You are in [Places] [Great Estates] [Littlecote House] [Littlecote Roman Villa] [6. Exploring and Understanding]

6. Exploring and understanding the villa today

Why is the Littlecote Roman Villa so special?

• It is the largest Roman villa in Britain
• It is the only fully exposed villa in Britain
• It is the best-preserved Roman villa above ground in Britain
• It had the largest gatehouse of any Roman villa in Britain
• It had the earliest triconch (triple apse) hall in Britain
• It has the finest Orpheus mosaic in Britain – arguably the finest Roman mosaic yet discovered in Britain.

Littlecote   Orphic buildingArtist’s impression of the riverside building c.AD 360-365

Littlecote Roman Villa
An aerial view of the restored villa, 1991

Exploring the site:

The villa has four ranges of buildings set around a large rectangular courtyard, approximately 100 metres square. Most of the walls of all four ranges can be seen in the aerial photo above. There were no buildings on the north-east part adjacent to the river.

sitePlan of the villa remains as displayed, representing AD365

The east range – gatehouse and stable block:

The east range was built around AD 290-300 (Phase 4), when the villa acquired the enclosed courtyard form.

east wingPlan of the east range – stables and gatehouse.

An impressive gatehouse (55-57) with an entrance passage (56) was built, faced on its east and west sides with three arched vaults to support extended rooms on the upper floors, possibly for grain storage. The buttresses are very substantial at over 1 metre deep, and the gatehouse is considered to be the most massive of any villa in Britain.

LRV GatehouseThe gatehouse (55-57).

To the south of the gatehouse is a large building (54) whose use is unclear. There is a series of post-pads and post-poles adjacent to its east wall, and these may have been supports for stalls. This “Building 7” is thought to be a stable block (54) which replaced an earlier one in the west wing.

A similar large room (58) continued this east wing northwards, creating a closed façade to the villa. (Nothing remains of this because of an extensive late medieval cutting).

The south range (Building 6), domestic dwelling and baths, c. AD 270-280.

The south range began in the 3rd century as a large barn-like building sometime around AD 200-250.

Around AD 270 it was transformed when the barn underwent major alterations; a rear doorway was blocked, a wide cross-wall was erected towards the east end, and internal corridor wall was built, and a row of pads was constructed to hold columns supporting the roof along its centre line.

A bath suite was added in later alterations.

south eastThe south range

42 – Originally a free-standing flint-built structure, possibly a garden shrine, it was later incorporated into the courtyard wall. A projecting façade was added later.

43 – Attached to the west end shortly after its construction, it may have served for general domestic or farming purposes. Its south end was demolished late in the third century and a small projecting apse, intended to form the heated section of a bath suite, was constructed but never completed.

Unfinished bath suiteRoom 43 – the unfinished bath suite under excavation

44 – The erection of the cross-wall formed a large room (44) which was entered via the new corridor (45). (Function unknown).

45 – An unusually narrow forward corridor which originally extended from room 44 to the west wall of the former barn.

46 – A large hall divided by a row of columns. It appears to have been later subdivided, one half, presumably, became a kitchen containing an oven, the other the firing chamber of a bath suite which replaced part of the corridor (45).

47 – The praefurnium (furnace) of the bath suite, inserted c.AD 280. The tiled flue supported a hot water tank to supply a hot plunge bath.

48 – The caldarium (hot room). A hot plunge bath probably existed adjacent to the furnace.

49 – The tepidarium (warm room).

50 – The frigidarium (cold room).

51 – The cold plunge bath. This room was floored and walled with crushed tile cement (opus signinum). A lead pipe (original now in the museum) carried wastewater from the bath into an external flint-lined drain.

52 – The apodyterium (changing room) of which only part of one wall survives. The wall on the south side incorporated the columns supporting the roof.

53 – The foundations of the most imposing entrance porch on the villa. Its remains indicate that two large columns supported a pitched pedimented roof over a central stepped entrance.

The west range – the Villa House (Building 3), initially c.AD 170, rebuilt c.AD 270:

Building 3, the villa house (18-37) presents a very confusing picture.

In its earliest form, c.AD 170, there was a corridor with a central porch fronting a range of rooms. It was probably two storeys high.
Additions and alterations, in particular the rebuilding in c.AD 270, present the confusing ground plan seen today.

