Living a Good(ish) Life in Roman South Gloucestershire

Channelled hypocaust system in south ranget
Channelled hypocaust system in south ranget

We all know what a Roman villa is – don’t we? They were one of the most distinctive elements of the Roman countryside – nice houses with some level of architectural pretension, often furnished with mosaic floors, painted walls, and private bath suites. But villas were actually always a rarity in Roman Britain: they are unlikely to have formed more than 1% of the total number of rural settlements in the province, and over large swathes of the country you don’t find them at all. So even a relatively humble villa (they came in all shapes and sizes) is noteworthy as the residence of the local moneyed classes. Excitement was high therefore when we found a previously unknown villa beneath a disused rugby pitch in Stoke Gifford, a northern suburb of Bristol, when working for Redrow Homes and CgMs Heritage in advance of a new housing development.

Roman lamp held in someone's hand
The unusual 1st century AD copper alloy lamp

The villa house dates to the late Roman period, as is common in Gloucestershire (a villa hotspot on a national level). What particularly fascinates me about this site is that it represents an attempt by someone to express their wealth and prestige through building – a trend we still see today of course. The owners clearly wanted to be seen to be doing something that would be recognised by their peers as embracing a modern, up market, way of life, and one that perhaps signified their alignment with the perceived norms of Roman administration. The house was nice, but not spectacular. It had two rooms with under floor heating, and what seems to have been a rudimentary bath suite, but no mosaics.

But we shouldn’t envisage a fancy house set within its own private parkland. Associated buildings show that this was a place of production, a place where wealth was generated. While agriculture undoubtedly underpinned the economy of the house, other activities included metal-working and perhaps beer making. So the people who lived here were local entrepreneurs who managed to make a decent living, but never made it to the mega-wealthy heights seen in some other Gloucestershire villas. Nevertheless the owners had access to nice things, including a fantastic bronze oil lamp which seems to have been made in Egypt.  How did that make its way to Gloucestershire?

Extension at the front of the north range
Extension at the front of the north range

Roman Britain has always been my favourite period of the past, and I’ve a particular affection for this site. It was just such great fun to work on. You can read more about the villa on this page.

Neil Holbrook