2. The History of the villa, AD 60 - 1700
The invasion of Britain and the development of infrastructure:
Britain became incorporated into the Roman Empire by the invasion of AD 43, led by the Emperor Claudius. In the decades and centuries that followed, Britain flourished under Roman influence and many features of Mediterranean-style culture started to appear and to develop in Britain.
Towns and cities developed as major administrative centres, including Calleva (now Silchester) to the east, Venta (Winchester) to the south, Corinium (Cirencester) to the north-west and Aquae Sulis (Bath) to the west.
Other nearer smaller centres were Spinis (Speen near Newbury), Cunetio (Mildenhall near Marlborough) and Durocornovium (Wanborough near Swindon).
The network of mostly straight well-engineered Roman roads spread out across Britain.
Map of Roman Roads in Southern England
A major road was driven west from Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) to Spinis (Speen). It went west-northwest to Durocornium (Wanborough) and on to Corinium (Cirencester) (Margary 41, now called Ermin Street), but a branch (Margary 53) left the road to head west through the Kennet valley through the military fort (later town) of Cunetio (Mildenhall) and on to Aquae Sulis (Bath).
The path taken by the road its branch off Ermin Street near Wormstall and Hoe Benham can be tracked (on the Ordnance Survey map) passing Radley Farm to Gypsy Lane crossroad. Its route from there to Cunetio is unclear.
Bryn Walters is sure that the road that traverses the Littlecote Roman site is not the main road to Cunetio, but it was early, it was ditched and gravelled and may have been built by military engineers from the Second Legion Augusta (Legio II Aug.) who were spearheading the campaigns in the west at this time.
Roman Roads near Hungerford and Littlecote
Many villas were built across southern Britain, especially in the Cotswolds. We know of over 1,000 villas but that is probably a mere fraction of the number built. At least 80 were in the Cotswolds, and the OS map shows several villas in the area around Littlecote, including Rudge near Froxfield and Castle Copse, Great Bedwyn.
The Littlecote villa is born:
All this road building and land acquisition was paid for by wealthy Britons, members of the local landowning classes who went on to build grand homes in the style of the superpower they now served.
The foundation of this wealth was the land which supported crops and livestock. Gradually ever more lavish residences were built on the land, and repeated expansion and rebuilding introduced buildings reflecting the style of Rome.
What often started as a Celtic round house gradually became re-developed over time and expanded into large farmhouse residences called villas.
In Latin, villa simply means a rural building or property, but nowadays, archaeologists use the term villa to mean a rural building in the Roman style on a rectangular plan. The more wealthy owners added embellishments such as bath houses, underfloor heating and mosaic floors.
The Littlecote villa is a good example. Few of the known villas have been excavated and even fewer are available for the public to view in the way Littlecote is.
The villa layout today – reflecting the villa in AD 360-362
The various phases of development of the villa:
Phase 1 – the early military station and farm (on north range site):
A timber palisaded rampart was constructed on a fordable bend of the river, enclosing a small, possibly military, establishment.
It became a small fortlet on the military road to protect the crossing on the banks of the then main river Kennet, which was also a route for water borne transport.
An important river crossing would have required soldiers to police it until total pacification of the native population had been achieved. The site could also have acted as a collection point for produce to feed the army, and a navigable stream or river would have been utilised for its transportation. This enclosure was short lived and systematically dismantled and levelled.
The east-west road across continued in use serving local traffic, but it never became part of the main road network.
The site passed into the hands of a native farming community. Near the river they constructed another ditched enclosure on the same site and circular chalk-floored huts with external ovens for cooking, with a corn dryer.
The circular native huts on the south side of the road were replaced by a rectangular timber building, probably residential.
Another rectangular timber barn-like building enclosed the riverside corn-dryer, wooden fermentation tanks and rotary grinding stones. This was probably a large rectangular wooden bakery. Clay-walled ovens, timber malting tanks, carbonised grain and grinding stones show that bread and ale were produced on the site.
South of the road a circular building with a large east-facing porch may have been a shrine.
As only one dwelling is apparent at this period, the site probably represents a modest farmstead belonging to a single family.
Phase 2 – the first flint villa on west range and remodelling of the north timber building:
The timber buildings south of the road were levelled and two flint-walled buildings (comprising the west range) were constructed: a two-storeyed house with an internal bath suite and, at its northern end, a tower-like smokehouse for curing fish and meats.
A ditch dug north-west of the smokehouse incorporated a fish retention pool.
In the north range, the riverside timber building was also modified, and a small bridge was constructed across the re-cut road ditch to enable carts to enter. It continued to function as a combined brewery and bakery.
A channel adjacent to its east end, cut into the river, could have accommodated shallow draught boats.
Plan of the villa, c.AD 170, showing the two-storey west range and smokehouse, with the northern timber brewery and bakery and adjacent shallow wharf.
Phase 3 – Further development of the villa at the west range:
In the third century, it seems that Cunetio (the Roman town 8km west towards Marlborough) and the surrounding countryside prospered, and these are reflected in some major changes to the winged corridor villa at Littlecote.