As with a modern mansion, the rooms were for the needs of a family and its servants. Decay and collapse of the building early in the fifth century, and subsequent robbing, have reduced the remains to floor level.

westThe west range – Building 3, the Villa House and Building 2, the Workers’ Cottage.

18 – The base of the original entrance porch (reburied).

19 – The porticus (front corridor).

20 – The triclinium (central dining and reception room). Around AD 220 its floor was removed, and a circular channelled hypocaust was then laid. By c.AD 270 the floor was removed, and the channels infilled with building debris. A new mosaic floor was then laid of which little survived.

The triclinium takes its name from the Latin for 'three couches’, which would be arranged around three side of a square, with the guests reclining on them and dining off tables.

Hypocaust The hypocaust of Room 20 after excavation in 1991

20200909 13.47.51 (Medium)The hypocaust of Room 20, 9th Sep 2020

21 – A cross-corridor giving access to the adjacent rooms and corridors. It may have contained a stairway.

22 – Probably a living room, it was re-floored at least once – finally in mosaic. A gold betrothal ring of the third century was found in the mortar bedding of the mosaic.

23 – This room, at the northern end of the porticus, served as a passageway between rooms 19 and 25 allowing privacy to room 24.

24 – This oddly shaped room was tesselated in hard white chalk. During the major alterations of c.AD 270 this room, and room 23, was demolished to make way for a single square room, possibly the base for a tower.

25 – Perhaps, initially, a store-room, it gave access from the servants’ austere working area to the more comfortable private quarters.

26 – This room may have been the original kitchen. It contained traces of an oven beneath a later mortar floor.

27 – Adjacent to the kitchen, this room may have served as a pantry.

28 – The main kitchen added to the house c.AD 190. On the east side was a ledge inset with timber posts (modern replacements in original sockets). The ledge also gave support to the main wall foundation when the ground was lowered for the kitchen floor, and it also served as a cooking range; smoke would have vented through the roof via a hood supported by the posts. In the south-west corner are the remains of an oven. Next to the oven is a doorway which gave access to the rear courtyard. The kitchen floor was replaced at least twelve times. Between each floor level sealed ash contained evidence of the household diet: animal, bird and fish bones, eggshells, oyster, mussel and whelk shells, hazel nut shells and carbonised grains were found.

29 - The praefurnium (furnace room) of the early house, from which the main dining room (20) and the rooms of the bath house were heated.

During the alterations of c.AD 270 the furnace room was infilled with building debris, and, together with part of room 34, became a cross-corridor linking the kitchen with the front porticus.

30 – Originally a ‘T’-shaped chamber leading off the porticus, this room was the apodyterium (changing rooms) of the house baths, in which the bathers would undress before proceeding through the baths.

During the modifications of c.AD 270 this room was demolished, and, like rooms 23 and 24, was replaced with a tower, the ground floor of which was heated by a hypocaust.

The Villa HouseThe west range villa house, c.AD 365

Artist's impression   west rangeArtist's impression of the west range c.AD 365

31 – A small antechamber which gave access to the bath suite.

32-35 - The underfloor heating systems to the bath suite. The floors of these rooms were supported on tile stacks allowing circulation of hot gases beneath. They were destroyed during the remodelling of the villa house c.AD 270.

32- The tepidarium (the warm room) of the baths.

33 – The caldarium (hot-damp room) of the baths.

34 – The heating chamber for an apsidal hot water bath. It was pulled down c.AD 270 and replaced by a small ante-room to room 23 (not shown). The external drain for this bath can be seen in the yard outside.

35 – The laconicum (dry-heat room) was an addition of c.AD 220 to the bath suite to give bathers an alternative to the damp heat system. Demolition of the baths during the alterations of c.AD 270 created a large unheated room from rooms 31,32,33 and part of 35. This was floored with a mosaic, only a fragment of its border survived.

36 – The frigidarium (cold room) of the baths, where a bather could cool off gradually, or more quickly by dipping into the cold plunge bath (37).

37 – The cold plunge bath, entered by a flight of steps. The ceiling of the bath was probably vaulted as the east and west walls converge slightly. The bath was painted in interlocking red and white ‘L’ shapes below the waterline, and with floral and aquatic scenes above.

In c.AD 270 the cold room and bath were demolished, and a single chamber created that served as a wood store and praefurnium for the new hypocaust in room 30. A doorway in the south wall gave access from the main courtyard.

