Work unfinished: Brading villa on the Isle of Wight

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Discovered in 1880, the villa at Brading on the Isle of Wight has mosaics to compare with the best in the Roman Empire; consequently it is studied and celebrated as an example of Romano-British art at its most accomplished. New work by Barry Cunliffe, 130 years after the villa’s discovery, has revealed that the mosaics are just one small part of an unfinished story, which he set about unravelling. Chris Catling reports.  

Brading in its most Romanised form. The owner’s original accommodation block, bottom left, was built in the 2nd century and survives, though now in general agricultural use. The owner moved to the aisled hall (top right) in the early 3rd century, sharing this accommodation with  other members of the estate community, before moving into a much grander, mosaic-floored house (top left) in the late 3rd or early 4th century.

Barry Cunliffe’s fascination with Brading villa began long before he became a professional archaeologist. He recalls that the villa played ‘a special part in my archaeological life. It was the first Roman villa I ever visited in the early 1950s. My several lone pilgrimages to the site by bus, boat and steam train from my home in Portsmouth were a part of growing up [he was born on 10 December 1939]. Arrival at the site, with its musty, rather derelict aura, was always an excitement. The mosaics were, understandably, objects of wonder, but so too were the shadowy remains of the North and South Ranges, then entangled in undergrowth. It was work unfinished and therefore particularly intriguing.’

The decay and dereliction that Barry found at the site was the consequence of the decision to keep the site open to the public after Captain John Thorp exposed the first mosaics in 1880. At first the site was left unprotected but, as Thorp recorded in his notebook, as soon as news of the discovery got out,

A watercolour of the excavated remains, dated November 1882, showing the detached 2nd-century bathhouse that was ‘entangled in undergrowth’ when Barry Cunliffe first visited Brading villa in the early 1950s.

‘a motley crew of men, women and children [began] doing much mischief in picking out Roman tesserae in all directions, those ignorant creatures supposing there must be a great treasure of money buried on the spot.’

Open to the public
Sturdy wooden fences were erected round the site as excavation continued to completion in 1883. Parts of the site that were deemed to be of minor interest to visitors were then back-filled, while wooden huts were constructed to protect the mosaics and bathhouse. In 1908, the mosaic huts were replaced by steel and corrugated iron structures, but unprotected parts of the site had by then suffered extensive frost damage, and the baths were now being used as a rubbish dump. After the initial excitement of the discovery, visitor numbers declined from a peak of 884 in 1885 to just 11 in 1907. They then ranged between 200 and 800, with considerable year-by-year fluctuations, until the outbreak of World War II, at which point the site was taken over by a Home Guard unit. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the villa courtyard, once the site of a formal Roman garden, was divided into ‘Dig for Victory’ allotments.

By the time Barry began his pilgrimages to the villa in the 1950s, it was a very sad sight indeed. Worse was to come. Serious flooding in 1990, and again in 1994, submerged the villa in contaminated floodwater, focusing attention on the vulnerability of the remains. The Oglander family, owners of the site, faced a difficult decision: whether to close the villa and bury the remains or, as English Heritage advised, to donate the villa to a charitable trust set up to manage the remains. They chose the latter course, and the trustees of the newly registered Oglander Roman Trust set about a vigorous campaign of fund-raising. This, together with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, produced the £3m that paid for an award-winning exhibition and visitor centre, which opened in 2004.

These remarkable mosaics were added in the 4th century when the  new villa was remodelled and its northern end turned into a possible shrine: in the middle, between the two piers, is a panel showing a Greek philosopher with rod, globe, and sundial, while the foreground scenes show Medusa in the central roundel, surrounded by figures from Classical mythology. When they were first discovered in 1880 or 1881, a stout timber fence was erected to deter would-be treasure hunters, and also control access so that an entrance charge could be levied to help pay for the excavation.

