Saturday, February 11, 2012

The splendour of a Roman Villa once buried at Lullingstone

A typical Roman villa was built round a courtyard, by Peter Jackson

Men digging holes for a park fence found, beneath their spades, a beautiful mosaic floor. Their find was later to set archaeologists on a trail of discovery which was to take them far back into Roman Britain where they were to unravel the intriguing story of a villa's creation and destruction and of the people who lived and died within its walls.

Once the house had teemed with life and worship. But nothing could save it now. Its weathered timbers changed to black charcoal and then to white ash as flames raced among them, leaving blackened roofless walls standing amid mounds of fallen tiles.

It must have been hard, seeing it then, to realise that the end had come to a house that, for nearly four centuries in Roman Britain, had been the home of a succession of prosperous families who had made it the centre of their lives.

They had lived in it, bathed in its fine bath house, worshipped in its chapel and farmed the lands surrounding it. But now, this fire in the fifth century had destroyed it.

The Roman villa at Lullingstone, Kent, was a shell. In time, even this disappeared beneath the soil washed down upon it from the hills.

Centuries later, some men were building a fence around Lullingstone Park. As they thrust their spades into the soil to make a hole for a timber post, they struck something hard. It was a mosaic floor.

A second hole was dug and revealed a further part of the floor.

This was in the middle of the eighteenth century and a note was made of it in a book published soon afterwards.

In 1949, a group of archaeologists went to the site and began carefully removing the centuries of soil.

For twelve successive years they worked carefully and meticulously. Their efforts brought to light the intricate story of the villa and its surrounding buildings, and of the lives of the people who occupied it.

It is a story, both wonderful and exciting, which begins far back in time in the year of the Roman Conquest, AD 43.

Then, there was a farmhouse in the vicinity occupied by Iron Age farmers. This was followed in about 80-90 by a small but well-built villa constructed by Britons who had adopted Roman ways. Its flint and mortar walls were accurately laid out and carefully rendered with mortar. Its roof was probably of thatch.

Descendants of the same family lived in the house for most of the second century. On a terrace just behind the villa they built a small, circular temple, probably for the worship of some local woodland god. No altar or cult objects were found in it, but ritual fires had been lit on its floor of red and yellow mosaics. The entrance faced east and the inside walls had painted plaster.

Towards the end of the second century, there were important alterations to the villa which suggest a new owner who was not a farmer but a wealthy Roman of Mediterranean origin. Perhaps he was an important government official who used Lullingstone as his country house.

By him, the modest farmhouse was converted into a luxury residence. It was completely re-roofed, this time with heavy red tiles, with a few yellow ones for variation.

On to the south end a well-designed bathing suite was added. It was laid out in the standard Roman manner with warm, cold and hot rooms. It was heated by a furnace with channels to carry the hot air under the floor.

A well just outside supplied water for the hot and cold plunge baths. The walls were richly decorated with painted panels of deep blue and red above a marbled dado.

At the opposite end of the villa was a place now known as the deep room. Originally, it was built for storing corn, but the new owner changed it into a cult room for the worship of a water god.

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