A new Roman villa for Dorset
There are hundreds of Roman villas in England, but the discovery of a new one is exciting and quite rare; to find one with an intact mosaic floor is exceptional, reports Lilian Ladle
Published in June ’14
The 1000-acre Druce Farm, near Puddletown, lies about five miles east of Dorchester and has been farmed by the Ridout family for the last seventy years. Currently, a tenant farmer organises the complex agricultural regime of arable and livestock. One field in particular has always caused problems however; huge lumps of flint and limestone litter the surface and have damaged many a plough. In the early 1990s members of the Stour Valley Metal Detectorists worked in the field where they picked up numbers of Roman coins and noted large numbers of what looked suspiciously like broken Roman ceramic roof tiles.
Twenty years later a small group of amateur archaeologists from The East Dorset Antiquarian Society (EDAS) reconnoitred the field and confirmed the presence of large amounts of building debris as well as occasional sherds of Roman pottery. As luck would have it, a Bournemouth University MA student, Hannah Simpson, was reassessing ‘Roman villas in their landscapes’ and agreed to use geophysical prospecting on the Druce site. When the results were downloaded we could see that the remnants of three sets of buildings ranged around a large courtyard surrounded by wide enclosure ditches. The complex lay on sloping ground on the north side of the River Piddle and looked very much like the setting of a classical Roman villa.
Ann Ridout was keen to find out exactly what survived in the field; the debris on the surface including ceramic and stone roof tiles as well as very large numbers of ‘tesserae’ (once part of mosaic floors), suggested that there had been much destruction over many centuries. During August and September 2012, a group of volunteers investigated a couple of trenches, which revealed tantalising remnants of walls belonging to the north range of buildings. The presence of loose tesserae and large chunks of painted wall plaster indicated rooms of some status and sophistication. In addition, heavy limestone roof tiles lay where they had fallen from the roof. Excavations through the enclosure revealed deep, wide ditches, filled not only with demolition debris but also with household rubbish in the form of broken pottery, glass and large amounts of animal bone.
The group returned in April 2013 and worked throughout the long, hot summer. We hoped to reveal more of the plan of the villa using the pottery, metalwork and coins to show when the buildings were constructed and when they eventually went out of use. Although only a small part of the complex was exposed, enough was revealed to be able to ‘best-guess’ at the uses of the three ranges.
The smallest building on the west side of the courtyard consisted of at least three rooms. One contained vestiges of a small ironworking hearth and it is likely that household items such as nails were manufactured here. In addition, ceramic roof tiles were ‘chopped up’ and stored, ready to be incorporated into mosaic flooring. This range was probably the centre of tasks associated with household and farm maintenance and its use has been dated by pottery from the early 2nd to the late 4th centuries AD.
On the other side of the courtyard was a much grander building. It is of exceptional archaeological significance with evidence of its ultimate, dramatic collapse. First there was a roof fall of large Purbeck limestone tiles, intriguingly and perhaps uniquely decorated with vertical bands of blue Cornish slate. Clearly, the owner was rich enough to afford this unusual status symbol. The north gable wall of the building had collapsed intact and covers unexcavated rooms beneath. Rows of local flint embedded in mortar lie as they fell. Only a small part of this building was investigated but a square stone plinth was visible; this had held a hefty timber post which would have supported the roof.
The geophysics survey indicates that there are at least another seven of these plinths. A large, round, deep pit of as yet unknown function was located inside the building, it had been filled with demolition debris of roof tiles, building flint, mortar and painted plaster before the building’s final collapse. Much of this material was burnt perhaps indicating a devastating fire. The earliest pottery fragments lay on the bottom of the pit and dated to the 3rd-4th centuries AD while material from the top of the pit was of early 5th century date. This well-constructed ‘aisled’ building is likely to have had a domestic use. Further investigation this year may yield more clues.
The northern building appears to be the largest and had uninterrupted views across the Piddle valley and it is likely that this was the owner’s private accommodation. Our work concentrated on the west end of the complex and revealed a series of five rooms which had been altered dramatically over several centuries. The largest measured five metres square and gave the biggest surprise – a mosaic floor surviving almost intact. The central motif was a swastika, signifying good fortune. The decorative tesserae were either blue lias stone or white limestone. Experts have declared that the mosaic was laid around 350 AD and areas of wear and subsequent mending on the west side of the room where furniture may have stood indicate a possible further century of use for this floor.
Careful excavation revealed another vivid and dramatic collapse sequence here. A thin layer of soil covered the mosaic and contained thousands of tiny animal bones, which have been identified as the remnants of owl pellets, indicating the presence of barn owls roosting in the abandoned building. At a later stage, the roof timbers rotted with the result that the heavy limestone roof fell in. This was followed by the inward collapse of the mortared flint walls, preserving gaudily painted plaster which had decorated the walls.
A small anteroom to the south had not fared so well. The mosaic floor here had been almost totally destroyed by ploughing. Fallen roof tiles also covered the floor of a large room to the east where small, loose red tesserae were the remnants of another mosaic. Several floor levels survived here indicating major refurbishments over several centuries.
The substantial ditches which enclose the villa were probably laid out before any buildings were constructed. They enclose a rectangular area measuring approximately 90m long by 55m wide. About 2.5m wide and 1.5m at its deepest, the huge amount of soil extracted during construction would have been piled up on the outside forming a substantial earth bank around the property. The ditches would have had to be cleaned out regularly but over time this task lapsed and they were used as a convenient place to dump household rubbish. The examination of this has given a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of the villa’s inhabitants.
Large quantities of broken pottery ranging in date from the early 2nd to the 6th century AD suggest that the site was occupied for at least 400 years. Most of the pottery was locally made in the Poole Harbour area but the New Forest and Oxfordshire kilns provided high-class tablewares. The most expensive pots came from France and Germany. Fragments of glass drinking vessels hint at ‘fine dining’. Indeed, a very rare fragment from a decorated beaker made in Cologne indicates an expensive taste in rare luxury goods.
We found many animal bones – probably from domestic consumption – which were from cattle, sheep and pig, duck and fish. There were also fragments of horse and dog as well as fox and red deer. It is likely that other food waste which has not survived was also tipped here – the ripe smell of decomposing rubbish was obviously not a problem! Personal items had also found their way into the rubbish including bronze and bone hair pins, a finger ring and a large bronze leather-working needle. Only a small proportion of the ditch system was investigated but the finds have yielded tantalising information about Roman life at Druce. A small number of coins from the site confirm activity from the 1st to the late 4th century.
When the Roman legions abandoned Britain in 410 AD, it would appear that life continued at our villa for at least another hundred years. The buildings however were eventually abandoned, deteriorated and ultimately collapsed. The land became part of an agricultural landscape and centuries of planting and ploughing ensured that the buildings which once dominated the hillside were lost to view.
We are indebted to our academic colleagues for support and advice and to the numerous private donations which have enabled specialists to report on the pottery, coins and animal bones. This year we are aiming to answer some outstanding questions, regarding the extent and preservation of the northern and eastern ranges and the placement of the villa within its landscape. The site will then be returned to grass and as Mrs Ridout has taken this spectacular site out of the farming programme its future survival is ensured.
There will be an Open Day on Sunday 29 June. Information will be available nearer the date on the EDAS website at www.dorset-archaeology.org.uk ◗