38 – This was an addition of the mid-fourth century and is associated with an extension to room 30 when the south tower was enlarged. The shallow foundation and its position suggest that it was the base for an external stairway to an upper gallery.

West range - Building 4, possibly a worker’s cottage:

39 – A single-roomed structure, probably a worker’s cottage, erected c.AD 260.

40 – A free-standing courtyard wall of c.AD 280, which joins the southern corner of room 39.

Excavating the wellExcavating The 2nd century well (41)

41 – A well, built of flint blocks, which supplied the earlier villa house and its baths. It predated the courtyard wall.

westThe west range – Building 3, the Villa House, and Building 2, the Workers’ Cottage.

West range - Building 2 – a worker’s cottage:

13 – A single-roomed structure of c.AD 170, it was possibly a smokehouse as it contained a long central hearth (reburied).

By AD 240 it was extended into a workshop.

North-west of the building a ditch contained a fish pool (reburied).

Excavation revealed that a section of the western wall had collapsed inwards, traces of a roof plate indicate that the wall stood to a height of 6.10 metres (20 feet).

14-17 – A workers’ cottage. This group of rooms of c.AD 280 consisted of a corridor (14) linked to a possible kitchen (15).

Rooms 16 and 17 were living rooms. An infant burial was found in a corner of room 17.

The north range - the Orphic building (Building 1):

The Orphic Building:

This structure was converted shortly after AD 360 from a third century flint-built barn with a bath suite at its western end.

1 – The narthex (main entrance). Debris from this chamber indicates that it had a vaulted ceiling and a plastered and painted interior with windows at either end.

2 – Originally the interior of the second and third century barns. With the removal of the roof, it became an open paved courtyard, probably for private gatherings.

northThe north range, incorporating the Orphic Hall

3 – Built into the east corner of the courtyard, it was seemingly used as a mosaicist’s workshop.

4 – Added to the former barn, it was retained in the later phases, possibly as a store or workers’ quarters. The upper half of a Bacchic wine crater was found in this room.

Wine crater from Room 4Upper half of a 4th century wine crater found in room 4.
It was made at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire

5 – A corridor inserted into the ante-chamber (10) giving access from the courtyard to the bath suite.

6 – The frigidarium (cold room) of the bath suite with a cold plunge bath against the riverside wall. Foundations for water tanks were found outside this wall.

7 – The tepidarium (warm room) of the bath suite. It was probably entered from the corner of the frigidarium by a flight of wooden steps.

8 – The caldarium (hot room) adjoining the tepidarium. Both rooms originally had floors, possibly tessalated, raised on tile stacks (pilae) around which hot gases circulated from a furnace set at the tiled stoke-hole in the riverside wall.

9 – The hot plunge bath. It was similarly heated and was supplied with piped hot water from a tank above the fire in the stoke-hole entrance.

10 – The ante-room to the mosaic chambers. The cooking range was inserted at a later date, the same time as room 5 when the building was reduced to a peasant-like dwelling. An earlier sarsen stone fire-place would have been in use at the time of the Orphic hall.

11-12 – The Orphic Hall and Mosaic.

Littlecote   Orphic buildingArtist’s impression of the riverside building c.AD 360-365

The rural villa became an “Orphic collegium” - the major changes of c.AD 360:

The excavation revealed that the villa complex was being extensively modified by the end of the third century, and that all agricultural activity had ceased by the mid fourth century.

It seems that the site changed from being essentially a farm, albeit a large one, to become converted into a ceremonial complex or tenemos (a piece of ground surrounding or adjacent to a temple; a sacred enclosure or precinct). It was about this time that the Emperor Julian encouraged his revival of the ‘old religions’ in a predominantly Christian Empire.

This complex is thought to have been a collegium, a form of pagan monastery, for followers of a sect based on the cult of Bacchus and the legends of Orpheus. Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture, wine and fertility, was equivalent to the Greek god Dionysus. He was considered to be a saviour deity who promised eternal life to his followers.

But why was the Littlecote villa transformed from a farm complex to a sacred site? One possibility is that the transformation occurred during the reign of the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate (reigned 361-363 AD), who rejected Christianity and tried to return the Roman Empire to the 'old religions'. During and after Julian's brief reign pagan temples and shrines in Britain were restored and new ones built.

That may be what happened here at Littlecote.

