BMCR 2024.05.28

Villas, sanctuaries and settlement in the Romano-British countryside: new perspectives and controversies

, , , , Villas, sanctuaries and settlement in the Romano-British countryside: new perspectives and controversies. Archaeopress Roman archaeology, 95. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2023. Pp. 384. ISBN 9781803273808.



This volume comprises eighteen papers presented at a conference held at the British Museum in 2009, organised by the Association for Roman Archaeology and the British Museum. It was inspired by a similar event held in the 1990s, which resulted in the volume Architecture in Roman Britain[1]. While there have been many publications on villas in recent decades, including synthetic works[2] and in-depth studies of particular sites or landscapes[3], this is the largest collection of papers on villas in Britain since the 1970s[4]. A select list of villa excavation reports and studies of villas in Britain (1990-2020) is helpfully included (5-7). Much of this work has been carried out by local archaeological societies and avocational archaeologists, with many examples of collaborations between local interest groups, universities, local authorities and national organisations, combining archival study, excavation, geophysical survey and the study of landscapes.

The aim of the conference was to (re-)consider the significance of villas, especially those that do not appear to fit traditional conceptions of villas as primarily agricultural establishments[5]; for example, those with unusual origins, topographical locations or architectural features. The importance of investigating such sites was increasingly recognised in the 1980s and 1990s[6], especially where potential shrines had been identified, as at Chedworth (Glos.) and Great Witcombe (Glos.). Speakers at the conference (the majority of whom are represented in this volume), were asked to consider whether evidence from sites previously designated villas, or those newly discovered, might lead to alternative interpretations, such as a religious sanctuary or a leisure retreat. The extent to which there might be evidence for changes in function over time was also an important consideration.

The volume situates the study of sites designated at some point as villas within the context of wider landscape studies. It includes sites of all sizes, and also encompasses architectural decoration, coins and mosaics. It is very well illustrated throughout. The synthetic papers by Walton on coin use in the countryside (14-24) and by Witts on villas mosaics and archaeology (25-41) provide useful context and valuable critical insights.

The papers cover disparate topics and regions, and a narrative thread is lacking; nevertheless, important themes do emerge: (1) the importance of a holistic approach, where villas are considered within their landscape setting (e.g. Collis; King; Tomalin; Upex; White) (2) the potential for gaining new insights, potentially leading to alternative interpretations, through (re-)visiting previous scholarship, archives and museum stores (e.g. Beeson; Cosh; Henig and Soffe; Leitch and Biddle; Walters and Rider) (3) the dedication and achievements of local interest groups. For many of the contributors, the volume provided a valuable opportunity to present the interim results of their investigations. Securing funding for analysis and publication can be challenging, especially for large and complex sites; the important role that national organisations (such as the Association for Roman Archaeology) can play in supporting community groups, raising the profile of such research, and in promoting a collaborative approach is very clear from this volume.

There are many detailed and fascinating case studies. For example, the chapters on villas of the Lower Nene Valley (Northants and Cambridgeshire) (Upex) and Piddington (Northants) (Roy and Diana Friendship-Taylor), offer valuable syntheses of fieldwork within these regions, situating villas within their wider landscape context. Upex describes fieldwork carried out by the Nene Valley Archaeological Trust (1980-2000), including surveys of the impressive villa at Cotterstock and the discovery of another villa at Upton (43). The results of this fieldwork are considered in connection with the pioneering archaeological investigations carried out by Artis in the early nineteenth century. The conclusions regarding the possible function(s) of the Praetorium at Castor are tentative (62), but Upex makes a compelling case for further investigation of this archaeologically rich landscape.

Excavations at Piddington (Northants) have been conducted part-time by the Upper Nene Valley Archaeological Society since 1979. The paper by the Friendship-Taylors (65-80) provides an overview of the development of the site, including an impressive two-page plan showing phasing, with a link to an online version. The scale and opulence of the villa is clear; for example, evidence for the plastering of columns in red, purple, brown and white (71), and 40 pieces of geometrically cut marble from the eastern Mediterranean, possibly from a table top dating to the 3rd century. Another impressive find is a key handle in the form of a panther’s head (78). With its early villa-like buildings, metalwork, wall plaster, collections of marble, and the arrangement of the garden, it is proposed that the villa was the home of a high-ranking official and their family (or families) with wider influence (79). It is good to see the results of this trailblazing community project summarised here; while some of the interpretation is understandably conjecture at this stage, it is nevertheless clear that this was an unusual site with a long and complex history of occupation, and the initial results are a testament to the dedication of those involved.

The editors stress the important role that museums play in facilitating understanding and access to information and finds from villas in Britain, where a relatively small number of villa sites are open to the public and have remains in situ. This is an important observation, and it is good to see the signposting to relevant sources of information, and the opportunity to gain free or discounted entry into many sites through the Association for Roman Archaeology (2). Indeed, a real strength of this volume is the emphasis on the value of (re-)investigating archives and museum stores, as admirably demonstrated by Beeson (163-196), in his rigorous and beautifully illustrated examination of acroterial decoration and cantharus fountains from Great Witcombe and Chedworth (Glos.). Beeson and other contributors (e.g. Cosh; Walters and Rider) demonstrate the immense value of such research, which can enhance our understanding and support or challenge previous interpretations; for example, as shown by Cosh, in his discussion of the find-spot of the Chi-Rho inscriptions at Chedworth, where successive writers have embellished the original account in the manner of a ‘Chinese whisper’, potentially resulting in a false premise. The paper by Henig and Soffe (with King) on the villa at Lullingstone demonstrates the value of a holistic approach; it combines a comprehensive and well-illustrated review of previous excavations and interpretations, with a meticulous re-evaluation of the art in its historical context.