Brading beckons
Not long afterwards, in 2007, Barry retired from the post of Professor of European Archaeology at the University of Oxford. Brading had intrigued him as a boy, and now beckoned again, when the Oglander Roman Trust asked him to carry out a new programme of research excavation at the villa. For, despite all the decades of study, survey, and excavation, the focus on the spectacular mosaics meant that there was no chronological framework for the site as a whole, no real understanding of the building sequence at Brading, and no sense of how the villa might have been used, or how it fitted into the wider landscape.

The major Late Iron Age and Roman features in the vicinity of Brading villa (visible in the centre as a group of creamy orange structures) as revealed by geophysical survey. It shows a landscape of fields, enclosures, lanes, and ploughed-out round barrows.

Nor was there any sense of what came before or after, and that was something that Barry, with his preference for looking at the longue durée, the bigger patterns and cycles of human history that tend to be hidden beneath shorter-term phenomena, tackled right from the start, with fascinating results. The story of Brading, we now know as a result of Barry’s work, is one in which there are surprising resonances across those artificial divides that archaeologists impose upon time.

Prehistoric land-use
For a start, although no nucleus of Iron Age settlement has yet been found, it is clear that the people who lived here before the first Roman-style buildings were constructed at Brading were already enjoying some of the finer aspects of a Classical lifestyle from as early as 50 BC. Geophysical survey of the land around the villa revealed a busy landscape of ploughed-out round barrows, fields, lanes and enclosures, lynchets, postholes, pits and gulleys, ditches and fence slots.

The scene in August 2008, as Barry’s excavations get under way. To the left are the footings of the owner’s original 2nd-century accommodation block; the new visitor centre and cover building, completed in June 2004; to the right, re-excavation has uncovered the western end of the huge aisled hall; and at top right, spoil from past excavations has been formed into an ‘amphitheatre’ for outdoor events.

When these features were excavated in order to establish their dates, the colluvial soil that had washed into them contained artefacts from every period, including Mesolithic microliths, fragments of Neolithic polished flint axe, fragments of a copper-alloy gouge and a socketed Bronze Age axe, Early and Middle Iron Age pottery, and large quantities of imported amphorae, north Gaulish white and cream wares and the red-slipped Samian-like terra rubra. From these pottery assemblages it was clear that the communities living in this part of the island had access to wine and oil from Italy, and fine tableware from northern Gaul up to 100 years before the Roman occupation.

Barry goes further and says: ‘the settlement at Brading was very well sited to command the maritime network supplying these exotic wares, and evidently benefited from its position’. In fact, it would be difficult to find a place so well positioned for the good life. Brading occupies a bench of well-drained sandstone, backed by a chalk ridge, from which filtered freshwater emerges from several springs. Soil washed from the chalk ridge has left the site with a blanket of highly fertile topsoil, up to 0.7m deep. The thin, well-drained chalk soils above are perfect for growing cereals, and ideal for rearing sheep, the flocks being let onto the fields to graze between crops and during fallow periods.

The site looks out over an extensive estuary, a source of such natural food resources as fish, molluscs, seabirds, eggs, salt, and aquatic plants such as samphire. At high tide, cargo vessels could probably have sailed to within 300m of the villa site, enjoying a safe and calm harbour. And, Barry adds, ‘the views from the villa are still one of its glories… it is not too fanciful to suppose that the Romano-British residents had an appreciation of landscape and the picturesque’.

The first villa buildings
This was the perfect site, you would have thought, for some big-wig oligarch to monopolise with a trophy villa, enjoying the good life while living off the fat of corruption, extortion or a monopoly over some essential commodity. In fact, the first buildings on the site suggest something rather more egalitarian and hard-working. Some time in the later 1st or early 2nd century, an aisled hall was erected on the  southern side of the villa site. The entire building was of timber, apart from the blocks of Upper Greens and that served as pads for the main structural timbers. Measuring 25m in length by 14.5m wide, this looks not very different from a Medieval hall, and was probably used in the same way, as a base for communal activities.

