The Romans Era in South Somerset

 

 

 

The landscape of South Somerset during the Roman era was dominated by high status villas often with the iconic art of the Romans: mosaics. These villas were situated in the countryside around the Roman town of Ilchester, named in Latin as Lindinis or Lendinae, which is unique in that it is the only continuously inhabited town in South Somerset with a Roman origin.

 

Ilchester

 

Before the Romans conquered Britain there appears to have been a significant settlement at Ilchester, an iron age oppidum existed just south of the town however after a Roman fort was established the settlement refocused on the area where Ilchester sits today. The town steadily grew in size and served no specific function for over a century however in the latter 3rd or early 4th century Ilchester found a new sense of importance as it is believed that it was made the administrative centre for the North Western section of its tribal unit: The Durotriges - whose territory constituted all of Dorset, South Somerset and East Devon. With this new found importance many villas developed around Ilchester as the rich elite and politicians took up residence near their new political centre.

 

The Romano-British Villas.

 

Bedmore Barn


In 1907 a Roman villa was discovered at Bedmore Barn in Somerset. This building was found to be of a hall type construction with a number of rooms running in sequence. It is thought to have been occupied over an extensive period with the height of its activity occurring in he 3rd and 4th centuries, ranging from roughly AD  250 - 380

 

Bratton Seymour

 

The villa at Bratton Seymour was originally unearthed in 1834 however it was not until the 1960's that it received any archaeological investigation. Here the first signs of habitation date to the late 2nd century although it was not until the 3rd to mid 4th century that the site developed in a lavish villa complete with ornate mosaics.

 

Combe st Nicholas

 

Nestled in the eastern Blackdown Hills is the villa at Combe St Nicholas. This winged villa was discovered in 1810 and has revealed a variety of mosaics, almost one from every room. It also featured such luxuries as hypocaust (underground heating) and an elaborate portico entrance

 

Cudworth

 

In 1943 a villa and mosaic were reported at Cudworth when a well was sunk however no further information is known.  No reports have been found of any reported building debris, nor artefacts so it remains an intriguing occurrence and possibility.

 

East Coker

 

Many villas are situated close to Roman roads for the benefits of transport and one such example exists at East Coker, just off of the old Roman road from Dorchester to Ilchester. The villa itself featured mosaics, hypocausts and even painted wall plaster and evidently must have been a pleasant place to live and the home of a rich family

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High Ham

 

The villa at High Ham, just like the one at Cudworth, is a bit of a mystery. After having been excavated in 1861 nearly all the records and information relating to it has been lost, or possibly as was the habit of some Antiquarians: never written down. The little evidence that remains is a water-colour painting of two mosaics and a selection of 4th century coins suggesting it was in residence in the latter Roman period.

 

Hurcot

 

In the early 19th century Mr Samuel Hasell came across Roman archaeological material at Hurcot. An expansive villa complex was uncovered featuring a central structure of 28 x 40 metres, which demonstrated evidence of hypercausts, baths, and some very extravagant mosaics. Like so many of the villas in this region the archaeology suggest that it was built and lived in during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

 

Ilchester Mead

 

Ilchester Mead villa is situated just 1km outside of the Roman town of Ilchester and has three ranges built around a central courtyard. Habitation began in the early 3rd century and was long lasting, interestingly surviving into the 5th century however the price of this survival was a significant downturn in living standards by the turn of that century.

 

Littleton

 

Littleton can boast a number of items of archaeological interest including two Roman villas, however antiquarians produced few documents so little is known of the first one. Fortunately the second villa was documented and the evidence tells us that it was originally constructed in the 2nd century then extensively remodelled in the 4th century.

 

Lopen

 

Just south of the village of Lopen another villa was discovered as recently as 2001 during a driveway construction. Excavations revealed a mosaic laden building with porticos that had been built over the top of an existing Roman structure. Previously there had been no known evidence of Roman activity here.

