In a corner of rolling farmland on the banks of the River Kennet near the Wiltshire/Berkshire border in the grounds of Littlecote House Hotel, lie the remains of one of the few Roman villas in Britain open to the public.
Shortly after the Roman invasion of AD 43 in what is now Kent, roads were built west and north. One such military road was built running west through what is now Littlecote Park. A small military presence guarded the nearby river crossing. In c.AD 60 a British roundhouse was built here, enlarged c.AD 120 a combined bakery and brewery was built. Like the roundhouse, the brewery and bakery structure was built of timber.
Around AD 170 the first stone building was erected, and over the two centuries more changes were made, as this essentially farm complex grew.
The final and most interesting phase of construction came around AD 360 when the earlier buildings were largely demolished, and the site changed from being a large farm 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.
By this time, the villa had become large, covering more than one hectare, among the largest in Britain. The courtyard measures 105 x 70m; the villa measures 120 x 100m.
It had around 60 rooms, two bathhouses, many mosaic floors and several heated hypocausts.
Most notably, it had a magnificent mosaic in a special hall dedicated to the ancient Greek legendary hero Orpheus.
The Roman remains were later abandoned and became buried beneath part of an extensive medieval village, which was itself dismantled in the 15th century, when the original Littlecote House was built, to make way for a hunting park. In the 17th century a hunting-lodge was built immediately adjacent to the buried mosaic.
The gradual development and changes at the villa over about 350 years from its origins c.AD 60 until its abandonment in the early fifth century AD offer an intriguing insight into life in this part of southern Britain, notably life in wealthy Romano-British circles in the mid-4th century.
Artist Trevor Caley's impression of the riverside building c.AD 360-365
The earliest reference to a Roman site at Littlecote was in 1727 when William George, estate steward to Francis Popham (then owner of Littlecote), first uncovered the Orpheus mosaic. It was described as "the finest pavement that the sun ever shone upon in England". An engraving and a drawing were made, from which a needlework replica was created.
After its discovery and recording, the mosaic and the villa were reburied, and declared lost.
In 1976 the villa was rediscovered, and in April 1978 the owner Sir Seton Wills founded a long term research project, led by Bryn Walters.
Peter de Savary continued his support of the excavations until they were completed in 1991.
The villa is large, and complex. The Orphic building is thought to date from c AD 360-365.
Why is the Littlecote Roman Villa so special?
• It is the largest exposed Roman villa in Britain
• It is one of the best-preserved Roman villas above ground in Britain
• It had the largest gatehouse of any Roman villa in Britain
• It had the earliest triconch (triple apse) hall in the Roman world
• It has the finest Orpheus mosaic on display in Britain – the fourth largest and arguably the finest Roman mosaic on display in Britain.
An aerial view of the restored villa, 1991
To read more, see - Littlecote Roman Villa - 2. The history of the villa, AD 60 - 1700.
- "Orpheus and the Gentleman Farmer" - a BBC "Chronicle" episode, 1981.
References and further reading:
• HOSTETTER E. and HOWE T.N. 1997. The Romano-British Villa at Castle Copse, Great Bedwyn.
• KRAUTHEIMER, R. 1965. Early Christian Churches and Byzantine Architecture, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
• LAVIN, I. 1962. ‘The House of the Lord’. Aspects of the role of palace triclinia in the architecture of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Art Quarterly 44, 1-27
• PHILLIPS, B. and WALTERS, B:
o Archaeological Excavations in Littlecote Park Wiltshire 1978, First Interim Report
o Archaeological Excavations in Littlecote Park Wiltshire 1979 & 80, Second Interim Report
o Archaeological Excavations in Littlecote Park Wiltshire 1981 & 82, Third Interim Report and Guide
o Archaeological Excavations in Littlecote Park Wiltshire 1983 & 84, Site Guide and Fourth Interim Report
• WALTERS, B. 1984. The ‘Orpheus’ mosaic in Littlecote Park, England. III Colloquio Internazionale sul Mosaic Antico. Ravenna 6-10 Settembre 1980, Bologna
• WALTERS, B. 1994. Littlecote Roman Villa. Illustrated Guide, Swindon: Roman Research Marketing
Painting by Clive Constable (of the Ermine Street Guard).
Possibly painted for advertising in 1980, but never used. Found by Bryn Walters in his sister's house 2022.
- Roman Britain website (no mention of Littlecote!).