Unearthed: a luxury Roman villa with chapel and granny flat
October 20, 2003
The earliest private chapel from Dark Age Britain has been unearthed in the foundations of a Roman "stately home".
The fifth century font and baptistry were built into the ornate mosaic floor of an unusual double villa in Wiltshire not long after the Romans left Britain.
Although there are older chapels, archaeologists say it is the earliest example of a landowner converting rooms inside his home for baptisms.
The owner and immediate family lived in the eastern villa - a large, but traditional luxury home with 15 rooms on the ground floor, an underground central heating system and mosaic flooring.
What makes the site peculiar is that the owner also built a carbon copy of the house 90ft away. It contained a grain store and blacksmith's and may even have had the Roman equivalent of a granny flat for the owner's extended family.
Mark Corney, the Bristol University archaeologist who led this year's excavations with colleagues from Cardiff University, said the villa was "without parallel" in Britain.
Double villas were fairly common during the Roman occupation, but were usually connected by a corridor or tower.
"To get two that are separate is unique," he said. "The results from this work have been beyond our expectations."
The foundations and floors lie a few inches below the surface of the playing fields of St Laurence School in Bradford-on-Avon.
Teachers and students at the school had long noticed marks appearing on the grass during hot spells. But it was only when aerial photographs were taken in 1999 that the nature of the buildings came to light. A geophysical survey in 2000 confirmed that the archaeologists had come across something special.
The villas are around 118ft by 56ft. The oldest parts were built in AD 230 and AD 270 and were occupied into the fifth century.
Like many Roman villas, the Bradford villa is thought to have been built close to an Iron Age settlement.
"We are almost certainly looking at a local Romanised British family - people who were already powerful before the Roman conquest and who made the right decision at the time of the invasion," said Mr Corney.
Villas were more than homes for the wealthy - their outbuildings and gardens could house family, servants and workshops.
Although the eastern building was occupied, its twin had none of the mosaics or painted wall plaster found in the homes of the wealthy.
The team found evidence that it contained a smithy, a grain drier and a smokehouse for curing food.
"The best analogy for this is the grand facade you would get in 18th century buildings," he said. "In those, the stable buildings and servants' quarters often had fantastic frontage so anybody approaching the house would see that they were grand."
The first floor may have been used to house servants or even the owner's immediate family.
The team found a well preserved mosaic in the occupied building. Made by a Cirencester workshop, it portrays dolphins flanking a two-handled vase, known as a cantharus, and a central rosette and knot motif.
Part of the mosaic was destroyed when a 15ft diameter baptistry and font were installed in a reception room in the fifth century.
A low wall probably surrounded the font. Those being baptised would stand in the water, as more water was poured over their heads.
Constantine had officially adopted Christianity in AD312 and by the end of the fourth century most of the wealthy and influential families would have embraced the new religion in Britain.
Earlier chapels have been found at Silchester, Hants, Richborough, Kent, and Colchester, Essex, but the Bradford conversion is the earliest in post-Roman Britain.
"It looks like the owner converted the principal room of his house into a baptistry, which may have been a statement about the importance of his religion," said Mr Corney.
"We can be confident that the date is the fifth century, but it is part of a continuous sequence of occupation. Although this is post-Roman, there's still a Romanised lifestyle in this part of the world."
The remains and mosaic have been covered for protection, but the researchers, from Bristol and Cardiff universities, will return to the site next year. They hope to carry out more digs to find the extent of the late Roman estate.