Discoveries at Chedworth Roman Villa

Excavating North Range of Chedworth Roman Villa in 2014

Chedworth Roman Villa has a long and intriguing past, soon after its heyday in the late 4th century AD, the Villa was lost and buried. Learn how, nearly 2000 years later the Villa has been unearthed in a series of excavations spanning 150 years.

" A rumour has just reached us that within the last few days, some extensive Roman remains have been brought to light, in the vicinity of Chedworth. We cannot vouch for the truth of the statement but should it prove correct, particulars will be given in a future number..."
- Cheltenham Chronicle, 1864

Victorian discovery at the villa

One summer in 1864 was all it took for James Farrer, an experienced excavator and uncle to John Scott, 3rd Lord Eldon, to uncover Chedworth Roman Villa. Having gathered a team of estate workers, James felled the wood and revealed the walls and mosaics of one of Britain's largest remaining Roman villas.

" ...excavations resulted in the discovery of three rooms. The pavement in one consists of a vase and flowers, surrounded by a beautiful border. The representation of a man holding in his hand a hare is clearly brought out."
- Gloucester Journal, 1864

James' excavations uncovered two courtyards surrounded by buildings, stepped one above the other. The best rooms were found within the North and West Ranges of the upper courtyard. The South Range was discovered to be the service area and only its upper rooms, including a latrine and kitchen were excavated.

After the 1864 excavations, some mosaics were left exposed. They were displayed under three timber buildings. The rest were reburied. The outline of the Villa was reconstructed by placing nearby stone on top of the surviving Roman walls. Around the same time, a lodge and museum were built on James' excavation spoil heap.

A new chapter for Chedworth

After initial discovery and reconstruction work in the nineteenth century, very little changed at Chedworth Roman Villa. The National Trust, who began caring for the site in 1924, longed to uncover and display more of the Roman remains.

In 2010, after a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to reveal and protect the mosaics in the West Range was approved, work could finally begin. Previously, visitors could only glimpse the triclinium and West Range bath house through small windows which looked into gloomy Victorian cover buildings. What's more, the mosaic floors which linked these principle rooms were buried beneath soil and gravel.

In the summer of 2010 Martin Papworth and Nancy Grace, both National Trust archaeologists, led a team of volunteers to uncover the floors in the West Range. Visitors watched as the tarmacked paths were lifted and the team worked their way down through layers of the past. As the last thin layer of sifted topsoil and sand was lifted, the first mosaic floor was exposed. 'Painstaking' was a word often used by watching visitors.

The mosaic floor which Martin and Nancy uncovered belonged to the corridor which runs the length of the West Range. At 37m long, the corridor is the longest of its type in Britain.

From 2011 to 2012 the West Range, with its mosaic floors and principle rooms, was protected under a modern conservation building. The building allows better access to this part of the Roman Villa and means that the National Trust can continue to conserve these treasures for future generations.

The West Range cover building is a huge success but without the North Range only part of the vision for Chedworth is achieved.

Mosaic excavated at Chedworth Roman Villa in 2015.
Mosaic found at Chedworth Roman Villa

More discoveries to be made

The North Range of the Roman Villa was possibly more spectacular than the West Range. Another set of accommodation rooms were reached by a longer and wider corridor. There also existed another set of baths, complete with plunge pools, a hypocaust and boiler room. To be able to decide how best to protect and display the North Range, the National Trust needed to understand what survived and how much could be uncovered. A five year research programme began in 2013. As part of this programme, excavations take place for two weeks at the end of August each year.

To everyone's amazement, the 2014 excavations uncovered a new mosaic floor. Measuring 18m long and 6m wide, the mosaic is the largest on site and is believed to have formed part of Chedworth's grand reception hall. Certain tesserae within the mosaic were made of marble; imagine how stunning the floor would have appeared as these parts sparkled in the lamplight.

Another exciting find was a fragment of marble veneer. Results showed that the marble came from a quarry in the Eastern Mediterranean. Usually, this type of marble was reserved for imperial use. Its existence at Chedworth therefore continues to suggest the high status of the Villa's occupants.

In 2015, the excavations uncovered more mosaic tiles, bowls and coins. Martin found large chunks of painted plaster and mosaic containing clues to lost decorative schemes. Some mosaic fragments seemed to have been painted over and others had thin tesserae over a white plaster backing. It was wondered whether there had been areas of mosaic on the walls as well as on the floors, this would be a rare thing to find in Britain. Other finds included 4th century Roman coins, the bottom of a samian bowl and half a Roman pot.

Follow what happened on the 2016 dig, day by day, on the South West archaeology blog.

The five year archaeology programme will end in 2017.