A larger kitchen (room 28) was constructed to the rear of the west range building.
c. AD 220:
The central room (room 20) was fitted with a hypocaust system, a hot dry-heat room (laconicum) (35) was incorporated into the baths and the cold plunge was rebuilt with steps for access.
The west range
A detached cottage (39) was built behind the house.
In the north range the timber bakery was demolished, and a stone barn was constructed beside the river.
Another stone barn was built on the opposite south side of the courtyard (the start of the south range).
In the south-east corner of the extended courtyard a small chalk-floored building with an internal drain may have been stables.
Phase 4 – Rebuilding of the west and south range, building the gatehouse:
The ongoing rural prosperity continued, and further changes to most of the buildings took place at Littlecote. All the outer rooms and corridors of the west range were demolished and completely remodelled.
The internal baths (31-37) in the west range were scrapped, and all the hypocausts were infilled creating a new range of rooms fitted with mosaic floors. Towered wings, connected by a first-floor veranda, fronted the house. The south tower (30) received a hypocaust.
The west range c.AD 365
Artist's impression of west range c.AD 365
In the north range the barn was reduced in width and a small bath suite was built into its north-west corner (6-9). Another corn-dryer was built against the internal bath wall and a fulling tank for cleaning wool was set into the floor in the south-east corner.
In the south range the barn underwent extensive alterations which made this structure more elaborate and residential in appearance.
The earlier well (41) which was only 2-3 metres deep, and which had supplied the earlier villa house and its baths was filled in and buried by a courtyard on the south.
The south range
A new bath suite and well at the west end of the south building were never completed.
At a slightly later date a new bath suite was inserted inside the elaborated south barn (47-52).
In the west range, a new domestic wing or worker’s cottage (14-17) was built adjacent to the workshop (13).
The west range
In the east range, a large hall was built, probably a stable block (54) to replace the earlier one in the south range.
The east range showing the new stable (54) and gatehouse (55-57)
An impressive gatehouse (55-57) with an entrance passage was built adjoining the stables and faced on its east and west sides with three arched vaults to support extended rooms on the upper floors, possibly for grain storage.
The gatehouse (55-57).
A large room similar to the stables (54) continued this east range north to the river bank, creating a closed façade to the villa which was now only open to the river.
The baths in the riverside barn were extended. The corn-dryer was demolished and buried by a cold bathroom (frigidarium) and a changing room (apodyterium) with a fireplace. It could have been entered through a door in the south wall.
Phase 5 – From farmhouse to Orphic Collegium:
The mid fourth century AD was a time of great turmoil in Roman Britain, with many towns and villas suffering damage and decay.
However, at Littlecote, this was a period of great change – reflecting major changes in the social and economic functions of the villa.
The archaeological evidence reveals that agricultural activity on the site came to an end; with the addition of the exotic Orpheus Hall and alterations of agricultural buildings to residential status, this suggests that the villa was converted from a domestic large farm site to become a ceremonial complex (or 'Collegium' - a sort of educational monastery) dedicated to the cult of Orpheus and Bacchus, a cult which went back to ancient Greece.
Under the mosaic was found a coin of Constantinus II of AD 356-360, which provides a terminus post quem.
The north range after the building of the Orphic Hall
Artist Trevor Caley's impression of the riverside building c.AD 360-365
The height of the villa’s development:
The building of the Orphic Hall brought Littlecote villa to its grandest period. For several decades the villa probably hosted gatherings of visitors and followers of the new Orphic cult.
By this time, the villa had around 60 rooms; there were two bath suites, two dining rooms, and many other rooms. The large courtyard walls enclosed an area of about a hectare, making it one of the largest villas in Britain. Many of the buildings were two storeys high, and the enormous gatehouse is thought to be the grandest in Britain. There were five impressive tall towers, two on the gatehouse, one at each end of the west range, and the fifth over the Orphic sanctuary. There was a large barn and adjacent to the gatehouse was a large stable block.
The abandonment of the villa after AD 410:
The Orphic building may have been used for only a few decades. By AD 410 Britain became increasingly detached from the Roman Empire, and even the grand villa of Littlecote appears to have entered a period of gradual decline.
The workshop and its domestic wing (rooms 13-17) were demolished, the entrance hall (1) was demolished, and there was general decay.
6th-7th century Anglo-Saxon pottery and artefacts were found on site during the archaeological excavation.
In the 12th-15th centuries a medieval linear village developed covering the ground from the site of the Roman villa east towards the present day Littlecote House. These village buildings were demolished c.1450 when Littlecote House was built, and a hunting park was created.
Around 1650-1715, over the remains of the east end of the Roman riverside building, a brick-built cottage was developed into a well-appointed house, probably the hunting lodge for Littlecote Park.
To read about the rediscovery of the mosaic, see - Littlecote Roman Villa - 3. The Discovery of the mosaic, 1727.