A fine example of a Roman villa with well-preserved mosaics has been discovered in Dorset and excavated by a group of amateur archaeologists. Lilian Ladle described the preliminary results to Andrew Selkirk.
Is it possible to do an ‘amateur’ dig these days? At Druce Farm in Dorset, Lilian Ladle has been excavating a rather splendid Roman villa as an entirely amateur project. The work is being carried out by a team of volunteers from the East Dorset Antiquarian Society (EDAS) plus other local helpers; the project is co-directed by the EDAS chairman Andrew Morgan.
When Bestwell Quarry opened near Dorchester in 1992, Lilian happened to be ‘the right person in the right place’. There were no archaeological conditions on this 55ha gravel extraction site and she was persuaded to undertake a ‘watching brief’. Over 13 years, a loyal team of volunteer helpers excavated an incredible landscape that had attracted successive groups from Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to modern-day farmers, with every archaeological period in-between represented.
The new site at Druce Farm was discovered by pure good fortune. A local metal-detectorist told Lilian about a field where he had found quite a number of Roman coins, but also a lot of other Roman ‘rubbish’. She was invited to look at the site and – yes, indeed – there was a lot of Roman debris. Together with members of EDAS, she systematically fieldwalked the area. A student from Bournemouth University was then persuaded to undertake resistivity and magnetometry surveys, which revealed some enclosure ditches and three ranges of buildings, and even the suggestion of an entrance. Buoyed by these results, in 2012 they put three trenches across some of the walls and caught enough of the northern range to realise that it was still in a fair state of preservation. The following year they returned and hit the jackpot: an almost perfectly preserved mosaic. It was clear that they had found a Roman villa – and rather a good one.
Druce Farm lies four miles north-east of Dorchester in the valley of the River Piddle, near the village of Puddletown. The villa is some distance across fields from the farm, but it covers over 1,000 acres and the landowner, who is over 90 years old, has taken the field out of cultivation and made financial contributions to the excavation project.
The villa is very close to what might be called a classic Roman villa: the main residence is a winged-corridor building, with a courtyard in front flanked by an aisled hall on one side and a workshop range on the other. One slightly unconventional feature of the winged-corridor villa is that it only has one wing, projecting into the courtyard on the western side – there is no wing to the east. Inside, the main villa is essentially a range of rooms with a corridor at the front. The well-preserved mosaic lies in the western end, forming part of the west wing, and there are several other mosaics in the rooms at the core of the villa.
The west-wing mosaic was laid down around AD 350 in a ‘retro’ style, harking back to the black-and-white mosaics that were fashionable in the 1st and 2nd centuries, rather than the gaudy coloured versions that had become de rigueur in the 4th century. Its design was entirely geometric in form with a swastika – a good luck symbol back then – at the centre. This motif was surrounded by a border of diamond-shaped lozenges, with two rows evoking white ashlar blocks forming the outer surround.
A couch or bed was probably standing on the west side of the pavement, and over time moving this loosened the individual squares or tesserae making up the mosaic. Eventually repairs were needed, but they were done very crudely, probably in the 5th or perhaps even beyond the ‘end’ of Roman Britain in the 6th century. Steve Cosh, who with David Neal had just completed his four-volume corpus of Romano-British mosaics, hurried down to draw this new mosaic, and said that he thought that it might have been designed by the Ilchester School of mosaicists, whose work is common in the Dorset area.
But why was the mosaic so well preserved? Since this was an amateur excavation they were able to excavate the layers above the mosaic with no time constraint, which enabled them to tease out the sequence gradually. After the building was abandoned, barn owls took up residence and roosted in the rafters for several years, depositing numerous pellets containing thousands of bones from hapless tiny mammals and amphibians. Then the heavy limestone-tiled roof collapsed, providing a firm protective cover for the mosaic. Next came the flint walls of the rooms, including very large quantities of garishly painted wall plaster. This solid covering of tumbled masonry protected the mosaic from the ravages of the plough.