4. The rediscovery and restoration of the villa, 1976-1991
The re-discovery of the villa, 1976:
After its discovery in 1727 and recording, the mosaic was reburied and declared lost. Several oak trees were planted across the site.
But in 1977 the villa was rediscovered by two local archaeologists, Bryn Walters and Bernard Phillips. In April 1978 the then owner of Littlecote, Sir (David) Seton Wills, who had inherited the estate from his father and grandfather, founded a long-term research project, with a team of six full-time staff including a conservator, all led by Bryn Walters. The whole site was painstakingly restored over a 13-year period. The archaeological team was based in the old coach-house, with drawing office, conservation laboratory, dark room and living accommodation for some of the team. The six archaeologists were all hand-picked professionals whose skills complemented each other. The restoration of the mosaic alone cost £45,000.
When entrepreneur Peter de Savary bought Littlecote from the Wills family in 1985, he continued the funding until the work was completed in 1991.
Artist Trevor Caley’s impression of the riverside building c.AD 360-365
An aerial view of the restored villa, 1991
The restoration of the villa, 1978-1991:
During an archaeological survey in Littlecote Park in 1977 medieval and Roman debris, notably tesserae, were found around rabbit burrows in a broad area of uneven ground on the south bank of the river Kennet. Three small exploratory cuttings were made in June 1977, which identified the site of the Orpheus building.
The area of land to the west of Littlecote House was unproductive, and the owner of the estate, Mr David Seton Wills (later Sir Seton Wills), made the land available for a long-term archaeological project.
Excavations commenced in May 1978.
The initial findings were recorded in - Archaeological Excavations in Littlecote Park Wiltshire, 1978 - First Interim Report by Bryn Walters and Bernard Phillips, of which the following is a summary.
Earthworks west of Littlecote House, 1978
The initial excavation was focussed on two sites:
1. Site 1 – the southern area, 400 sq metres, including a demolished Roman house extending into Site 2. Some tessellation was found, and three rooms had hypocausts. Pottery from the Neronian/ Flavian period (c.AD 60-90) was found.
2. Site 2 – the northern area, 925 sq metres, including the Orphic Hall and an early Roman road. Immediately to the east of this site was the site of the large cottage shown on a painting of the park around 1710.
Initial excavation sites, 1978
The road was provisionally dated to 1st-2nd century. It was six metres wide, with a ditch on its northern side. At a later date a flint-built structure seven metres wide was aligned with the road on its northern side, the foundations of its south wall being laid in the bottom of the ditch. A small bath suite was inserted in the north-west corner. The south-west corner and the wall set into the ditch had been demolished when the Orpheus Hall was added, partly extending over the road, while simultaneously the south wall had been rebuilt extending eastwards from the north-east corner of the Orpheus Hall.
The Orpheus hall was composed of a rectangular hall, 6 metres by 5 metres with an entrance in its north wall, and a western room with apsidal extensions projecting from its south, west and north sides. Externally the apses are polygonal, being formed from five sides of an octagon; internally they are semi-circular.
The south apse is inferior in construction and size compared with the west and north examples. This may have been an error in construction, and must have caused difficulty in springing the internal arches and in laying the mosaic floor. The foundations were remarkably shallow extending on average only 50cms below the level of the mosaic. The underlying ditch on the north side of the road, buried by the construction of the Orpheus hall, eventually caused the western apse and a large proportion of the mosaic to subside. That the ditch was already apparent to the 4th century builders was indicated by an extra thick layer of mortar beneath the mosaic overlying the ditch.
Orpheus panel before restoration, 1978
“Goat” panel before restoration, 1978
As it was carefully revealed, about 40% of the design of the Orpheus mosaic had survived. It was in a very fragile condition, eroded by root penetration, burrowing animals, worms and, because of its shallow depth, by frost and by flooding. The area of mosaic above the earlier road surface (the southern half of the mosaic) had suffered badly from exposure to the elements in the 18th century.
The mosaic in the northern apse was totally missing, including all trace of mortar bedding. It was intact in 1730 when the embroidery was made, and it is thought that the northern panel may have been removed by Sir Richard Colt-Hoare who hints at an attempted removal in his work 'Ancient Wilts II' (1821, p.117-121).