This aerial view of the aisled hall gives an impression of its impressive scale: the hall is some 50m end-toend and 15m wide, with a series of chambers at the western (right-hand) end providing private accommodation, and an open hall at the eastern end, very similar to the arrangement of a Medieval manor house or open hall.
The detail of one of the pier bases shows how the cross walls dividing the aisles into a series of rooms coincided with the vertical piers of the nave.

Alongside to the east was a relatively modest detached bathhouse, and to the west a three-roomed structure, possibly providing private rooms for the site’s owner. Bones and pollens from ditch deposits suggest an agricultural economy, with spelt, emmer wheat, and barley as the main grain crops, plus oats and pulses. Cattle, sheep, goat, and pig were well represented, and donkeys or ponies were present as work animals. There is evidence of butchery and carcass-processing, including the removal and working of horns.

A bigger hall is called for
So far, so modest. The farm or estate seems to have prospered and produced a surplus, because the aisled hall was dismantled at the end of the 2nd century, when a new and much larger aisled hall was built 65m to the north. The new hall was the same width as the old, so some of the nine trusses of the old might have been recycled for the new 12-truss hall, with its masonry external walls. Unlike the old, the new hall was divided internally, with a suite of rooms at the western end, where some of the rooms had heated floors, and plastered and painted walls. The arrangement was clearly intended to provide comfortable accommodation for the owning family, while leaving the rest of the hall for communal activities.

Such a hall, with its partially open plan, represents the sort of close bonding between a patron and his dependants that we associate with the Medieval period. The communal open hall formed the focus for the daily life of an extended community, while private chambers provided a space to which the patron and his close family could retire. Much like the Medieval lord of the manor, the owner probably presided in the open hall over daily meetings to discuss work on the estate, to resolve disputes, to transact business, and to throw the occasional party, with feasting, dance and music.

Neither is Brading the only example: there are plenty more aisled halls with private rooms at one end elsewhere in Hampshire. The villa at Carisbrooke, on the Isle of Wight, is so similar to Brading in plan that it might have been designed by the same architect. These partly communal buildings seem to reflect something fundamental in the social structure of southern Britain that survives from the Iron Age and continues into the Medieval period — a good example of the longue durée.

Pages from the notebook of Captain John Thorp, who first identified the site of the villa from fieldwalking finds, and whose first small excavation in 1880 came down on the mosaic of the chicken-headed man. He interpreted it as a ‘caricature of the dog-headed Anubis’, the jackal-headed god associated with the afterlife in ancient Egyptian religion.

And more splendid yet
Something then changes in the 4th century, when somebody with the power to monopolise the estate’s resources builds a substantial new villa on the western side of the site. This is a much grander affair altogether, with an east—west axis and a symmetrical suite of heated rooms looking out onto a formal walled garden, incorporating a nymphaeum.

This villa represents an entirely new social order: the aisled hall is still used for the broader social interactions involved in the running of the estate, but the owner and his immediate family no longer live and socialise with hoi polloi. Instead the guests they welcome into the house probably come from their own social sphere, people with the aesthetic taste to be able to appreciate the fine centrally placed mosaic of Orpheus charming the wild beasts with the music of his lyre, and the knowledge to understand its symbolism (some archaeologists have argued that Orpheus represents Christ; others that he is Apollo Cunomaglos, a combination of the Roman deity and a British hunter-god).

The villa was remodelled some time in the mid-4th century, when new mosaics of exceptional quality were laid in the northern end. These, says Roman art specialist Martin Henig, clearly reflect the interests of ‘a patron of cultural pretension, and very probably of philosophical and religious inclination.’ One scene depicts a chicken-headed man standing in front of a building with a ladder, alongside two griffins; some interpret this as an initiation rite, with the initiate wearing a bird mask, the ladder symbolising the soul’s ascent, the building a temple, and the griffins guardians of the dead. Others have suggested that the pictures form a rebus, a punning representation of the owner’s name.

