Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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Recently, a site beloved of many readers of Current Archaeology hit the national headlines: Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire. The reappearance of this location in the national consciousness was thanks to a fragment of fish-shaped glass that was discovered there during an archaeological dig in 2017 (see CA 355). The first find of its kind in the United Kingdom, it took two years to establish that the glassware was imported all the way from what is now Ukraine some 1,800 years ago, most likely as a perfume bottle. It is a sure sign of the high status of the villa’s occupants for such a small, delicate, and expensive object to have travelled so far from its place of manufacture.
THE NATIONAL TRUST AND CHEDWORTH
If you are not familiar with Chedworth, it is well worth seeking out. A glorious location on any day, it is nestled deep in the rolling Gloucestershire countryside and a stunning survival of the living standards of the highest echelons of Romano-British society. The site has been in the care of the National Trust since 1924, although it was first excavated back in 1864 by the then landowners of the larger estate.
CA has paid repeated visits to Chedworth down the years, dating from issue 29 (November 1971) onwards. This first visit explored the wider context of the designs of some of the well-preserved mosaics on site, a topic returned to in less happy circumstances in CA 71 (April 1980), when a Royal Commission report highlighted that at Chedworth, among many other Romano-British villa sites, the mosaics were suffering from ‘blowing’. This problem happens when ostensibly sound mosaics lift away from their bedding, requiring careful re-laying if they are to survive.
After this worrying news, the story of Chedworth – at least in the pages of CA – went quiet for many years. The CA team was busy at other Roman sites (see my columns in CA 330, 337, and 338 for examples), and Chedworth, tucked into its valley, didn’t see CA again until the National Trust began a fundraising initiative. The ‘Roman Britain Appeal’, flagged in CA 221 (August 2008), aimed to support sites like Chedworth that were in need of conservation work. CA 243 (June 2010) saw more news of fundraising at the site, thanks to a £700,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund) to help make improvements, replacing the original Victorian buildings that were still in situ from the post-excavation works of the 1860s. CA 267 (June 2012) then paid a visit to the reopened site, where, in total, over £3m of funds helped to install an environmentally controlled shelter and walkways suspended over the Roman floors that allow visitors to pass above the 1,600-year-old footsteps of the villa’s former inhabitants.
ART AND ARCHITECTURE IN ROMAN BRITAIN
Stepping back in time, CA 230 (May 2009) saw Chedworth reappear in the pages of the magazine in a different guise. Issue 230 is well worth seeking out for its lengthy review of Romano-British villas by Bryn Walters, a self-confessed archaeological maverick keen to challenge established thinking. His review essay proposes a Chedworth reimagined as part of a series of pilgrim/shrine facilities in the area. The theory was challenged in the letters page of CA 232 (July 2009) by Professor Peter Salway, one of the great names of Roman archaeology in Britain.
CA 251 (February 2011) provides another wider review article in the same spirit, a summary of the then recently completed work of Stephen Cosh and David Neal to publish all of the known mosaics of Roman Britain. Here, Chedworth gets specific mention for its transitional pagan-Christian artwork, including some of the earliest uses of the chi-rho (the monogram ‘XP’ made from the first two letters of ‘Christ’ in Greek) in Britain, carved into the stone blocks that had once surrounded the octagonal pool of the nymphaeum at Chedworth.
HIGH STAKES AND HIGH STATUS
CA 284 (November 2013) returned to Chedworth to place the site in its full cultural context given discoveries made there between 2010 and 2015 (see image above). CA’s top archaeo-sleuth Chris Catling visited for a tour, considering the history of explorations there since the 1860s in his usual entertaining style, as well as the different theories developed over the years for the true function of this undoubtedly high-status, but nonetheless enigmatic, estate. Was Chedworth a straightforward high-status villa? A hostel for pilgrims visiting the temple and shrines in this neighbourhood? A shared home of joint owners/proprietors, with multiple families or multiple generations living together, reflecting a distinctive late-era Romano-British social structure? All of these different uses have been hypothesised in the past.
Chris returned to Chedworth in CA 293 (August 2014) to report on the latest thinking about the ‘end’ of Roman Britain, as discussed in a then-new book published by James Gerrard. His ironically titled book The Ruin of Roman Britain suggests there was no end – and that perhaps even the distinction between Romano-Briton and Saxon is a false one, with little difference between a mainstream Classical villa complex like that at Chedworth and an Anglo-Saxon settlement such as that at Bishopstone in Sussex.
The magazine’s most recent in-depth visit to Chedworth came in issue 305 (August 2015), bringing me full circle to the discovery of the rare fragment of glass mentioned at the start of this column. For the glass find was made in 2017, during a later season of the fieldwork that CA had been there to report on for issue 305. As the CA 305 article outlines, this was as much the archaeology of previous archaeologists’ work on site as ‘new’ fieldwork in and of itself. There was much to learn both by bringing together past work and by re-examining Chedworth using new techniques, especially since many records of the 1860s fieldwork do not survive.
All of this research has fed into the evolving interpretation of the site, both in situ for visitors and more widely through the sharing of knowledge and expertise around the globe, as exemplified by the story behind the fragment of the glass fish. Due to its rarity, it took until 2019 to identify the type of bottle that it came from, when a match was found in the Corning Museum of Glass in New York State. This isn’t so much a question of what the Romans ever did for us, more one of what we can still do for the Romans – bringing the international connections of their world more fully into the light through our own international cultural links. Some things don’t change as much as perhaps we imagine them to – people like to share ideas and objects, in the present as much as in the past. Long may this remain so.
Chedworth Roman Villa is open daily until 24 November. For more details, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworthroman-villa or call 01242 890256. For more on the glass fragment from the villa, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworth-roman-villa/features/ rare-glass-fragment-found-at-chedworth-roman-villa.
DISCOVER OLD ISSUES
Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 3 October. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI356’
About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman.