6. Exploring and understanding the villa today
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.
Artist Trevor Caley’s impression of the riverside building c.AD 360-365
An aerial view of the restored villa, 1991
This article includes:
When the 13 years of archaeological investigation was completed in 1991, they had to decide how they were going to present the Roman remains. Everything had been repeatedly built, demolished, changed over 300 years. They decided to present it as it was in 360AD – and the reason for that will become apparent as we explore the villa further.
By the 4th century the villa had grown into a really large farm. The farm was closely linked to two other nearby farms. It would have supplied food and meat across the local area.
The community here would have been what is known as a familia – with extended family members, of several generations, probably a farm or estate manager, servants and slaves. They tilled the local fields, they grew crops and they had livestock – much like a large mixed farm today.
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.
Plan of the villa remains as displayed, representing AD365
The east range was built around AD 290-300 (Phase 4), when the villa acquired the enclosed courtyard form.
Plan 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.
The 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 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 began in the 3rd century, c.AD 200-250, as a large barn-like building with the roof supported by timbers resting on the central line of stone pads. The farm was expanding and no doubt it was used to store cerals and other crops.
Around AD 270, however, it was transformed when the barn underwent major alterations, with its use clearly becoming domestic. 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.
The south range
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.
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.
Room 43 – the unfinished bath suite under excavation
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.
West range - Building 4, possibly a worker’s cottage:
40 – A free-standing courtyard wall of c.AD 280, which joins the southern corner of room 39.
41 – A well, built of flint blocks, which supplied the earlier villa house and its baths. It predated the courtyard wall.
Excavating The 2nd century well (41)
39 – A single-roomed structure, probably a worker’s cottage, erected c.AD 260.
Artist Trevor Caley's impression of the west range building and the Orphic Building, c. AD 360-365
This west range represents the hub of the main residential buildings. Building 3, the main villa residence (18-37) presents a very confusing picture.
It is a bit tricky to describe all that has gone on here – because we are talking about changes that happened over a period of 300 years. Over that time it was expanded, changed, demolished, rebuilt several times.
Remember that its layout today is as it would have been c.AD 360, around the grandest and most important period of the villa’s life.
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.
Artist Luigi Thompson's impression of the west range building and the Orphic Building, c. AD 360-365
The west range – Building 3, the Villa House and Building 2, the Workers’ Cottage.
The main villa residence (18-37) is the most complex and important part of the villa. You can see corridors, other domestic rooms, service rooms at the rear.
18 – In the centre of the building is the base of the original entrance porch (now reburied).
19 – This long corridor was an arched porticus (front corridor).
20 – This gave access to the most important and grand room of the villa – the triclinium (central dining and reception room). You can see the interesting (and not very common) hypocaust heating system made of radiating flint pillars rather than tile stacks. It did have a lovely mosaic floor, but 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.
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 hypocaust of the triclinium (dining room, Room 20) after excavation in 1991
The hypocaust of Room 20, 9th September 2020
A reconstructed triclinium with hypocaust and mosaic floor, in Somerset, June 2022
Much of the rest of the main residence included corridors, other domestic rooms, service rooms at the rear.
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 culina (kitchen) (possibly the best excavated Roman kitchen in Britain) added to the house c.AD 190. It was a very grand affair! On the east side was a ledge inset with timber posts. 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 (an early example of an extractor fan!).
In the south-west corner are the remains of an oven (fornax). 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.
The floor of the villa's main kitchen (room 28 above) 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.
In addition to spelt and barley, rye and oats were grown. They would have kept cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens. Meat was expensive, so only the immediate family would have eaten beef, pork, mutton and lamb at regular intervals.
Root crops such as turnips, parsnip and carrots were introduced, much improving the winter fodder for their livestock improving the quality of meat and dairy products.
Corn grinding took place in the north-west corner of the kitchen.
Bread, porridge and beer formed the staple diet. A bakery and brewery was built between the road and river in the early 2nd century. We know there were rotary grinding stones to grind corn into flour for bread and corn driers and furnaces found – clay-built ovens – a bakery. An oak-lined malting (fermentation) tank gives evidence of local brewing of beer.
