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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

4th Century Roman Villa Discovered In Wales

Villa discovery
re-writes history of Romans in the west

Most north-westerly Roman villa in Wales
confirmed by trial excavation

Abermagwr Roman villa. Aerial photograph from 2006 showing the discovery of the site, with the great double-ditched enclosure of the Romano-British farm enclosing footings of the villa, upper right (Crown Copyright RCAHMW).

The Abermagwr Roman villa, a remarkable discovery in mid Wales
Archaeologists working near Aberystwyth in Ceredigion, mid-Wales, have discovered a small Roman villa of ‘winged corridor’ plan in a part of Wales previously considered to be well outside the bounds of the Welsh villa-belt. The discovery of this, the most north-westerly Roman villa in Wales, certainly occupied in the early 4th century AD, has forced archaeologists to reconsider the whole nature of Romano-British rural settlement across mid and north Wales.

An imposing Roman building in mid Wales
Roman villas were high-status homes of wealthy landowners which sat at the heart of a farming estate. They are common throughout southern England and to a lesser extent in south-east Wales, with a few outliers in south-west Wales and a singleton in the middle reaches of the Usk valley.  Trial excavations in July 2010 have shown that the Abermagwr villa had all the trappings of established villas in south Wales and southern England, including a slate roof and glazed windows. It was roofed with local slates, but these were cut with five sides and a fine point to form a highly decorative roof of pentagonal form, common amongst villas in south-west England and the Isle of Wight. The walls were built of local stone on cobble foundations though the upper storey (If such existed) may possibly have been timber-framed and plastered.  The villa was fronted by a cobbled yard.

Roman finds
Finds from the site indicate occupation in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD. They include vessels in Black Burnished ware, a practical kitchen pottery imported from Dorset, and fine ware bowls from Oxfordshire. Three coins of Constantine I, minted in the first quarter of the 4th century AD, were crucial for the dating the site and were all found lying on or near late clay floor surfaces underneath the collapsed slate roof.

Two pentagonal Roman roof slates from the Abermagwr villa,
the one on the right nearly complete. Made from local
stone, with square nail holes, these slates constitute
what may be the earliest slated roof in mid Wales. The
right hand slate measures 38cm from top to base.

The villa was heavily robbed for its building stone, probably in the medieval period. ‘Robber trenches’ were dug into the ruins and most useful blocks removed leaving only the substantial clay and stone packed foundations. The building became lost from memory, and the land returned to the plough. Only the local name ‘Magwr’, meaning a ‘ruined homestead’ preserves a memory of a building here.

Abermagwr Roman villa excavations: clay and stone packed foundations of the Roman building.

The 2010 excavations were directed by Dr Toby Driver, of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Dr Jeffrey Davies, formerly of the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University, who excavated at the nearby Trawscoed Roman fort. The excavation was funded by the Cambrian Archaeological Association with support from the Royal Commission and the Dyfed Archaeological Trust.

Archaeologists Toby and Jeffrey explain:
‘Our trial excavations this year have confirmed the remains of an imposing Romano-British building in the heart of mid-Wales, where no Roman villas were previously known. The nearby Roman fort at Trawscoed was abandoned by AD 130, yet here we have a later Roman building where the owners were importing pottery, using coinage, and insisting on decorative slate roofing akin to the largest Roman villas in England. The discovery raises significant new questions about the regional economy and society in late Roman Wales, and raises the possibility of future villa discoveries in the surrounding countryside’.

Excavation and the local community; visits by local schools
The excavation would not have gone so well without the help and support of the landowner, Huw Tudor, and the interest of the local community. The excavation was visited by pupils from three local primary schools in Llanilar, Llanafan and Llanfihangel y Creuddyn, and the local Young Archaeologists Club. Finds will be displayed in the Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth.

Original discovery
A probable villa was discovered during Royal Commission aerial photography in 2006, and buried remains of a winged building on site were revealed during a geophysical survey in 2009. These remains were only confirmed and dated by excavation in July 2010.

In the drought of 2006, aerial photographs taken by Dr Toby Driver for the Royal Commission revealed a large double-ditched enclosure at the site, with the parchmarks of a buried stone building in one corner. It was obvious that this was a large and important archaeological monument, lost to knowledge beneath modern fields and not depicted on early maps.

Geophysical survey by David Hopewell of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, showing the buried footings of the Abermagwr Roman villa.

While filming for BBC2 Wales’ ‘Hidden Histories’ programme in 2009, Dr Toby Driver was joined by Dr Jeffrey Davies, formerly of Aberystwyth University and an authority on Roman Wales, in a geophysical survey of the field. Just like the ‘geofizz’ of Time Team, the survey revealed not only a vast ditched enclosure and annex, but the buried footings of a winged stone building. With three principal rooms, two projecting wings and a south-facing verandah this 20 metre long building had all the hallmarks of a classic Roman villa. This was so unexpected that a trial excavation was carried out in July 2010.

Related Internet links
Investigating a probable Roman villa near Aberystwyth Heritage of Wales News
Abermagwr Link to Coflein
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