Saturday, November 12, 2011

Roman Nottinghamshire

Roman Nottinghamshire

Roman Nottinghamshire

Romans storm council meeting by roaminmark November 11, 2011

fragment of mosaic found at the Southwell villa in 1959 - and still there

THIS week’s biggest news item? Difficult to choose from. Eurozone in crisis. Italy on verge of economic collapse. New Call of Duty game sells 6.5m units on its first day. They’re all interesting. But, to those watching developments in local archaeology, by far the biggest headline went to the surprise decision by elected councillors at Newark and Sherwood District Council to reject an application to build houses over part of the site once occupied by Southwell’s large Roman villa. In so doing, they went against the advice of their officers, who had recommended that Caunton Properties should be allowed to build 29 houses on the old Minster School site in Church Street. The villa bits that everyone knows about – including the mosaics and the bath house which produced the famous Cupid image – were excavated near the Minster in 1959 by Charles Daniels ahead of the building of the school and have long been protected as a scheduled monument.

However, even though the former Minster School site has yielded clear evidence that it was part of the villa estate, this neighbouring area was not protected and it was precisely this area in which the developer wanted to build. Those who backed the development, including English Heritage, essentially argued that the archaeology on the school site had been so messed around with over the years that the site could be built over again, albeit with consideration for the archaeology that was there and any new archaeology that might be discovered. Yet for those protesters in Southwell and beyond who staged a powerful campaign against the housing proposal, collecting a 2,500-name petition in the process, these were myopic arguments. How, they asked, could one part of a 2,000-year-old luxurious courtyard villa be considered of national importance when another part could have houses built on it?

They also argued, with the Minister School demolished, that here was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fully explore the way the site of a Roman villa and its estate had developed through the Anglo Saxon period and on to the founding of the Minster itself. Instead of building on it, they said, let’s develop the site into a Heritage Park which can showcase Southwell’s and Nottinghamshire’s Roman and Anglo Saxon history. Councillors at Newark and Sherwood appear to have heeded the strength of feeling on the matter and this week voted against their own officers – and English Heritage – by turning down Caunton Properties’ planning application. The council later emailed the three reasons for rejection to me and these included impact of the development on the conservation area and the adverse impact on the archaeology. Although there was a good deal of celebration reported in local media, campaigners know that the issue may not be over since the developer can appeal.

Drawing of decorative features, including the Cupid now on view in Southwell Minster, that were found in the villa bath house in 1959 But, after all that, are we any closer to knowing what the actual villa was like? By coincidence, a few weeks before the council hearing, county archaeologist Ursilla Spence gave an absorbing lecture to the Thoroton Society in Nottingham in which she dealt directly with the evidence for the villa estate and how the Anglo Saxon people who lived here after the Romans used the site for church building and some peculiar burial practices. These included sticking metal pins into the bones of their corpses.

Another body was found with three legs and had been dubbed ‘the vampire’ by Charles Daniels (Ursilla thought the third leg had been taken from another corpse during disturbances of the burials). There was lots more interesting and grisly stuff like this in her talk. But hang on, what did the villa look like in its heyday? There are few, if any, known images of the villa’s outline shape – but Ursilla had produced one by piecing together the locations of various finds, showing the building as an oblong some 90m long which extended across Church Street to just short of South Muskham Prebend House (I’ve asked Ursilla if I can borrow her image of the villa to show here). There is also, of course, a neat, well-made but waterlogged Roman wall made of Mansfield Woodhouse sandstone which was found on the old Minster School site two years ago (its presence helps explain why campaigners believe the site shouldn’t have houses built on it). Ursilla believes that the wall was part of an elaborate water feature in the villa’s landscaped grounds. “What you would have seen was a beautiful red wall reflecting water with the villa in the background,” she said. She added: “It must have been an absolutely stunning building – red walls with white columns reflected in water.” The villa’s occupant could have been a Romanised local chieftain who had a taste for “graceful living.” Perhaps the wall had helped to define a sacred space – a native shrine surrounded by a water garden, said Ursilla. Talking of lost glories, this was the theme of a second article about Roman Nottinghamshire to be published by the Nottingham Post newspaper. The article – reproduced in two parts – appeared on November 4, 2011