Butser Ancient Farm
Principal Christine Shaw



The answer is perhaps surprisingly 'not a lot'. Ask what is a Roman villa and there is no easy explanation.

To start with 'villa' is a Roman legal concept, it is a house in the countryside and not in the town. But it is more than a farm and generally should have 'status' building features like mosaics, hypocausts and painted wall-plaster although there are exceptions to this rule.

What is also difficult is that a 'villa' embodies a set of Roman cultural attitudes, which you cannot easily define archaeologically. These are to do with hierarchy, social status and showing off. Accommodation comes into it but, for example, we have great difficulty in working out where the slaves were housed. We know more about pig-sties than we do about slave quarters.

Villas also vary from place to place within the Roman Empire depending upon period. The Roman Empire lasted for hundreds of years. One impact is obviously that of local climate - the Mediterranean is different from elsewhere. Local customs also come into it - think of the variety in the old British Empire.

Thus, evidence from a villa in North Africa or Italy was not necessarily of help in making decisions at Butser. The archaeological problem with villas in Britain is that they have been badly treated in the 1500 years since they were abandoned, so the walls do not survive much above 30cm high. Floors, including mosaics, survive a bit better but think of trying to interpret the room you are in if everything is cut off low - no windows and only the bottoms of doorways. Luckily, in a few cases, Roman walls have collapsed almost flat and, when excavated, give us an idea of how tall they were, the slope of their roofs and the type of windows they had.

Roman wall paintings and mosaics in Britain and abroad have buildings shown on them. But these are often 'fantasies' or illustrating legends, which makes them suspect as evidence. If from abroad, as with North Africa, they reflect a different climate. There are a few graffiti of buildings from Britain but they are no great help. So we have no 'true' pictures of British Roman villas.

Roman writers help a bit including, Pliny and Sidonius. From them, we know that their concerns with buildings are with enjoying the low sun, escaping the heat of the high sun and maximising the effect of the cooling breezes. But these are in big villas. However there are themes which constantly occur, for example the flexibility of a room which could be a bedroom or a dining room. It is also interesting to see the concentration of these aristocratic Romans on the functions, relative placing and views from the rooms of the villa. Roman architectural writers like Vitruvius and Faventius give us information about the best place to locate villas and about some building and decoration techniques but they do not tell what villas looked like.

The things (artefacts) that really seem to give us a clue as to what our villa may really have looked like come from Luxembourg, which is the north-western Roman tradition and so designed in a way suitable for our climate.

These artefacts are shrines carved out of single blocks of stone in the form of villas. They show a corridor (not an open veranda) on the front, with a rectangular block behind, so they reflect the ground plans we have in Britain, especially at Sparsholt, as followed at Butser. The models show elaborate central pedimented doorways, slated roofs and square windows. So, while being far from perfect as a source, they gave us the best and closest idea of what to aim for in building the Butser Roman Villa.


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Created 15 November 2003 - Updated 15 November 2003