Most of the food remains at Littlecote were recovered from a rubbish pit behind the kitchen and between the mortar floors in the kitchen itself. They included hundreds of edible snails (the large Roman snails which still thrive in the woods above the villa).
Many hundreds of oyster shells were recovered, the largest coming from the 1st and 2nd century deposits. Shells got smaller in later years due to the demand for them they were not able to let them grow bigger as before.
A lot of fish bones were recovered in the kitchen pit including pike and trout caught in the adjacent river. There were fish retaining tanks on the south side of the road next to a Smoke House where fish and other meats where suspended to preserve.
Much of the food eaten at Littlecote would have been hunted or found locally. We know that the fields rising to the south of the villa were in use in Roman times - artefacts were found on the fields that would have come from discarded rubbish scattered on the fields.
Other (not local) records show that the Romans ate dormice (apparently a delicacy!), hares, dogs, boars and various birds (chicken, pheasant, pasrtridge, small birds), eggs (goose eggs were a luxory) and cheese (made from goats' milk). The Romans introduced many fruits and vegetables previously unknown to the Britons, some of which are still part of the modern national diet, including asparagus, turnips, peas, broad beans, cabbages, garlic, celery, onions, leeks, radishes, cucumbers, globe artichokes, figs, medlars, mulberries, sweet chestnuts, apples, pears, cherries, grapes and plums. They are known to have used garum (fish sauce), poured over many foods.
Seafood was another important element of the Roman diet that became increasingly popular in Britain following the Roman conquest. The Romans were particularly fond of shellfish, especially oysters. British oysters became the white truffle of the Roman table, even sent to Rome. The Romans used ground oyster shells in skin ointments; they were used to make roads and, when mixed with figs and pitch, to mend their baths.
In addition to using them as a food source, the Romans used dogs for hunting. Large dogs called deerhounds were used to hunt deer. Smaller dogs like greyhounds were used to hunt hares.
Continuing the tour of the west range:
There was, of course, a bath suite here.
29 - The praefurnium (furnace room) of the early house, from which the hypocaust of the main dining room (20) and the rooms of the bath house were heated. Note that here the hypocaust was constructed of the more usual tile stacks rather than flints.
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 west range villa house, 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 sudatorium (sweating 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.
Much of this part of the residence was altered in c.AD 270 when 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 above the portico.
West range - Building 2 – the smokehouse and 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 c.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) - a substantial affair.
14-17 – A workers’ cottage (possibly the farm manager's 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.
Why did the archaeologists conserve the villa as it was in AD 361?
The text above has related to this whole villa developing as a really important and grand farm complex, serving the needs of the local community, tilling the fields around and growing herds of animals.
This was indeed how it was for 300 years – until AD 361.
But then, everything changed.
Across the Roman empire, people were able to worship whatever God they wished. Indeed, there were huge numbers of cults and religions in the early years. In the early AD 300s Emperor Constantine I (Constantine the Great) converted to Christianity and used his power and influence to promote Christianity across the empire. The two emperors after him also supported Christianity.
But, in in AD 361 the new “kid on the block” – the new Emperor elected in Rome – was Emperor Julian the Apostate. (Apostate=renounces a religious or political belief or principle).
He was emperor for only 2-3 years – but he made some important changes. He was the last non-Christian emperor, and he encouraged and promoted the development of non-Christian faiths and cults.
One such cult, that had been followed widely in the Greek empire since about 600BC was the Orphic cult – the followers of Orpheus.
This grand farm villa in the depths of rural Britain became quickly transformed into a collegium or a sort of monastery, supporting the Orphic cult.
Farming almost stopped, and every effort went into the building of an Orphic “temple” to promote and support the followers of Orphism.
The Orphic Building:
This structure was converted shortly after c.AD 360 from a third century flint-built barn with a bath suite at its western end.
People would have come from far and wide to visit here.
The many changes at the villa ended up with about 60 rooms, with several bath suites.
Imagine people coming to Littlecote, seeing that huge impressive gatehouse, being admitted by the stewards, their horses being taken to the stables.
They would have been directed to this north range, which included the grand Orphic Temple with its tall tower.
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.
