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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Brading Roman Villa

Brading Roman Villa is a Roman courtyard villa, the remains of which have been excavated and put on display under a purpose built museum in Brading on the Isle of Wight, England. After many discoveries and much research this is an artist's impression of what it looked like in 100 AD.

In 1879 a farmer called William Munns made a series of holes in order to build a sheep pen. Mr Munns struck a buried mosaic floor and word spread locally to a Captain Thorp of Yarbridge who was working in the vicinity by sheer coincidence, and who was looking for Roman antiquities. Captain Thorp helped Mr Munns uncover what later became called the Gallus Panel the next day. By the Spring of the next year the half of the villa that lay on Mr Munns land had been excavated. The remainder of the villa lay in the neighbouring Oglander Estate. Lady Louisa Oglander purchased the half of the site already excavated and the excavations continued.

Although open to the public for many years, the remains were only protected by a lightweight Edwardian structure. A charitable Trust took over the site in 1994 and the current museum was built to protect the remains as they had recently flooded.

In this photo below, the main villa ruins are covered by the large building on the right. The light stone lines in the foreground are remains of other earlier structures that once existed during a 300 year period of occupation, as the Romanised Britons who are presumed to have lived here, expanded and improved their property. The museum building design was planned to provide the maximum area of unsupported roof to cover the site without needing structural support that interfered with the remains.

The ground floor of the whole main villa survived, comprising of 12 rooms. Even after much research there is little known about the actual inhabitants of the building. The villa ruins we see today form the latest structure on the site which were built in the 4th century and were the main living quarters of the estate owners.

The Roman 2nd Augusta Legion under Vespasian conquered the Isle of Wight in 44AD. The first simple villa dates from the mid-1st century but, over the next hundred years, it developed into a large and impressive stone-built villa around three sides of a central courtyard. Its luxurious rooms contained many fine Roman mosaics.

Despite a disastrous fire in the 3rd century AD, the villa was still used for farming purposes for another 100 years. Around AD340, Brading Villa, like many estates in southern Britain, was suffering frequent pirate raids. However, Roman coins excavated at the site indicate that Brading was still occupied until AD395, when Emperor Honorius began his reign.

This chamber had walls covered with painted plaster and has the only geometric patterned mosaic in the house. It is believed to be symbolic of the eye that both has healing powers and also wards off evil spirits. It is different to all the other mosaics in the house. There is evidence of burning on the surface.

The Villa was used for storing grain for an unknown period of time before finally collapsing in the 5th century. Undergrowth covered the site, and when the land was cleared to be used for agriculture, the location of Brading Roman Villa had been forgotten.

There are mosaics in five of the rooms in the main villa house, which display a variety of subjects indicating the owners' wealth and education. As well as geometrical patterns, there is an Orpheus mosaic, while another features Bacchus, a cockerel-headed man, gladiators and a dome-shaped building.

The mosaic in the foreground centres around Bacchus the God of wine, theatre, revelry and arena games. Left of the central disc is a partial image of a gladiator with a trident and dagger lunging at his opponent whose helmet is the only remaining part. Parts of this mosaic were lost in 1880.

The figure at the bottom, facing us is a unique feature of the mosaics. The figure is of a cockerel headed man beside a building with approaching steps, with two griffins beyond. This is the so called Gallus Panel, the first to be seen by the farmer William Munns and Captain Thorp.

One theory is that the figure lampoons a gladiator (or venator) called "Gallus" since the name means "cockerel" in Latin. It has even been suggested that the figure lampoons the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire Constantius Gallus (ruled 351–354).

Gladiator with trident.

The Bacchus mosaic is one of the most difficult in Britain to interpret. Many experts have tried to decipher the story but they often raise more questions than answers.

The Orpheus mosaic was at the villa entrance. Orpheus was a mythical musician and poet, famous for playing his lyre, pictured here. It was believed he could charm all living things and tame wild animals with his music. He is pictured with a monkey, a fox (above) and two birds. He was also associated with good fortune and protection, very appropriate for the threshold of the home.

This is a bronze key plate, believed to be from the front door, discovered in room 22 of the main villa.

This key is a good demonstration of how bronze survives as opposed to iron, the bronze decorative handle being almost intact after 2000 years in the ground.

The largest mosaic, in two parts, contains images of Roman gods, goddesses, Medusa, and scenes depicting farming and the sea.

All the panels relate to the seasons. They each tell a story about particular aspects of farming and agriculture. The central figure at the bottom is a two tailed merman holding a steering oar and a bowl of shellfish. Either side there are tritons with water nymphs riding on their tails. This may represent the importance the estuary played in everyday life, for both trade and food. (The curve seen in this picture is a technical feature called barrel distortion, a feature of photography in this case, not anything Roman.)

The figures inside the four triangular panels represent the four winds.

The four panels around the central Medusa, feature pairs of figures representing the seasons.

This exhibit was found in another part of the site and brought here. It is a Nymphaeum or sacred pool. The pool was fed by spring water carried in wooden pipes. The spout entering the pool would have been made of bronze. A later wall has been cut through the buried water feature.

Coins help to date the continued use of this estate for 400 years, but there is no known record of who lived here, be they Roman or Romanised Britons. There are over 100,000 artefacts in the collection. The villa was a vibrant and busy place and the items discovered range from farm machinery, roof tiles, imported pottery, coins, fine jewelry, and board game pieces.

This large heavy duty tile was commonly used as a capping slab placed on top of the hollow underground air vent systems called a hypocaust. This was the earliest known type of central heating. As such these cheaply made tiles were never meant to be seen. This was discovered broken at the bottom of the well. The regular circular dimples are the marks made from the soles of sandals, in the wet clay during tile making. On this example there are also bare footprints and dog paw prints.

This chamber in the foreground is dubbed the mystery room as there is no evidence that it ever had a doorway to enter it. One section has been further excavated to reach Roman floor levels but nothing was found.

This section of reassembled original roof tiles are from the North Range buildings. There would have been approximately 21,800 tiles on the building, weighing 119 tons, with twenty-four 4 to 5 metre long timbers and 21,800 nails needed to hold them in place. Even by today's standards this was a major construction project.

This is an artist's impression of its place in the landscape. All of the water in the middle distance is an estuary since silted up and now being farmed or built on. The sea on the horizon indicates the direction of the rest of the Roman Empire across the English Channel.

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4 comentarios

Miembro desconocido
04 abr 2023

Wow! Reading and looking at the photos made me think of Sigrid, she would have loved excavating. I can't imagine the amount of time it took to create these mosaics. Very nice find.

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
05 abr 2023
Contestando a

Thanks. It was surprising that we had never heard of the place before, considering it's importance.

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John Durham
John Durham
31 mar 2023

An incredible find and excavation. The mosaics are such a treasure. What a great way to spend a day with the history, architecture and art of such a pivotal era.

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Gethin Thomas
Gethin Thomas
31 mar 2023
Contestando a

What is amazing is how major an occupation it was and how little is known about it. Much knowledge was lost after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

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