The Ditches : the first Roman villa in the west

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The Ditches, GloucestershireIn the mid-1980s, a group of archaeology graduates excavated a Roman villa in the Cotswolds but the true significance of the villa is only just being revealed: not only is it the earliest known example of a Roman stone building in the Cotswolds (built AD 75–100), it stands within a late Iron Age enclosure that also contains a contemporary round house and adjacent to Bagendon, long claimed as the ‘tribal capital of the Dubunni’.Finds from the site include coin moulds and a touchstone used for testing the purity of gold. What does it all mean? Christopher Catling reports.

The Ditches, Gloucestershire, derives its name from the earthworks of what the Royal Commission described in their 1976 Gloucestershire Cotswolds survey as ‘a hillfort’, with a visible bank and three-foot-deep ditches on the northern and western sides. The bank and ditches have since been ploughed away, and it was the rapid erosion of the site by agriculture that brought amateur archaeologist Will Saunders to undertake
fieldwalking at the site in the early 1980s.

His finds then prompted archaeology graduates Steve Trow (now of English Heritage) and Simon James (now of Leicester University) to undertake a series of summer rescue excavations from 1982 to 1985. Digging what they had assumed was an Iron-Age site, they uncovered a sixroom Roman villa built of dressed oolite,the local Cotswold building stone. Villas in the Cotswolds are not unusual, of course, but almost all those excavated so far date from the 3rd or 4th centuries.
t the site in the early 1980s.

Imagine, then, the sense of excitement that accompanied the discovery of a brooch, embedded in a wall, dating from AD 70–80 and much pottery mixed up in the wall mortar that dated from AD 50–70, all suggesting that this villa was built around the third quarter of the 1st century AD. So, not only was this villa constructed within decades of the Roman invasion of AD 43, it was built at a time when private accommodation built in stone is extremely rare anywhere in Britain, and remained so until the latter part of the second century.Section through the cellar wall

The subsequent development of the villa included the construction of a timber veranda in the early 2nd century AD, which was, in turn, replaced by a stone-built corridor running all the way around the main block, also in the early 2nd century AD. At the eastern end, the corridor descended into a cellar, which
might have been used as a cold store for food storage. Two wings were added to the southern corridor in the early to mid 2nd century AD, so that the plan of the villa now resembled the lower half of the letter H.

The Ditches, showing charcoal layerEvidence suggests the cellar collapsed in the period AD 150-175 and a fire later destroyed what remained of the wooden roof structure, causing the unsupported end wall to collaspe, perhaps in the early to mid 3rd century.

Whatever the precise sequence of events, it is clear this villa was effectively abandoned well before most of the other villas of the Cotswolds were even conceived, and its heyday was clearly in the early years of the Roman occupation.

The Ditches showing collapsed wall of cellar

A subsequent geophysical survey, undertaken by Tom Moore of Durham University, revealed that the ditch and bank that the Royal Commission had interpreted as defending a hillfort, was in fact part of a Gussage-All-Saints type enclosure, with two antennae ditches creating a long funnel-shaped entrance. Instead of being constructed in the centre of the enclosure, the villa sat slightly to the north. Occupying  the central spot was a curvilinear feature, which Tom Moore interprets as the drip gulley of a late Iron Age roundhouse, linked to the Roman villa by a path, which suggest that the roundhouse was still standing and perhaps even in use when the villa was constructed.

Here, then, was rare evidence of the transition from the timber and thatch roundhouse tradition that had dominated architecture in Britain for at least a thousand years to a new rectilinear architecture in stone. But to build a villa in Britain at such an early date was not, of course, simply a matter of personal taste: it was an unambiguous statement of political support for Roman authority made by someone who had the power and the wealth to import the skilled Gallic masons that Britain lacked, and the motive to build a house that was pretentious for its time, comprising what would have been a startling combination of alien features – the most westerly Roman villa yet known in Britain from the 1st century AD.

This is a cut and condensed version of the article, to read more see issue 217


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