They came through the narthex or entrance lobby (many churches have these narthex lobbies to this day), and on into the enclosed courtyard.
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.
The north range, incorporating the Orphic Hall
There would have been bustling activity. They would have chatted with other visitors and the local people. How was your journey? Where do you come from? Have you been here before?
They would no doubt have had some food – maybe a barbecue, and undoubtedly some drink, maybe wine. Maybe lots of it!
4 – Added to the former barn, it was retained in the later phases, possibly as a store or workers’ quarters. Maybe it was a wine store - the upper half of a Bacchic wine crater was found in this room.
Upper half of a 4th century wine crater found in room 4.
It was made at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire
3 – Built into the east corner of the courtyard, it was seemingly used as a mosaicist’s workshop. Piles of unused tesserae and their chippings were found here, sorted into colours. Elsewhere on site a heavy rubbing block of quartzite was found, probably used to polish and finish mosaic floors with sand and water.
At the far end of the courtyard is another bath suite, especially used by those coming to the Orphic Hall.
They would have come into this corridor (5) and changing room/ante-room (10), taken off their travelling robes (yes they may have been naked!), and spending time in the various rooms of the bath suite.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When they had finished, and endured the cold plunge bath, they came back into the changing room, maybe put on their better robes, before ascending the steps into the amazing reception hall of the Orphic Temple. (At present the cover building prevents visitors access to the steps, so walk back to the walkway above.
11-12 – The Orphic Hall and Mosaic. The Orphic Hall contains the fourth largest mosaic ever found in Britain, and arguably the finest mosaic in Britain.
Artist Trevor Caley’s impression of the riverside building c.AD 360-365
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.
The site changed from being essentially a farm, albeit a large one, to become a ceremonial complex or tenemos (a piece of ground surrounding or adjacent to a temple; a sacred enclosure or precinct), a collegium or pagan monastery, for followers of a sect based on the cult of Bacchus and the legends of Orpheus and Bacchus. 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 many pagan temples and shrines in Britain were restored and new ones built. This may well 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 361 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.
Three small bronze coins of Constantius II (emperor AD 337 to 361) were found in the 1979 when investigating the baths suite. Two were datable to AD 345-348 and the other to AD 356-360. The latter coin provides a terminus post quem [earliest date established with certainty]) to c.AD 361. All three were minted in Trier in Germany. All three show signs of wear, the later coin somewhat less so. Allowing time for the latest coin to arrive and circulate in Britain for a few years, a date around D 360-361 for their loss seems reasonable, coinciding exactly with Julian the Apostate becoming Emperor.
Cut-away drawing of the Orphic Hall and baths, shown from the east
Orphism or the Orphic cult:
But what was this Collegium all about?
Christianity began, of course, around the first century AD, but in ancient Greece, and continuing into the Roman era there were also many mystic beliefs or cults.
One such was Orphism.
Orphism was a mystic religion that had formed in ancient Greece in the 6th century BC, and, like many other mystic religions, it had continued to be followed to a greater or lesser degree through the Roman period.
Orphics revered Dionysus (who the Romans called Bacchus). In Greek mythology Dionysus once descended into the Underworld and returned) and Persephone (who annually descended into the Underworld for a season and then returned). (I will talk more about these in a moment or two).
The central focus of Orphism is the suffering and death of the god Dionysus at the hands of the Titans. According to this myth, the infant Dionysus is killed, torn apart, and consumed by the Titans. In retribution, Zeus strikes the Titans with a thunderbolt, turning them to ash. From these ashes, humanity is born.
In Orphic belief, this myth describes humanity as having a dual nature: body, inherited from the Titans, and soul, inherited from Dionysus.
In order to achieve salvation from the Titanic, material existence, one had to be initiated into the Dionysian mysteries and undergo a ritual purification and reliving of the suffering and death of the god.
Orphics believed that they would, after death, spend eternity alongside Orpheus and other heroes. The uninitiated, they believed, would be reincarnated indefinitely.
So… Orphism is a set of religious beliefs and practices based on poems attributed to Orpheus, emphasizing the necessity for individuals to rid themselves of the evil part of their nature by ritual and moral purification throughout a series of reincarnations.