 

Low Ham

 

First discovered in 1938 the Low Ham villa is one of the larger wealthier Roman residences in South Somerset. Investigations have demonstrated it to have at least 3 ranges centred on a courtyard and although it has not yet been fully excavated archaeologists have identified an elaborate bath suite with a changing room, a kitchen, hypocaust heated rooms and a possible winter dining room. Complete with fine mosaics this was certainly a fine villa. Furthermore it is known from small repair works across the building that it was occupied until at least the end of the 4th century.

 

Lufton

 

A similarly extravagant villa to the one at Low Ham is that which was discovered at Lufton in the 1940's. Complete with an elegant octagonal pool in its bath complex, this villa was adorned with rich patterned mosaics and even painted walls that imitated the mosaic styles suggesting inhabitation by a wealthy style conscious family. However despite the investment in its construction the villa was not inhabited for a long time. Archaeology informs us that it was built at the earliest around AD 308 and would have been likely vacated around the AD 370's meaning that Lufton is yet again another example of a lavish, albeit short-lived, 4th century Roman villa.

 

Pitney

 

In the 1820's Pitney was extensively excavated and a Roman Villa explored. The large villa complex revealed all the usual amenities and rooms but did not disclose many datable features, however it was unearthed that there were 4 different phases of refurbishment suggesting a lengthy habitation to require quite so many reconstructions. Furthermore the  extravagant mosaics that were part of the last phase were dated to the the 4th century on stylistic basis so one could accept a potential use of AD 200 - 400.

 

Half a kilometre away from the first villa another building was also discovered however this building did not receive the attention of the former meaning that no description was ever published however it is safe to assume that it was not close to the magnitude of the former Pitney villa.

 

Seavington St Mary

 

Just 300 metres away from a Roman road is the modest villa at Seavington St Mary. This small structure featured only 4 rooms with a simple chequered pattern mosaics and an exterior lined by a portico. Nevertheless such a building still would have required financial capital to create as well as ambition towards a higher standard of living.

 

Stanchester

 

There is believed to be a villa roughly 1km north of Hamdon Hill where it passes close to the Fosse way, although this has not yet been confirmed.  Nevertheless numerous treasures have been found in the area suggesting the presence of a building.

 

Tatworth

 

In 1815 the foundations and bath of a Roman villa were discovered in Tatworth. Other finds produced from the site included a variety of pottery and coins which both gave a date range of AD 250 - 380 for habitation at this site.

 

West Coker

 

Another archaeological site to have received antiquarian interest was the villa at West Coker, however sadly as was habit at the time no comprehensive plans were made of the discoveries .  In the 1960's further artefacts were recovered however these were household items rather than architecture but were able to provide a life span for the site of approximately AD 268 - 395.

 

In addition to this, it has been suggested that there may have been a possible temple site located elsewhere in West Coker. The evidence for this comes from an inscription dedicated to the god Mars Rigisamus, a combination of the Native British and the Roman god.

 

Westland, Yeovil.

 

Just 270 metres east of the Roman road from Dorchester to Ilchester lays Westland villa in Yeovil. The building itself is rather similar in plan to the one at Ilchester mead being a courtyard plan structure. Like many of the grander villas its main age of occupation falls into the 3rd and 4th  century, emphasised by the fact that out of the 161 coins recovered from the site 155 of them date to that era.

 

Whitestaunton

 

During road alterations in 1845 a Roman structure was discovered at Whitestaunton, after having been partially investigated by the landowner it was said to have geometric mosaics and a bath complex. This villa was later re-excavated by Time Team to confirm this and explore its other features

 

Wincanton

 

Our final villa was uncovered in 1870 while farm buildings were being constructed. It is recorded that 'a number of small tesserae' as well a stone table and a column suggest a well furnished and executed residence although a date for it was not given.

 

The frequency of Roman villas across the South Somerset countryside suggests a great density of settlement in this region as well as a considerable importance to the town of Ilchester. It is around that town which these villas focus, especially in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and would mirror the development of Ilchester into an important town in South Somerset and a regional centre.

 

 

 

 

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