Roman Lifestyles in Rural Rutland: Fresh insights give context to a unique Trojan War mosaic

Finding a unique Roman mosaic featuring gruesome scenes from the Trojan War cycle may have been more than enough for some people, but archaeologists have curiosity running through their veins, and this Summer we have returned to Rutland to discover more about this amazing new villa and the people who lived there. John Thomas, Deputy Director of ULAS, provides an update on the work this year.

The mosaic is an exceptional archaeological discovery, but it only tells us about one small aspect of what is clearly a major villa complex.  To understand more about the mosaic, (why it was there, who might have commissioned the work, and how it sat within the wider setting of the settlement), we needed to cast our attentions further afield. 

This year’s work was carried out by archaeologists from University of Leicester and Historic England, working in partnership to gain a fuller understanding of the villa so that its story can be told from as informed a perspective as possible.  The work is also important from a site management point of view; understanding the details of the archaeology and its survival will enable the remains to be looked after in the best possible way, to preserve them for future generations. 

Planning the excavations was made so much easier by having such a wonderfully detailed geophysical survey plot – the combined results of magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar providing a clear indication of the variety and location of buildings across the villa complex.

Geophysical survey results using two different methods (magnetometry & ground-penetrating radar) produced a vivid image of the Rutland villa complex, comprising of a range of different buildings within a multi-ditched enclosure. Image source SUMO Services Ltd.

Taking a lead from the clear plan an excavation strategy was designed to investigate a range of different buildings from across the site, so that a better understanding could be gained of the villas function, chronology and character over time.

The 2022 excavations from the air, illustrating the scale and variety of the trenches examined, to enable a broader understanding of the villa complex. Image © Historic England

Exploring Roman Lifestyles – The Leicester Undergraduate and Volunteer Fieldschool  

Our work began at the start of the Summer with a training excavation for undergraduate archaeology students from the School of Archaeology & Ancient History and volunteers from the Leicestershire Fieldworkers.  The setting for this was a huge aisled building, measuring c.30m x 12m, that was clearly shown by the geophysical survey – so much so that even individual rooms could be picked out.

Aerial view of the large aisled building during excavation – western (right) end was used as a living space and the opposite end for agricultural or craftworking tasks.  The central area of the building was not excavated. Image © Historic England.

Aisled buildings are a common component on Roman villa sites and often develop from timber structures in their early phases into substantial stone-built versions later in their lives.  This building was a fantastic example of its type and was largely represented by the later stone conversion, which was terraced into the natural slope of the hillside – meaning that the archaeology was very well-preserved.   

Our excavations looked at the two ends of the building, leaving the central third unexcavated.  Activities in aisled buildings are often markedly prescribed, and this was no exception.  At the less well-preserved eastern end, evidence for agricultural and possibly small-scale industrial activities was revealed.   

Explore a 3D model of the large aisled building.

In contrast the western end was defined by strongly built stone walls that demarcated a large living space – this end of the building had been converted for residential use!  Within the outer walls was a tangle of partition walls in association with layers of floors that had been repeatedly renewed – clearly this was a dwelling that had witnessed a lot of life.  Pottery fragments hinted at the lifestyle of the inhabitants, but the most striking feature of the building was a remarkable Roman style bath suite that was incorporated into the southern side of the building.  This consisted of a series of three rooms, a hot (caldarium), medium-temperature (tepidarium) and cold room (frigidarium), within which the villa residents could cleanse themselves.   

Different methods of underfloor heating showed the sophisticated technology used to control the heat going into each room and the base of a water tank on the outside of the building even suggested that rainwater was being collected from the roof.  Box-flue tiles even survived in situ at the very base of the room’s walls, where they would have taken heat up into the walls like 2,000-year-old central heating! 

Changing Rooms – What was the context of the Trojan War mosaic? 

We still had questions about the triclinium or dining room with the Trojan War mosaic – how did it fit into the rest of the building and what was the character of the rooms immediately adjacent? Most perplexing was the slight sinking running the length of the room – what was causing this?  This was answered by extending the excavation to the north of the building.   Here it was revealed that an earlier boundary ditch lay beneath the building and the settling soil of its fill had caused slumping of the mosaic – could this have become a problem while the room was in use?  Pottery provisionally dated to the 2nd century from within the ditch gives us a clue about the development of the site over time, and the duration of activity. 