This is what was happening at the Orphic Hall at Littlecote.
So many features suggest strongly that the Orphic Hall performed a ceremonial or religious function related a syncretic cult of Orpheus, Apollo and Dionysus.
The Orphic Hall, with its grand entrance hall and unique triconch sanctuary and fabulous mosaic floor, may have witnessed the initiation ceremonies of celebrants into the cult. These may have included cleansing in the adjacent bath suite and ceremonial feasting which often 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 (the first incarnation of Dionysus).
This conjecture is supported by some of the historic finds at the site including:
• Part of a decorated wine crater was found in a side chamber of the inner court (room 4).
• 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.
The restored Orphic Hall and the north range from the west, c.1991
Bryn Walter's description of the Orphic Hall:
(from "Orpheus and the Gentleman Farmer" - BBC "Chronicle" edition, 1981):
"We have restored here what I believe to be one of the most significant Roman mosaics ever found in Britain, and on the elements in its design I would argue even within the Roman Empire itself.
Among the panels are figured details which could well represent transformations of the Greek God Dionysus.
Dionysus was the premiere deity in a pagan mystery religion known to scholars as Orphism.
It offered to the privileged elite of the later Roman world an alternative to the Christian faith with which it had many parallels. Its believers thought they would gain immortality through a form of Holy Communion with the gods of the cult, who were Dionysus, and also Apollo as the sun.
The most interesting element of the mosaic lies here within the inner chamber where, when re-excavated, we found in the centre, the remains of a small red dog or fox. It is this animal that positively identifies the central character as Orpheus.”
Around Orpheus race four animals accompanied by four dancing female figures representing the seasons.
In the first quadrant there’s Aphrodite, holding her mirror, and representing spring; then Leda with a swan, the summer bird of Apollo; Demeter, goddess of the Harvest, holding the vine staff of autumn, and beside her is her daughter Persephone in a cloak as winter.
But what is their significance?
“I believe that these females have a two-fold function to fulfil on this mosaic, as they not only represent the four seasons but also the cycle of life.
Aphrodite was also the Goddess of Re-birth, and possibly Leda is here to represent youth; maturity with the robed Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the Goddess of the Underworld, represents Death.
But they are dancing, and the dance goes on, for after death comes re-birth – the immortality promised by Dionysus. They revolve, dancing round and around, eternally around the prophet of the sun.
And there is a myth associated with the Orphic cult that relates to the sacrifice of Dionysus and in that myth, in order to escape from his enemies, he transforms himself into four beasts, and they were a goat, a deer, a panther and a bull.
As the bull, Dionysus was sacrificed by his enemies the Titans, and it is that sacrifice that forms the basis of the Orphic cult.”
That sacrifice has its parallel. When Christianity started, Orphism was already an old religion. They overlapped for nearly 400 years, but Christianity finally prevailed.
The chapel at Littlecote House was built as an act of faith in Puritanism by Alexander Popham, a Colonel in Cromwell’s army.
The building of the Orpheus mosaic was also an act of faith, coinciding with the temporary restoration of paganism in the Roman empire in 360 AD.
“One must look at the Christian churches of Greece and Turkey in the 5th century, only this room was constructed in the middle of the 4th. It’s a 100 years earlier than its closest parallel.
It was, almost certainly, a private temple of the villa."
Mosaics across the Roman Empire were used to decorate walls, and to decorate floors. In Roman Britain mosaics were popular in the first and second centuries, less so in the third century, but underwent a resurgence in the fourth century.
Mosaics are comprised of tesserae, which are of different colours and sizes. The early mosaics in Britain tended to be of relatively simple design, with fewer colours. Those of the fourth century were often of high quality, with small tesseare of many colours.
Orpheus mosaics are found throughout the Roman Empire, but Britain has the greatest concentration of Orpheus mosaics in the entire empire - at least 14 are now known. The scene normally shows Orpheus playing his lyre and attracting birds and animals of many species, the animals arranged in a circle parading around him with feet facing out, so that some are the right way up whatever angle the floor is seen from.