During this period of change remarkable architectural innovations took place:

• An elaborate twin-towered gatehouse had been erected and the south tower on the main house was enlarged.
• Both structures had been fitted with larger upper chambers above the smaller ground-floor rooms, the upper levels being supported on projecting external arched vaults.
• This was followed in about AD.360 by the rapid construction of a towered and polygonally faceted triconch chamber in the north range, housing the ‘Orpheus’ mosaic.

This triconch building is unique in Roman Britain. It conforms to a pattern later adopted for churches in the Byzantine empire of the sixth century onwards in having polygonal exteriors to its apses, but the Littlecote building pre-dates these by at least a century. Bryn Walters considers it to be the earliest building of this style from the Roman world, having been firmly dated by archaeology (a sealed coin of Constantus II dating from AD 357 providing a terminus post quem [latest date established with certainty]) to c.AD 360.

The Orphic HallCut-away drawing of the Orphic Hall and baths, shown from the east

What was the Orphic Hall used for?

So many features suggest strongly that the Orphic Hall performed a ceremonial or religious function related a syncretic cult of Orpheus, Apollo and Bacchus.

This Orphic Hall, with its grand entrance hall and unique triconch sacrarium and fabulous mosaic floor, may have witnessed the initiation ceremonies of celebrants into the cult. These may have included cleansing, in the adjacent baths, and ceremonial feasting which accompanied religious practices in the ancient world. The feast may have included boiled meat, cut from a sacrificed bull, perhaps prepared over the hearth in the antechamber, and it is very likely to have included the drinking of wine – the celebrants symbolically consuming the flesh and blood of their sacrificed God Zagreus (Bacchus).

Some of the historic finds at the site support this conjecture:
• Part of a decorated wine crater was found in a side chamber of the inner court.
• Two bronze heads were found in a field behind the villa - one of Bacchus himself (or one of his companion maenads), and the other of a youthful Bacchus representing the rebirth of the God rising from the head of a flower, similar to those in the corners of the square enclosing the circle of goddesses.

1991 North rangeThe restored Orphic hall and the north range from the west, c.1991

The Interpretation of the Orpheus mosaic:

Orpheus mosaics are found throughout the Roman Empire, normally in large Roman villas. The scene normally shown is Orpheus playing his lyre and attracting birds and animals of many species to gather around him.

Other Orpheus mosaics from Roman Britain depict Orpheus with animals arranged parading in a circle around him, feet facing out, so that some are the right way up whatever angle the floor is seen from. Littlecote was the first to be found (in 1727), since when about eight others have now been found across Britain.

There is a very fine and large Orpheus mosaic at Woodchester near Stroud, but you cannot see it! It was discovered by Samuel Lysons in 1793, but it has been covered for protection since 1973.

There are others at Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight; in the Corinium Museum, Cirencester (originally found at Barton Farm near Cirencester) and in the City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol (originally from Newton St Loe villa (near Corston, Somerset).

But the Orpheus mosaic at Littlecote is different. There is a central Orpheus panel, but around it are four quadrant panels.

The room was entered from the lower antechamber.

The apses supported a central tower in which windows on all sides created a well of light onto the figured mosaic below.

Orpheus mosaic   full straight (Medium)The full Orpheus mosaic, photographed c.1990

The various panels making up the “Orpheus mosaic”:

The various panels comprising the full mosaic are
• the central Orpheus panel,
• the four quadrant Greek goddesses panels,
• the three sun-ray panels in the apse,
• the "Pool of Memory" panel,
• the adjacent "Panthers and vine" panel,
• the four floral panels, and
• the "marine" panel.

Surrounding all these are various border designs.

In the First Interim Report, Bryn Walters and Bernard Phillips say that “the floor is enigmatically cryptic” and “the ideology of the (Orpheus) cult is not clearly understood today. It is evident that as time goes on and ideas and interpretations multiply, we are unlikely to find a single explanation on this amazing building.

The central Orpheus panel:

The depiction of Orpheus is a fairly standard one, but of great quality, with very small tesserae.

Orpheus, wearing a Phrygian cap is depicted playing a lyre. Beside him is a red dog or fox, considered Orpheus's special animal.
When the mosaic was uncovered in 1978 much of the right-hand part had collapsed into the drainage ditch of the old road passing through the site. Only a small number of tesserae were present to enable the mosaicist to restore the dog, which had not been shown on any of the 18th century records. The missing parts were reinstated using modern terra-cotta, intentionally of a slightly different colour to distinguish original from modern tesserae.

