Archaeological discoveries at Chedworth Roman Villa
There have been some unusual objects found at Chedworth Roman Villa, and some, like the mosaic, have provided unexpected results. Discover more about the items that have been unearthed.
Britain’s first 5th-century mosaic found at Chedworth
Radiocarbon dating has revealed that a mosaic within room 28 of the Villa was designed and created in the middle of the 5th century.
Up until now, it has generally been believed that following the economic crash at the end of the 4th century, all towns and villas were largely abandoned and fell into decay within a few years.
The dating shows that sophisticated life had continued within this luxury mansion decades after Britain ceased to be part of the Roman Empire and the country had entered the ‘Dark Ages’.
Dating the wall and mosaic
Charcoal and bone sealed within a foundation trench in the north range have provided radiocarbon dates that show that the wall could not have been built until after AD 424, and that a mosaic must be later than this date.
It’s believed that the dated wall of the Villa was constructed to subdivide an existing room and a mosaic laid in the newly created room. As with many floors where the central area saw more wear and tear, the best-preserved parts of the mosaic are on the margins of the room.
The mosaic is an intricate design. Its outer border is a series of circles in ‘guilloche’ (a braided band) alternately filled with flowers and knots. It fits precisely within the room space bounded by the newly dated wall.
However, this mosaic is of poorer quality than the well-made mosaics dating to the late 4th century in the Villa and contains several mistakes in its design, possibly evidence that the mosaicists had become less skilled by this time.
Rethinking Roman decline
The work that began in 2012 was part of a six-year programme of archaeological digs and research which shed new light on Chedworth Roman Villa and the history of Romans in South West Britain. Research and dating on the mosaic, however, were only completed in 2021.
It’s generally believed that in the 5th century, after Britain had been lost by Rome, most of the population turned to subsistence farming to sustain themselves and Britannia’s administrative system broke down into a series of local fiefdoms.
The discovery of this 5th-century mosaic at Chedworth is evidence for a more gradual decline. The creation of a new room and the laying of a new floor suggests wealth, and a mosaic industry continuing 50 years later than had been expected.
This 5th-century date was so different from what is generally thought, that after discussions with the Trust’s expert advisors, a second radiocarbon date was needed alongside pottery analysis before we could be sure.
It’s interesting to speculate why Chedworth Villa’s owners were still living in this style well into the 5th century and it seems that in the West Country, the Romanised way of life was sustained for a while.
Many large, richly decorated Roman villas have been found in the countryside around Cirencester, which is around eight miles from Chedworth.
Hair pins tell a story
Archaeological excavation has also recovered some long-discarded bone hair pins that are one of the only pieces of physical evidence that women lived in or visited the Roman villa.
Traces of females
In the museum there are a number of bone hair pins on display. If you glance at them, they are not particularly stunning to look at or memorable, but they are an amazing piece of evidence of the presence of women here.
Very few objects can be said to have been used only by females in the Roman period. Men also wore brooches, finger rings and bracelets, but did not use hair pins to dress their hairstyles; this was an entirely female activity.
Ladies' maid and homemade
The hair pins may tell us something else - the women who wore them were likely quite wealthy, as elaborately pinned hairstyles required the help of maids.
Where did they get the hair pins from?
The remains of partially made bone and antler objects suggest some were made at the villa. We know cattle were butchered at the villa, so a plentiful supply of bone was on hand.
Many of the hair pin designs are quite simple, needing little skill to shape them.
A story emerges
From just a few simple objects a story emerges. Someone has taken leftover animal bones and carved them into pins with long shafts and shaped heads.
A female servant has stood behind a lady and combed and pinned her hair into a fashionable style using these pins.
What conversations did they have? Was it a special event, a normal day or an outing?
How and why did the pins get lost and fall beneath floorboards or into rubbish pits, never to be reclaimed by their owner? We’ll never know and can only guess at the answer.
There have also been occasional finds of 5th- to 6th-century pottery from Africa and Palestine amongst the ruins at Chedworth, which are also strong indicators of sub-Roman high-status occupation at this time.
Scraps of similar pottery which have been found in other local villas, suggest that Chedworth was not a unique survivor during the troubled times of the 5th century.
The 5th-century mosaic, along with some other mosaics in the exposed North Range at Chedworth, have been re-buried following the excavation, to protect them from the weather.
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