But the Orpheus mosaic at Littlecote is different. There is a central Orpheus panel, but around it are four quadrant panels. It measures 42ft (12.8m) long and 28ft (8.5m) across at its widest, making it the fourth largest mosaic in Britain. It was the first Orpheus mosaic to be found in Britain (in 1727).
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), in the City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol (originally from Newton St Loe villa near Corston, Somerset).
Around Britain teams of mosaicists (officinae, workshops or 'schools') developed, and their work can often be identified. One such was the Corinium (Cirencester) Orpheus officina, who are thought to have installed the mosaics at Barton Farm, Cirencester, Dyer Street, Cirencester, Chedworth and Withington amongst others. However, these all pre-date the Littlecote mosaic. It is uncertain which officina installed the grand mosaic at Littlecote, but it may be a 'late Durno-Corinian phase of the Corinium School'. It is thought that in this late mid-fourth century period, mosaicists were travelling further afield to find and fulfil commissions. After AD 380 few mosaics were laid, and the latest in Britain has been dated AD 395.
There is no definitive record of the composition and origin of the tesserae at Littlecote. Many tesserae, gathered in piles of separate colour, were found in room 3 in the north-east corner of the north range courtyard, and it is thought that this was a mosaicist's workshop.
In general, tesserae were crafted from local natural stone, cut brick, tile and pottery creating coloured shades of, predominantly, blue, black, red, white and yellow. Occasionally marble and glass were used, as were small pebbles, and precious metals like gold. Polychrome patterns were most common, but monochrome examples are known.
At the Roman villa at Boxford, the tesserae included dark blue-grey and buff-grey dolostone from the Upper Jurassic beds at Kimmeridge Bay, or from an adjacent outcrop along Dorset coast (similar tesserae from the same source appear at Silchester). Brownstone tesserae were of Devonian brownstone originates from The Forest of Dean, and were used for mosaics both at Silchester and at the Groundwell Ridge complex near Swindon. The white tesserae are indurated (hardened) chalk from Upper Cretaceous beds originating possibly from the Dorset or Hampshire Downs, and also white Lias, a fine white limestone from the Triassic beds of Somerset. Red tesserae were derived from terracotta building material.
Detail of the Orpheus mosaic, 19th June 2021
The Littlecote Orpheus mosaic includes tesserae coloured white, grey, black, red, orange, cream, mid green and dark green. More research is required to determine their origin, but coloured tesserae across the south of England are known to have come from:
- White, cream: hard chalk, oolithic limestone, carboniferous limestone,
- Reds and oranges: chopped brick and terracotta tile, samian vessels, Old Red Sandstone, Purbeck marble,
- Blues: Lias limestone, shale, Purbeck marble,
- Black and greys: shale, reduced interiors of bricks and tiles,
- Pink: chalk, sometimes burnt,
- Purples, greys, browns and greens: Pennant sandstone,
- Greens: Lower Greensand, Purbeck marble,
- Browns: argillaceous limestone, ironstone.
The Orphic Hall was entered via steps from the lower antechamber on the north.
The apses supported a central tower in which windows on all sides created a well of light onto the figured mosaic below.
The full Orpheus mosaic, photographed c.1990
The various panels making up the “Orpheus mosaic”:
The various panels comprising the full mosaic are:
- the "marine" panel.
- the four floral panels,
- the borders and infills,
- the adjacent "Panthers and vine" panel,
- the "Pool of Memory" panel,
- the central Orpheus panel,
- the four quadrant Greek goddesses panels, and
- the three sun-ray panels in the apse,
At the east end of the rectangular entrance lobby to the hall is another linear panel, this one depicting marine characters.
The 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. 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.
So this marine panel illustrates how Dionysus deals with his enemies, represented by the dolphins, as opposed to the benevolent Dionysus, represented in the sacrarium apse panels by the mask of a leopard, radiating solar rays as a promise of eternal life for his followers.
The four floral panels, in the heart of the reception hall, opposite the entrance to the room, may also demonstrate the theme of immortality; red flowers were associated with resurrection.
The four floral panels
The flowers are a typical lotus flower design often used in Roman mosaics.
Note that the south west lotus (bottom right in the photo above) is set differently to the other three. We do not know the reason for this, but it was clearly intentional. Perhaps this flower marked where an initiate into the Orphic cult had to stand at a special part of the ceremony?