There are also scenes from mythology depicting Apollo, Daphne, Ceres, Perseus, and Bacchus, as well as from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, showing Lycurgus, King of Thrace, attempting to rape the nymph Andromeda, who is turning into a vine. There are depictions of hunting and gladiatorial combat, personifications of the Four Seasons, and another puzzling scene depicting a semi-naked figure with rod, globe, and sundial, possibly a Greek philosopher such as Hipparchus, Plato or Thales, possibly the astronomer-poet Aratus. Martin Henig again suggests that the common theme to all the mosaics is a mystic encounter between the human soul and the divine, and that the mosaics and whatever scenes covered the walls were not decorative: this was a shrine.

Cultic practices
We can only speculate who might have been the patron and what the mosaics might mean. Was he the descendant of owners who had farmed the estate since the Late Iron Age, growing steadily richer and more Romanised? We have to look to North Africa for the closest parallel to some of the mosaics, and their content suggests a patron well versed in Classical literature. Had the owner travelled abroad, using some of his family’s wealth to go on a Roman grand tour? Or was he an entirely new owner, unrelated to anyone who had lived there before?

This inserted flue shows that the high-status villa was no longer valued for its Romanised aesthetics in the late 4th century, but rather as a covered space with clean dry floors that could be used for drying and malting grain, probably for the production of beer.

A clue comes from the pattern of coin-loss at the site in the 3rd and 4th centuries, which differs from the average pattern for the Isle of Wight or southern England as a whole. Philippa Walton, who has studied the coins from the site, says that the peak in coin-loss in the period from AD 364 to 402 is more like that of rural villa sites in the west of England that are making lots of money, probably by supplying the Roman army on the Continent with grain, and therefore probably operating with a degree of official (military or administrative) involvement.

It is also a matter for speculation what hoi polloi must have thought of the goings-on at the big house. Interestingly, there is a suggestion that whatever cultic practices went on in the mosaic-floored rooms, they were involved. The mosaic-floored rooms to the north were separate from the private rooms to the south of the villa, and the shrine, if such it was, had a separate entrance. Furthermore, when the rest of the building was adapted to industrial use in the later 4th century, these rooms were kept intact, and clearly had some continuing significance for the estate community.

Back to basics
But what happened next sees a return to the mundane reality of surviving and keeping fed. As occurred at so many villas once they ceased to be of any value as trophy homes, the nice smooth floors with their hypocausts were transformed into corn-drying ovens, while other rooms seem to have been used as workshops and even as rubbish tips. How the villa and the aisled hall met their ends we cannot tell, but destruction by fire is a strong possibility, as is a degree of salvage on the part of people who now seem to have shifted the focus of their settlements to another part of the landscape, possibly some 300m east to the Medieval village of Morton. Human bones found in the villa house when it was excavated in the 1880s might well have come from graves dug into the rubble of the villa. Could the rooms that once held the shrine even have been remembered and regarded as a suitable place for a cemetery?

The arrangement of the mosaic pavements in the 4th-century villa. The depiction of the chicken-headed man lies in the room at the bottom left, the Orpheus mosaic is within the central corridor, while the Greek philosopher and Medusa occupy the pair of rooms at the bottom right.

As for Barry Cunliffe, he is still not satisfied: ‘outstanding questions are many’, he says. Brading has the potential to reveal in far more detail how a Romano- British estate functioned and developed. What lay in the vicinity of the aisled hall and later villa? Where were the outbuildings, paddocks, market gardens, servant’s accommodation, and estate yards where farming equipment was made and repaired? And what is the relationship of the estate to the estuary? Was it the base for trading relations with the near Continent in the Iron Age? Did it play a part in the Roman Conquest? (Suetonius says that the future Emperor Vespasian, then commander of the Second Legion, subdued the Isle of Wight in the immediate aftermath of the invasion in AD 43.) What impact did the invasion have on the island community? Was there a dock in the estuary, and did it continue to be used during the Roman period?

Brading thus remains ‘unfinished business’, even after all this time and study. Perhaps when funding and time allow, Barry will go back and follow these questions up. For now he concludes: ‘I am glad to have had the opportunity of adding a little to our understanding of this remarkable site — but there is so much more still to know — ample to keep my successors happy for generations to come’.

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