Several papers describe in detail the contributions made by antiquarians and early archaeologists; for example, the meticulous documenting of excavations at Great Witcombe in 1818 by Samuel Lysons (163). Studies such as these show the kinds of insights that can be gained through studying material in archives and stores, and demonstrate the value of investigating collections of archaeological material that have been ‘re-buried from public and academic consciousness’ (Beeson 194). The importance of increasing public and academic engagement with archives and archaeological collections is emphasised (194), reflecting growing awareness of the importance of promoting and facilitating such engagement, especially given current competing and growing financial pressures on local authorities[7].

Many of the papers (e.g. Corney, King, Bird) highlight the critical role played by local groups in investigating and recording sites, in some cases over decades, helping to reveal the richness and variety of ‘villas’ in their landscapes. Several contributors describe cross-sector collaboration; for example, Corney’s overview of the excavations at the St Laurence School villa (Wilts), which were supported by a range of organisations, including the School, Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust, the Universities of Bristol and Cardiff, Bradford on Avon Town Council, and the Association for Roman Archaeology (220). The results of these collaborative investigations are exciting, suggesting that the villa remained an estate centre into the fifth century, but also became a Christian centre for the local community (219).

While the book provides a scholarly and comprehensive analysis of the material evidence, some interpretations would benefit from broader contextualization within the socio-political and economic frameworks of Roman Britain. An interdisciplinary approach that integrates historical, anthropological, and sociological perspectives is generally lacking, and would undoubtedly provide further insights. While the contributions are largely detailed and nuanced, some convincingly challenging previous interpretations, there is limited holistic discussion of these, or consideration of conflicting interpretations. While immensely valuable for specialists in the field, the book may be less accessible for a broader audience interested in the study of villas, or the archaeology of Roman Britain more generally, due to the rather dense academic writing, the specialist terminology and the lack of a clear narrative thread.

The volume is nevertheless a commendable effort to bring together many researchers and organisations to critically evaluate a diverse range of villas, sanctuaries and settlements in Roman Britain. It provides a wealth of rigorous and fascinating research, and offers some novel insights. In particular, the value and impact of collaborative working shines through; many of the projects described in this volume are helping to transform our understanding of the significance of these sites in the past, simultaneously bringing people and organisations together and demonstrating the value of archaeological research for people and places in the present. This volume will hopefully serve as a catalyst for future research that draws on wider interdisciplinary expertise and sparks new collaborations.


Authors and titles

  1. Roman villas in Britain and beyond – Martin Henig, Anthony King and Grahame Soffe
  2. Where, when and what for? Coin use in the Romano-British countryside – Philippa Walton
  3. Villa mosaics and archaeology – Patricia Witts
  4. The Roman villas of the Lower Nene Valley and the Praetorium at Castor – Stephen G. Upex
  5. Piddington, Northamptonshire: wealthy private farm or imperial property? – Roy and Diana Friendship-Taylor
  6. Whitley Grange villa, Shropshire: a hunting lodge and its landscape – Roger White
  7. Moor Park, Hertfordshire: two evaluations of an excavation of the 1950s – Victoria Leitch and Martin Biddle
  8. Great Witcombe, Gloucestershire: a reinterpretation of the site as a temple rather than a villa – Bryn Walters and David Rider
  9. Chedworth, Gloucestershire: a question of interpretation – Bryn Walters and David Rider
  10. Acroterial decoration and cantharus fountains – Anthony Beeson
  11. The stones with Chi-Rho inscriptions at Chedworth – Stephen R. Cosh
  12. The St Laurence School villa, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire – Mark Corney
  13. Dinnington and Yarford: two villas in south and west Somerset – Anthony C. King, with a contribution by Christina Grande
  14. The Ashtead Roman villa and tileworks – David Bird
  15. Lullingstone Roman villa – Martin Henig and Grahame Soffe, with a contribution by Anthony King
  16. Clinging to Britannia’s hemline: continuity and discontinuity in villa estates, boundaries and historic land use on the islands of Vectis and Tanatis – David Tomalin
  17. Where did Sidonius Apollinaris live? – John Collis
  18. From Roman villa to medieval village at the Mola di Monte Gelato, Lazio, Italy – Anthony C. King



[1] Johnson, P. and Haynes I. (ed.) Architecture in Roman Britain, York 1996.

[2] See e.g. Smith, J.T. Roman Villas: A Study in Social Structure, London 1997; Perring, D. Houses in Roman Britain, Cambridge 2002.

[3] See e.g. Trow, S., James, S., Moore, T. Becoming Roman, Being Gallic, Staying British: Research and Excavations at Ditches ‘hillfort’ and villa 1984-2006, Oxford, 2009.

[4] Todd, M. Studies in the Romano-British Villa, Leicester 1978.

[5] Rivet, A.L.F. “Social and economic aspects.” In A.L.F. Rivet, The Roman Villa in Britain, 1969, London, 173-216.

[6] See e.g. Webster G. “The function of the Chedworth Roman ‘villa’”. Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 101, 5-20, 1983; Webster, G. “What we don’t know about Roman Britain,” No. 5, The Roman villa. Roman Research News 10, 3, 1995.

[7] See, e.g., Paul, S. Why do we have this? A Study of Museum Approaches to Retention and Disposal of Archaeological Archives, Birmingham, 2020; Donnelly-Symes, B. Planning for Archives: Opportunities and Omissions, London, 2019; Mendoza, N. The Mendoza Review: an independent review of museums in England. London, 2017.