After total exploration beneath the floor, a fresh foundation was laid and the mosaic was restored. The work was carried out by Art Pavements and Decorations Ltd (then part of Carter Contracting, London) and it was formally opened to the public in July 1980. (For more detail on this see the First Interim Report).
Restoring the Orpheus Mosaic, 1979
To read more, see Littlecote Roman Villa - 5. The Conservation Plan, 2019-2024.
The report in the EVENING ADVERTISER, 3 Feb 2016 of the 1976 rediscovery and restoration:
Barry Leighton reported:
It was, as Roger Gale, the eminent member of the Society of Antiquaries of London so eloquently and tantalisingly put it in 1728 “the finest pavement that the sun ever shone upon in England.”
Such was its significance, so exquisite its craftsmanship, that no sooner had it been found after well over a millennium beneath the Wiltshire soil than an engraving was scrupulously made by a leading artist of the day to convey its splendour to the outside world.
It was George Vertue’s finely detailed image, along with Gale’s mouth-watering eulogy that cast an enduring spell over Swindon archaeologists Bryn Walters and Bernard Phillips some 250 years later. Surely the magnificent Orpheus Mosaic that was again lost to the world during the 18th Century so soon after its rediscovery, could once more be located, they hoped.
Its whereabouts – if it hadn’t been destroyed, as some feared – were roughly known... in the rolling parklands of Littlecote House near Hungerford. But no-one knew the precise spot. No- one had a map marked “x.”
Bryn, who is now director of the Swindon-based Association for Roman Archaeology, recalls:
“I knew about the mosaic from my later childhood when I used to read about archaeological sites in Britain. “In my youth when passing through Chilton Foliat on buses, I used to look across the valley towards Littlecote House and its park, thinking to myself that one day I’ll go and find it – hardly believing that one day I actually would.”
Bernard remembers: “Bryn and I had been aware of the mosaic’s existence for many years, having seen George Vertue’s illustration in Sir Richard Colt Hoare’s ‘The Ancient History of Wiltshire Vol. II.’ This describes it as having been found ‘in a low piece of ground near a river in the park of the Popham family at Littlecote. He also states that ‘This curious piece of antiquity is now unhappily destroyed.’”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the discovery – or rediscovery, if you like – of a Roman complex containing one of the Jewels of Romano Britain... thanks to the perseverance of Bryn and Bernard, with a little help from some rabbits.
Around 1,650 years old the Orpheus Mosaic was created on a site already occupied for around three centuries following the Roman Invasion of 43AD. Housed in an exotic hall, it formed an extension to a once imposing villa complex before it was abandoned, lost and forgotten during the onset of the Dark Ages in the 5th Century.
Some 1,300 years later, in 1727, Littlecote House estate steward William George was poking around the gardens of its hunting lodge on a bend in the River Kennet when he stumbled upon something quite magnificent... the long-concealed Orpheus Mosaic.
The Society of Antiquaries of London grandly announced the astonishing find the following year – triggering excitement, the commissioning of Vertue’s intricate engraving and Gale’s awestruck comment. And then, a few years later, history repeated itself when the mosaic once more simply vanished. Gone it may have been but forgotten it was not. Periodic searches, however, all drew a blank.
Scouring North Wiltshire for Roman sites in 1976, Bryn obtained an aerial photograph indicating archaeological remains in the suspected vicinity of “England’s finest pavement”.
Spades in hand and hearts pumping, Bryn and Bernard set off across the fields of Littlecote on a drizzly day 40 years ago with estate owner David Seton Wills towards a recently ploughed area where a site of ancient habitation had been suggested from the air.
Having kicked around there for a while without finding anything, Bernard felt they were in the wrong spot. He remembers: “Leaving Seton and Bryn digging a hole, I wandered down towards the river. Here it was immediately evident, in a grassed paddock and lying under old oak trees, that hollows and banks defined traces of former human activity.
“Walking amongst these earthworks I found, where rabbits had been digging a burrow, numerous stone tesserae – mosaic cubes – as well as pieces of pottery and tile. It indicated occupation over a very long period.”