Orpheus mosaic, 1978Orpheus as uncovered in 1978 showing the remains of a red dog (or fox),
although it was not shown on 18th century records.

Is it a dog or is it a fox?

Many tests suggest that the fox was considered Orpheus's special animal and may be placed beside him in Orpheus mosaics. Bryn Walters tends towards calling it a dog:

Bryn Walters kindly explained (in a personal communication in June 2021):
“Now the little red dog/fox in the central circle. When the mosaic was first exposed by William George in 1729, there must have been a crack running down the centre of the mosaic where it had subsided into the slope of the buried road ditch beneath. This had damaged the canine creature and the illustrators did not know what it was and consequently left it out!

At that time the Littlecote Orpheus was the first one ever found in Britain. Therefore, they were not familiar with the image.
When we uncovered the floor, almost half the dog was still there and we knew what it was, as since 1729 about eight other Orpheus mosaics have been found in the UK all with a little doggie! See the caption to Luigi's painting of the Orpheus panel on page 14 in my site guidebook.

There is another problem with the Orpheus restoration. When we uncovered it, the area where the feet are was also badly damaged with just a part of a foot remaining (where it is shown today).

We now know that Vertue's image is inaccurate. Orpheus should not be 'standing' but seated with a raised knee supporting his lyre. His raised foot had also slipped down into the buried road ditch, where we did find a small pile of dislodged tesserae.

I would dearly like to cut away part of the restored white background and put his left foot where it should be. (Luigi has drawn it in the correct position on his painting). If you look carefully at his red robe, under the lyre it is still possible to identify the raised part of his leg in the folds of his robe.”

Orpheus central panelThe central panel depicting Orpheus with his lyre and his fox

Note the original tesserae (on the left) and the modern replacements (on the right)

Who was Orpheus?

Like all ancient Greek legends, there are many variations of the myths and legends associated with Orpheus.

Orpheus was a musician, poet and prophet. His parents were the king of Thrace, Oeagrus and the muse Calliope. He was considered the best musician and poet of all, and he perfected the lyre, taught to him as an adolescent by the god Apollo (who is recorded in some texts as Orpheus’s father). His music had the ability to charm the animals and make the trees dance. It had been said that "nothing could resist Orpheus's beautiful melodies, neither enemies nor beasts."

The three major stories about him are centred on
1. his ability to charm all living things with his music,
2. his attempt to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the underworld, and
3. his death at the hands of the maenads (female followers) of Dionysus who tired of his mourning for his late wife Eurydice.

Orpheus joined Jason and the Argonauts on their expedition quest for the Golden Fleece. He saved them from the Sirens (the dangerous creatures who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and singing voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island) by playing his own, more powerful music.

On his return, Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice (also known as Argiope), a woman of great beauty and grace, whom he married. However, while walking among her people (the Cicones from Ismara on the south coast of Thrace), in tall grass at her wedding, Eurydice was set upon by a satyr (a lustful, drunken woodland god) who tried to rape her. In her efforts to escape the satyr, Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and suffered a fatal bite on her heel.

Overcome with grief, Orpheus ventured himself to the land of the dead, where he discovered Eurydice. He attempted to bring her back to life with his singing and playing, which charmed the ferryman Charon (Kharon) and the dog Cerberus, guardians of the River Styx.

His music and grief so moved Hades (King of the underworld) and Persephone (Goddess Queen of the Underworld, wife of Hades), that Orpheus was given special permission to take Eurydice with him back to the world of life and light.

Hades set one condition, however. Upon leaving the land of death, both Orpheus and Eurydice were forbidden to look back until they both had reached the upper world.

Orpheus set off with Eurydice following; however, as soon as he had reached the upper world, he immediately turned to look at her, forgetting in his eagerness that they both needed to be in the upper world for Hades’ condition to be met. As Eurydice had not yet crossed into the upper world, she vanished for the second time, this time forever.

Orpheus was bereft and spent his life in mourning the loss of Eurydice. The women of Thrace became so tired of his ongoing mourning, and they killed Orpheus.

The four quadrant panels:

Most Orphic mosaics across the Roman world depict animals surrounding the central Orphic figure. Littlecote is different.

At Littlecote, surrounding Orpheus, and set within a framework of a double guilloche border, are four quadrant panels, each containing a depiction of a female deity, each on a beast. The fill in each corner is a stylised lotus flower, widely used in Roman mosaics.