Investigations near to the Trojan War mosaic (which lies under the soil in the centre of the photograph): remains of an underfloor heating system are on the left side of the trench, on the right side of the trench is a corridor with a mosaic floor, while the stone walls indicate other rooms and corridors at the northern end of the villa building. Image © Historic England

Examination of the relationships between the walls of the different spaces shows that the building probably began life as another large aisled building, similar to the one described above, before it was elaborated with later extensions that show clearly on the geophysical survey results.  One of these additions was the triclinium which is clearly a later refurbishment of the building’s northern end. 

Corridors on either side of the dining room were also elaborately decorated – on the western side fragments of a patterned mosaic had collapsed into an underfloor heating system, while to the east a nicely preserved and complex kaleidoscopic design decorated the corridor floor. 

Partially revealed geometric mosaic with a kaleidoscopic design, revealed to the immediate east of the dining room containing the Trojan War mosaic.  This mosaic is likely to have been the floor of a corridor forming the eastern side of the villa building. Image © ULAS

The work here was on the smallest scale compared to some of the larger excavation areas this Summer but has been tremendously instructive in understanding the development of the building and the wider chronology of change during the lifetime of the villa. 

Work at the southern end of the building showed that this too had its own bath suite – a slightly more elaborate set up with apses as indicated by the geophysical survey, but this was only partially revealed.

Partially revealed rooms of a bath suite and large stone-lined pit at the southern end of the main villa building. Image © Historic England
Volunteers excavate underfloor heating (pilae stacks) and complex structural remains at the southern end of the main villa building. Image © ULAS.

Exploring the Villa Complex More Widely – Mysterious Sunken Buildings 

Other structures were less understood, but no less interesting – two subterranean buildings of different scales were looked at, but their function is currently a mystery. One was the smallest building identified by the geophysical survey, and had an unusual, almost cruciform shape in plan.  This was a deep building dug into the bedrock, but interpretation of its function is not clear.  Much of the evidence had been robbed away in antiquity, but hopefully more will be revealed during further analysis of the evidence. 

Excavations underway of a small, sunken stone building (top right), possibly a cellar. To the left is a second, larger timber building defined by the large circular holes that would have held posts. Image © Historic England

Another very large subterranean building seems to have been built into the natural slope of the hillside and appears to have been built on a monumental scale, possibly it may have been a large cellar.  Excavations were limited due to the depth and complexity of the archaeology, but at least some of its architecture, including large columns and buttresses, appears to have been left where it fell before being covered over.  This is one of the bigger mysteries of the excavation, but clearly a lot of effort was put into its construction, and it must have had some importance in the wider setting if the villa complex. 

Investigation of one of the larger geophysical survey anomalies revealed what appears to be a collapsed building on a monumental scale.  It had been dug into a sloping part of the site and may have been a cellar of some description. Image © Historic England
The walls of the large cellar structure appear to have collapsed after it had gone out of use and lay in situ where they had fallen. Image © ULAS

The Digging is over, what next? 

Now that the fieldwork has finished and all of the trenches have been backfilled, attention turns to the laboratories and desks of our specialist team who will examine all of the evidence gathered, from the smallest seeds to the large roof tiles, and eventually everyone’s findings will be gathered together in a publication.   

This is the last time for the foreseeable future that any more excavation will take place at the Rutland villa.  We’ve gathered a large amount of information that will no doubt result in a much richer story of this site than we could have imagined a couple of years ago, but now the rest of the sites secrets will be protected and preserved for future generations of archaeologists to ponder on. 

None of this work would have been possible without the initial interest of the finder, Jim Irvine and the continued good nature and accommodation of his family.  The fieldwork is by now the result of nearly 200 people, from Young Archaeologists, archaeology students, volunteers from the local archaeology community and professional archaeologists alike, coming together in their shared interest to learn more about the archaeology of their local area and to take the story of this wonderful site to a wider audience.   

Find out more about the Rutland Roman Villa via Historic England’s project website here.

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