He could hardly keep the grin off his face as he showed Bryn and Sir Seton what he had found. Months later Bryn returned to make further excavations and, says Bernard, “astonishingly came down on the mosaic, revealing part of the figure of Orpheus. The lost Littlecote Mosaic had been rediscovered.”
Bryn says today: “What Bernard had previously found were tesserae from floors in the main Roman house on the slightly higher ground away from the Orpheus chamber.”
He told the Advertiser at the time: “The rabbits had thrown some cubes out. Our reaction was one of total amazement. People had been digging for it for 200 years.” After positively identifying “the famous floor,” Bryn and Bernard oversaw major excavations which began in earnest in 1978 and continued unbroken for 13 years.
First they focused on the area of the mosaic, painstakingly uncovering hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of coloured stone varying from a square inch to the size of a nail head. Packed into boxes, they were sent to London where experts meticulously re-assembled the 1,650 year-old jigsaw in its spectacular entirety before it was returned to Wiltshire and re-laid in situ.
Many of the original tesserae had been destroyed after exposure to nature and the elements and were replaced with new ones based upon Vertue’s engraving. Further excavations over the years revealed the remains of a once huge and luxurious villa complex that had evolved over around 350 years and that would have met the needs of a wealthy family and its servants. At one stage it boasted at least five 40ft towers, akin to a small fortress.
Bryn said: “As each part of the site was fully excavated, we set about restoring and conserving the main Roman building before moving on to the next area – a unique operation which had never been done before.” The fourth largest Roman mosaic found in England and Wales, it is 42ft long and 28ft across at its widest. Its original purpose, however, is not without controversy.
Orthodox opinion insists that it was added to the villa as a summer dining room. However, Bryn is among those convinced that the site, with the mosaic as its centrepiece, became an “Orphic- Bacchic cult chamber,” built to honour the ancient, pagan gods in a predominantly Christian Europe.
The mosaic’s rediscovery was the impetus for Bryn forming the Association for Roman Archaeology whose members receive three magazines a year and free entry to most UK Roman sites and collections. Further information: www.associationromanarchaeology.org.
Soon after the 43AD Roman Invasion soldiers built a bridge over the Kennet on the future site of Littlecote Park as part of a supply route west. Their ramparts were later dismantled and the site passed to farmers who built huts. These were replaced by timber buildings which later made way for flint walled structures including a two-storey house with bath suite.
Over the decades the estate evolved as newer, larger buildings emerged that included sophisticated bathing systems. Towered wings were added during the 3rd Century and further extensions, including mosaic floors, also appeared. The Orpheus Hall and mosaic was created circa 360-362, suggesting the site had become “a form of pagan monastery”.
The complex declined during the 5th Century and the site was occupied on and off for centuries before the Littlecote estate began to take shape from the 13th Century.
There is a simple explanation over how the Orpheus Mosaic was “lost” in the 18th Century so soon after it had been found. That’s because, in all likelihood, it wasn’t actually lost but rather hidden by self-serving Littlecote owner Sir Francis Popham. A letter exists of Popham urging William George, who initially uncovered the mosaic to cover it up again. He instructed George to bury it... “as I want the land for my sheep.”
That’s right, he didn’t fancy sightseers trampling over land where his sheep grazed. Those seeking the lost mosaic were further thwarted after Ordnance Survey map makers were instructed, probably on purpose, that the site was quarter of a mile from its actual location.
When Bryn Walters re-discovered the mosaic it was 15 inches under the grass and badly damaged. “Two sheep had been buried through it, two trees had roots going through it, and there was evidence of frost damage.”
There was also claims of a bungled 18th Century attempt to lift the mosaic, explaining how a now restoration”… (article ends – but read on):
Bryn claims that the northern-most apse of the mosaic was “missing” after what he described as an attempt to lift and move it. He recalls a visitor seeing the mosaic for the first time and remarking that it looked much like a mosaic he had seen in a school. No-one asked him where the school was, but Bryn still speculates that it could have been Mrs George’s school for young ladies!