The borders and infills:
Around the four floral panels are various repeated geometrical designs.
Around each flower is a triple guilloche border, and around the entire panel is a Greek key (or "swastika") meander pattern, again a commonly used mosaic border device.
The next panel depicts 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 companions of Dionysus.
The panel is thought to be a Dionysiac panel representing resurrection and rebirth - Dionysus being the reborn god of the vine, grape-harvest and fertility.
Two panthers pawing at a wine crater
At the threshold between the reception hall and the sanctuary – where it narrowed with the arch, is a very special panel – a panel that is unique in Romano-British mosaics. It clearly depicts rippling water, but what is it all about?
The stylised “Pool of Memory”
In Greek mythology, in addition to the river Styx that formed the boundary between Earth and the underworld there were many more rivers that were mentioned in various ancient writings.
One of these was the river Lethe (pronounced lee-thee), the river of forgetfulness, and dead souls who drank from Lethe would suffer total loss of memory – they would not remember their past earthly lives when reincarnated.
However, Orpheus was able to give some spirits a password to tell Hades' servants which would allow them to drink instead from the Mnemosyne [pronounced nemoseeny] (the pool of memory), which made the drinker remember everything. (We get our word “mnemonic” from Mnemosyne).
So in Orphism, the initiated were taught to drink not from the river Lethe but rather from the Mnemosyne, the river (or Pool) of memory. They would remember everything, and thus brought an end to transmigration or reincarnation of the soul.
This panel is thought to represent that “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 Sacrarium (sanctuary) of the Orphic Hall:
In the very centre is Orpheus, depicted in a fairly typical way, wearing a Phrygian cap and playing his 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 terracotta, intentionally of a slightly different colour to distinguish original from modern tesserae.
Orpheus 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 texts 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, whilst other texts use "fox-like 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.”
The central panel depicting Orpheus with his lyre and his dog or fox.
Note the original tesserae (on the left) and the modern replacements (on the right)
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 that they killed Orpheus.
Surrounding Orpheus, and set within a framework of a triple guilloche (braded band) border, are four quadrant panels, each containing a depiction of a female deity dancing in front of a beast. The fill in each corner is a stylised lotus calyx, widely used on Roman mosaics to represent resurrection.
The 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 four quadrant panels are thought to represent:
- Aphrodite, holding her mirror, with a hind, represent spring and re-birth.
- Nemesis with a panther, and holding a swan, the summer bird of Apollo. Possibly she represents youth
- Demeter, goddess of the Harvest, with a bull and holding the vine staff of autumn. She is robed and represents autumn, and
- Persephone in a cloak with a goat. She represent winter and death.
The beasts in each scene are thought to represent 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 that Dionysus transformed himself into are normally recorded as a goat, a deer or hind, a panther and a bull (as here at Littlecote). (Other records include a lion, a wild horse, a horned serpent and a tiger). To the Orphics, Dionysus was the supreme deity and was known as The Reborn as he promised resurrection and eternal life to his followers.
The north-west panel - 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 - nemesis with a panther:
Nemesis with a panther
Nemesis is also depicted naked. She is holding a swan, the summer bird of Apollo. Nemesis was famously seduced by Zeus when he took the form of a swan (as depicted here). She represents Summer and Youth. She is shown 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 bull
Demeter, the Goddess of harvest, grain and fertility, is shown robed, holding a vine staff and represents autumn. She 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 north-east panel).
Persephone and Demeter watched over the world's seasons and plants.
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.
The north-east panel - Persephone with a goat:
Persephone (Kore) with a goat
Persephone (also called Kore, the maiden) was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. She is shown (clothed!) 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).
In each of the three apse segments is a leopard mask of Dionysus (Bacchus) radiating light as the descending sun. These are a very clever adaptation of the shell design, common in the mosaic repertory.
The 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 construction must 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.
The sacrarium (sanctuary)
The western apse of the sacrarium would have been the logical place for the enthronement of the officiating master during the Orphic ceremonies, almost certainly the owner of the villa.
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 many ceramic and stone building materials, and oyster shells.
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 vessel, found at Littlecote