Orpheus mosaic   5 panelsThe central Orpheus panel, with the four surrounding Greek Goddess panels

The interpretation of these four panels has been the subject of much debate, but they perhaps represent the changing seasons and allude to the Orphic cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

The beasts in each scene may have represented the transformations of Dionysus (Bacchus, Zagreus), the son of Zeus and Persephone, when fleeing from the Titans. (The Orphic belief was that man had to purify his soul of the trace elements of wickedness inherited from the Titans. This was achieved by a series of incarnations on earth through which he would eventually reach the level of the divine). Accounts differ, but the beasts are normally recorded as including a lion, a wild horse, a horned serpent, a tiger, and, finally, a bull. To the Orphics, Dionysus was the supreme deityand was known as The Reborn as he promised resurection and eternal life to his followers.

The four quadrant panels are thought to represent the goddesses Persephone (also called Kore) with a goat, Aphrodite (Venus) with a hind, Leda (Nemesis) with a panther, and Demeter with a bull.

The north-east panel - Persephone with a goat:

Orpheus mosaic   Kore Persephone singlePersephone (Kore) with a goat

Persephone (also called Kore, the maiden) was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. She is shown waving farewell to her mother, descending into the underworld as the Goddess of Winter and death. She is shown with a goat (with cloven hoofs and backward facing horns).

One day, Hades (the God of the Underworld) took Persephone to the Underworld to make her his wife. This made Persephone’s mother, Demeter, very sad, and Demeter fell into a state of deep gloom and sorrow, causing the plants to wither and die. There was a great famine in the world.

Eventually, Zeus said that Persephone could return to Mount Olympus (the abode of the gods and the throne of Zeus), but she had to spend four months each year in the Underworld with Hades. These four months when nothing grows are winter.

But when Persephone returned to Demeter good harvests and spring and summer would return for the other eight months.

Persephone was therefore the Goddess Queen of the underworld (as wife of Hades), and became the goddess of springtime and vegetation.

In another mythological story, it was Persephone and Hades who gave Orpheus special permission to take Eurydice with him back from the underworld to the world of life and light (see description above under “Who was Orpheus?”).

The north-west panel - Aphrodie with a hind:

Aphrodite with a hind Aphrodite (Venus) with a hind

Aphrodite (Latin - Venus) is depicted naked, holding a mirror in her right hand. She was the Goddess of love, beauty and procreation, representing Spring and rebirth, and is shown with a hind (female deer).

The south-west panel - Leda with a panther: 

Leda with a pantherLeda (Nemesis) with a panther

Leda (Nemesis) was famously seduced by Zeus when he took the form of a swan (as depicted here). She represents Summer and Youth. She also is depicted naked, with a panther.

The ancient Greeks believed the panther was one of the favoured mounts of the god Dionysus.

The south-east panel: Demeter with a bull:

Demeter with a bullDemeter with a bull

Demeter, the Goddess of harvest, grain and fertility, and representing Autumn and maturity, is holding a vine staff and is shown with a bull (with cloven hoofs and horns), the most powerful animal known to the Greeks.

Demeter didn't marry, but she and her brother Zeus had a daughter Persephone (depicted in the adjacent norht-east panel). Persephone, the goddess of springtime and vegetation together with Demeter watched over the world's seasons and plants.

The mythological story of Demeter’s reaction to Persephone’s trip to the underworld is described above under Persephone.

The three apse sunburst panels:

In each of the three apse segments is a leopard mask of Dionysus (Bacchus) radiating light as the descending sun.

Orpheus mosaic   leopard and sunThe leopard mask of Dionysus radiating light as the descending sun

Note that there are significant differences between the three designs. The south apse is inferior in costruction and size compared with the west and north examples. This error in constructionmust have caused difficulty in springing the internal arches and certainly created problems for the mosaicist when laying the floor. The mosaic designs in the north and south (left and right in the photo below) are smaller, with an additional geometrical panel separating it from the central four goddesses, and surrounded by a scroll border with a scroll infill. That in the west apse (bottom in the photo below) is larger, and without either additional panel or border.

Orpheus mosaic   Orpheus and three apses

The “Pool of Memory”:

The two rooms are divided by a panel unique in Romano-British mosaics. The panel is thought to represent a stylised pool, a pattern common in other parts of the Roman Empire where it is associated with water features and baths. 

