David Johnston since 1965, and issue 9 (July 1968) gave a few more details, including of the mosaics recently discovered there. Only in issue 12 (January 1969), though, did the full story appear, with a lengthy article explaining both the excavation and layout of the site (the villa consisting of three or possibly four buildings around a farmyard) and its regional context. Fieldwork on site concluded in 1972, and sadly it then disappeared from view both in the pages of CA and more generally. Only in the 1980s did Johnston begin to work on its publication, a project that was cut short by his death in 2011 – this undertaking only concluded in 2014 through the efforts of a team formed by the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society.


Another villa that appeared in the early pages of CA is one that I suspect more readers have heard of and perhaps visited: Lullingstone in Kent, which has been in the care of English Heritage since the 1960s, following fieldwork there between 1949 and 1961. CA 3 (July 1967) introduced the site as part of a longer article about the arrival of Christianity in late Roman Britain. Lullingstone is unique in having evidence of two phases of worship: in a pagan shrine on site as well as a 4th-century Christian house-church including a chi-rho fresco – the only known Christian paintings from the Roman era in Britain. Not only do these paintings provide some of the earliest evidence for Christianity in Britain, they are rare – the closest parallels come from a house-church in Dura-Europos, Syria. For those of us who have never been to the site (the author shamefacedly included), this is a place that we all ought to visit on any pilgrimage to Britain’s villas.

Lullingstone in Kent also appeared in an early issue of the magazine, in an article on Christianity in late Roman Britain in CA 3.
Lullingstone in Kent also appeared in an early issue of the magazine, in an article on Christianity in late Roman Britain in CA 3. The magazine showcased the villa again in issue 223, when it reopened in 2008 after refurbishment.

CA only returned to Lullingstone again in the 2000s, reporting in issue 223 (October 2008) on the conclusion of a £1.3m refurbishment, with a new sound and light show that illuminates the ruined villa from above while telling its story. Issue 223 also tells a story within a story of this particular site, outlining how the archaeologist Tony Rook spent his childhood there, when his parents were the site’s custodians. As CA’s Chris Catling reported, they ‘had nothing more sophisticated than a hurricane lamp for showing visitors around when the villa was first opened in the 1950s,’ and ‘the site was then “covered only by a tarpaulin which we took off each day.” The Ministry of Works also provided Tony’s father with weather protection each year in the form of a new police raincoat; the raincoats continued to be sent every year, even after a building was erected over the site in 1963.’


Cover of CA 6, featuring Fishbourne Roman Villa
One popular Roman villa that has made frequent appearances in the magazine is Fishbourne. The villa was first featured on the cover of CA 6.

CA 6 (January 1968) featured arguably the most famous Romano-British villa of all on its cover: Fishbourne in Sussex. Fishbourne is now an incredibly well-known site attracting visitors from around the globe, but this was not always the case – it was only accidentally discovered by engineers working for Portsmouth Water Company laying a new water main across a field. As issue 6’s editorial notes: ‘It is sometimes tempting to believe that archaeology is practically finished: that all the really big, spectacular discoveries have already been made, and that all that remains is to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. The excavation of the Roman Palace at Fishbourne… gives fresh hope. For Fishbourne is just about the largest Roman villa yet to be discovered in this country, but until excavations began the site was virtually unknown, and was not even marked on the Ordnance Survey 1-inch map!’

This editorial also makes another point as pertinent now as it was 50 years ago: ‘the circumstances of the excavation are also noteworthy. For it is frequently said that the day of the private dig is over, and that henceforth only the state will be able to finance large excavations. This may well be so in the future: but Fishbourne was a private excavation, carried out by volunteers on behalf of the Sussex Archaeological Trust.’ As CA has consistently demonstrated from the first to the latest issue (and onwards), there is and hopefully always will be a rich culture in Britain of volunteers taking part in archaeology, with fieldwork at inspiring sites being undertaken by such groups.

Issue 6 outlined the work underway since 1960 by the Sussex Archaeological Society as led by Barry Cunliffe, at that point in his career a young professor at the newly formed archaeology department of Southampton University. CA returned again in issue 9 (July 1968) to celebrate the opening of a new museum on the site, which in its first eight weeks of operation attracted over 100,000 visitors, a sign of just how popular it was to become. CA then turned its attentions elsewhere, and only returned in the mid-1990s in issue 152 (April 1997), when fieldwork to the east of the villa revealed some intriguing evidence of a possible fort site – adjacent to, and partially underlying, the later villa – associated with the earliest Roman settlement of this area. The magazine’s most recent visit to the site came in issue 340 (July 2018) as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the opening of Fishbourne Museum. For anyone interested in the site, in Roman Britain, and also in the history of archaeology, this article is a must-read, with wonderful photos of an extraordinary example of volunteer-led archaeology that remains an inspiration to us all.


Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 7 November. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI357’

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.

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