I meant to do this earlier…to follow on swiftly from the last post on 24 and summarise some thoughts on the 2015 discoveries in Room 21. Things crowd in and now I should really be writing about the discoveries at Dyrham ..but to round things off.. I will spend a little more time further north in Gloucestershire concentrating on the north-west corner of Chedworth Roman Villa.
We began with a gravel and tarmac surface with a dimple in the middle which had been excavated in 2000 to reveal a degraded rough late Roman floor of baked clay fragments.. opus signinum. That excavation stopped at its surface but we dug three trenches through it, where it was worn at the east and west edges.
21 is reached by a reconstructed flight of stone steps. The adjacent rooms to the east ..24, 25, 26, once had floors at this level but they have all collapsed. Why has 21 survived?
We soon found the answer in Trench B but not before encountering several 4th century coins in a clay and mortar layer just below the red floor. One of them may date to the time of the Emperor Valentinian towards the end of the 4th century. In that case our rough red opus signinum floor could date to the last days of the villa. The other coins are earlier 4th century though..
We found that below the coin layer was a deep filling of building rubble. In the 4th century, the decision was made to sweep away the underfloor heating and make a solid floor. This year’s Chedworth experience reminded me of the conservatory excavation at Tyntesfield in 2013. 1500 years after Chedworth, in 1916, the Victorian conservatory was demolished, the metalwork salvaged for the war effort and the polychrome tile floor and cement backing imploded into the heating duct below. A good solid floor to prevent future collapse into a cavity no longer required.
The reason for the infilling is not known at Chedworth but the contents were exciting and include a range of painted plaster designs..some overlapping, showing redecoration of walls and how fashions and tastes changed during the life of the villa.
The chunks of mosaic contain other clues to lost decorative schemes. Some mosaic fragments seem to have been painted over and others have thin tesserae over a white plaster backing. We wondered whether there had been areas of mosaic on the walls as well as the floor. It is known.. but it would be a rare thing to find in Britain. It is beyond our specialist knowledge and so the contents of the backfilled hypocaust will be sent to experts who can tell us whether or not we are being fanciful.
As we dug down, the pilae that once supported the floor of the earlier heated room emerged from the rubble. They consisted of stacks of thin square tiles but this pilae pattern was interrupted by a structure with a stone core bonded to the east wall of the room and encased by courses of clay tiles, gradually overlapping outwards so that the feature was broader at the top than the bottom.
This feature was seen just below the late opus signinum floor and perhaps was a foundation to support a piece of structural furniture that once stood within the room. Perhaps it supported a basin or a decorative feature such as a statue. The stone might be a support buttress to strengthen the building but the added tile surround may have been ornamental, perhaps covered with painted plaster designs. Some of the plaster we found was shaped to fit into and around the angles of a room.
On the last day, in the south-east corner of the room (Trench C), we found the west face of the blocked doorway. This can be seen where the ground surface is lower east of Room 21. Sir Ian Richmond, who opened up the door in the 1960s, mentioned steps through the wall but did not dig deep enough to find them. We ran out of time and will have to take another look next year.
We did reach the bottom in our west trench A. We found a flagstone floor at the same level as the floors of the earlier Roman hot and tepid bath which we excavated in 2013, seen running under the south side of Room 21.
It is hard to understand what we found though as the floor was found 1.4m deep between two vertical walls of dark clay. They survived over 1m high above the stone floor and had been buried under a late Roman sand and rubble filling. Was it a large clay lined drain? It is hard to relate it to anything we know from the earlier baths and we need to go away and look around for comparisons.
Before next year we will find out whether remote sensing would be useful here to get a better plan of what lies beneath Room 21. Ground probing radar might work.
Room 21 has generally been thought to be a changing room for the late Roman baths but it seems a large space just to function as a changing room for the cold plunges to the north and the sauna to the west. The west range baths equivalent is much smaller.
Our discussions on site made us wonder whether this had been one of the last occupied rooms used by the villa family during Chedworth’s deep decline from luxury in the fifth century. We remembered our uncovering of the West Range corridor in 2012 where the mosaic was patched and worn to the north.. as if that was the most used route, the direction the family headed as the villa gradually fell apart around them. Room 21 was a more secure place to occupy with its backfilled solid floor. The decision to backfill 21, preserved for us the decorative plaster detail we have lost from other parts of the villa.
We will go back to 21 in 2016.