Orpheus mosaic   stylised poolThe stylised “Pool of Memory”

Here at Littlecote, the panel may represent the legendry ’Pool of Memory’ from which purified souls were permitted to drink before being released from the ‘Wheel of Birth’ by Persephone and allowed to enter Elysium.

The panthers and vine panel:

Next to the “Pool of Memory” panel is one containing two panthers pawing at a wine-filled crater. Wine flows from the rear of the rim of the crater from which sprout young vines. More vines with grape clusters branch out behind the panthers, which are traditional feline companion of Dionysus (Roman = Bacchus). The panel is thought to be a dionysiac panel representing resurrection and rebirth - Dionysus was the reborn god of the vine, grape-harvest and fertility.

Orpheus mosaic   panthersTwo panthers pawing a wine crater

The four floral panels:

The four floral panels, opposite the entrance to the room, may also demonstrate the theme of immortality; red flowers were associated with resurrection.

Orpheus mosaic   floral panelsThe four floral panels

The flowers are a typical lotus flower design often used in Roman mosaics. Around each flower is a double guilloche border, and around the entire panel is a swastika meander pattern, again a commonly used device. Note that the south west lotus (bottom right in the photo above) is set differently to the other three.

The Marine panel:

At the east end of the rectangular entrance lobby to the hall is another linear panel, this one depicting marine characters.

Orpheus mosaic   marine panelThe marine panel

The interpretation of this panel is not fully understood. It may be a highly stylised Romano-British version of Dionysus’ encounter with the Tyrrhenian pirates. This story has many versions. In brief, Dionysus was abducted on a pirate ship, but he successfully evaded his captors by transforming himself into a ‘fearsome lion-like monster’ (a leopard) and cast his wine cup (cantharus) into the sea, changing the sea into wine. In terror, the pirates leapt from their vessel only to be transformed into dolphins by Dionysus as they attempted to swim away.

Other versions describe turning the mast and oars into snakes and filling the vessel with ivy and the sound of flutes so that the sailors went mad and, leaping into the sea, they were turned into dolphins.

The marine mosaic here illustrates how Dionysus deals with his enemies, represented by the dolphins, as opposed to the benevolent Dionysus, represented by the mask of a leopard, radiating solar rays (on the end apse) as a promise of eternal life to his followers.

The mosaic borders:

Around the four floral panels are various repeated geometrical designs. Even these patterns could be interpreted as having a symbolism in the ancient ceremonies, the outer border representing the chequered pattern of earthly existence, and the swastika, though common as a decorative feature on mosaics, was also a symbol of eternity in the ancient world and represents the unbroken chain of eternity surrounding the flowers of resurrection.

Objects of interest:

Many articles of everyday use, some of exotic quality, were found during the excavations. Most of them were personal possessions, others reflect the occupation and interests of those who lived here during the first to the fourth centuries.


In 2001 Wessex Archaeology undertook a rapid assessment of most of the finds and environmental material for the Roman Research Trust. The assessment confirmed the finds assemblages as being generally of regional importance, and for certain categories of material of national importance.

At the time of the assessment, the finds archive comprised around 1000 boxes, but this has now been reduced somewhat by the ‘weeding’ of the ceramic and stone building materials, and oyster shell.

However, the remaining finds assemblage is still substantial – about 115,000 sherds of pottery, over 300 coins, about 3000 other metal objects, about 2000 fragments of vessel glass, and about 3700 pieces of wall plaster.

Savernake Type vesselSavernake type vessel, found at Littlecote

See also:

- Littlecote Roman Villa - 1. Introduction.

- Littlecote Roman Villa - 2. The history of the villa, AD60 - 1700.

Littlecote Roman Villa - 3. The Discovery of the mosaic, 1727.

Littlecote Roman Villa - 4. The Rediscovery and restoration of the villa, 1976-1991.

Littlecote Roman Villa - 5. The Conservation Plan, 2019-2024.

Littlecote Roman Villa - 6. Exploring and Understanding the villa today.

 - Archaeological Excavations in Littlecote Park Wiltshire, 1978 - First Interim Report

- Archaeological Excavations in Littlecote Park Wiltshire, 1979 & 80 - Second Interim Report

- Archaeological Excavations in Littlecote Park Wiltshire, 1981 & 82 - Third Interim Report and Guide

- Archaeological Excavations in Littlecote Park Wiltshire, 1983 & 84 - Site Guide and Fourth Interim Report

- Littlecote Roman Villa - Illustrated Guide