Day 3 – glass half full ….

Today was a mixture of Romans and Victorians, the original residents and the original excavators.

All ready for the final clean, kneelers for the knees and kneelers for the feet so your toes don’t dig into the mosaic

We carried on revealing the mosaic in room 28, one strip at a time. Today started with a final clean off and then a good sponge to reveal the pattern, then towelling the next strip heading further into the centre of the room.

Angela, Carol and Sue very happy mosaic excavators

When we heard a loud ‘Wow!’ from Samuel we could not resist sharing our joy of digging the mosaic with him and his sister Anna hopefully helping nurture the archaeologists of the future!

Anna and Samuel doing a brilliant job  excavating the mosaic

Two happy diggers

In the opposite side of room 28 Rob had a trench all to himself, his task was to take off the soil and rubble hopefully to find intact mosaic. Amongst the loose tesserae, nails, painted plaster and mouse bones he found a glass object. Great excitement as we clean down and around it, was it roman? Looked a bit chunky for a roman glass vessel which are usually very thin.

The glass turned out to be part of a Victorian panel wine glass, perhaps dropped by a visitor staying at the  lodge or a garden party as Lord Eldon showed off the excavations to his friends. I wonder what it had contained?

The glass before we lifted it from its bed of soil

At the end of the day the mosaics had continued but there were more holes in the floor, will we get the next decorative scheme? what is beyond the knotted guilloche band? we hold our breath……..

The mosaic at the end of the day all clean and bright

Day 2 … mosaics here, there and everywhere

Only the second day and we have wonderful mosaics and not just in the test pit from 17 years ago!

Most of the sand has been removed and the finer cleaning begins

Fay, Carol, Helen, Rob and Pete took off the next layer just above the mosaic, it contained Victorian glass, the odd iron nail and one piece of roman pot. In places the layer was not as deep and glimpses of mosaic were seen. Amy and Charlotte joined them in the afternoon when we started to clean the last of the soil to reveal the mosaic. Exciting to see it was in such good condition and how small the tesserae are.


The girls working hard to get to the layer just above the mosaics


A glimpse of the wonders to come

I wonder what is under the slate? probably put down by the Victorians when they first explored the room

We also opened two more trenches in room 27 where a pot was found dug into the ground during the test pit survey in 2000, we have no idea what else we may find, time will tell.


The two trenches in room 27, there is evidence of burning next to the large stones just below the red and white scale.

Today was very sunny and we had some very small visitors on site and in our buckets!


A lovely little lizard


Day 1 Chedworth Villa …..and we are open

The turf is removed

The first trenches have been de-turfed and the test trenches dug in the year 2000 discovered.

Terram — a breathable membrane a tell-tale sign of the test trench from 2000


Ready to peel back the terram to find the sand










The breathable membrane was put on top of yellow sand that sits on the mosaic. Seventeen years ago it  was thought to be a good way to protect the mosaics and make it easy to re dig if checking on its condition. The problem is that the sand is builders sand and stays wet and the yellow colour  can stain the white tesserae, it sticks to the surface of the mosaic and takes a lot of work to clean it off.


Ta Dar! we have a lovely mosaic in very good condition, hopefully this bodes well for the rest of the room and we will have much more to show you over the next few days.


The Dunster Castle Mosaics

Dunster Castle in west Somerset, is one of three Wessex Norman motte and bailey castles now owned by the National Trust. Their 11th century designers all used natural hills. Each was a strategic location but history changed them.. only Dunster has remained a residence through 1000 years.. a grand mansion house, impressive in scale and outline, high above the road into Exmoor.

1754 painting2

1754 painting of Dunster’s dramatic setting on display in the Castle

In south Somerset, Montacute Castle, on St Michael’s Hill , is now only visible as earthworks under trees. It ended its military life in the 12th century when the land was given to Montacute Priory.

Corfe Castle thrived as a royal castle, particularly in the 13th century, but had become old fashioned by Tudor times. Elizabeth I sold Corfe and it became a rich family’s trophy house.. They backed the King (the losing side) and so in 1646 it was made uninhabitable. Now it’s a craggy ruin.

Dunster is different.. It survived the turbulent years of the English Civil War. It progressed.. and was developed during the 18th and 19th centuries.. complete with stables, outbuildings designed parkland, gardens and summerhouses.

And so it was… that last August I took the long and winding road from Taunton to Minehead in search of a Dunster mosaic.

Don’t get me wrong… these are pebble mosaics not Roman ones .. but they are intricate designs, hidden and poorly understood.

The thing about Dunster Tor is that it’s got unstable slopes. The paths and access road, spiraling up the steep hill to the Castle’s front door, keep slipping away.

I arrived at the right time, morning tea-break in the bothy, and then Robin the Head Gardener guided me up the hill with drawing board, camera, notebook and measuring tapes.


Starting to clear the overgown path below the Castle. 

A busy summer day, many visitors enjoying the sunshine but I was shown down a lost path. Closed because of health and safety. It doesn’t go anywhere now. After about 30m, it stops abruptly at a steep slope, where the old route has tumbled down the hill.

Robin found the spot and pulled some creeper plants which had grown across the abandoned path. There, was a pattern of pebbles set in a hard white mortar.

He wished me well and left me to it ..and that was my home for the day.. shaded by the bushes and tall plants and all around me the voices of happy holiday people walking along other paths. Nearby but out of sight.

The path had been cut into the hillside. On the uphill side, I pulled back the greenery and found the red sandstone blocks of the revetment wall. Where the path met the wall there was a heap of soil and roots. I moved the vegetation… and just above the mosaic surface were fragments of plaster and pieces of brick and slate.


The pebble mosaic running under the revetment wall.

There were also two blocks of stone joined together and forming an 120 degree angle as though they once formed the corner of a polygonal building. The revetment wall had been built above this corner and the mosaic ran up to it….The archaeological sequence .. first the stone corner, then the pebble floor built against it and then, at a later date, the revetment wall for the path built above them.


Now it was time to clean back from the wall and reveal the pattern of the white pebbles. It was edged with a curving fan of long, pitched, red-brown stones. Then there were zig-zag patterns of long grey stones among the white pebbles. In the centre of each zig and zag, was a rosette of long stones with a pebble in the middle. Beyond that and further downslope there were interlocking arcs of grey stones dividing up the white pebbles…but then I ran out of path.


The stone rosettes 

Slabs of the mosaic had  fractured and tipped down slope and then had been covered and resurfaced in the 1970s to repair the path and make it horizontal again.

Really good mortar… it held the pebbles fast as the floor cracked and slipped away down the hill.

By the end of the day I’d uncovered about half the surviving semi-circular design. Originally, it must have been about 5m in diameter but ….how old was it and what period in the Castle’s long history did it belong to?

I’ve been writing up the report and the answers are not easy to find.. definitely 18th or 19th century but surely we can do better than that.

There are two known Dunster mosaics. The other one, on the north side of the castle, was built against the 15th century gatehouse. This floor design is a series of concentric pebble petals and was carefully uncovered and drawn in the 1990s. Robert the excavator concluded that the mortar used in the floor was a kind of ‘Roman’ cement and was therefore at least earlier 19th century in date.

The one I had revealed was on the south side of the Castle and although it had a different design, the mortar and types of stone were similar. There is no reason to doubt that they are contemporary and part of the same period of garden design.

Dunster Castle has such a dramatic scenic profile: it has been drawn, painted and mapped many times since the early 18th century.

Changes usually take place when there is money and the Luttrell family (the owner occupiers of Dunster from the 1404-1976) didn’t always have large amounts of spare money.

In the early 18th century, Dorothy Luttrell had cash to spend and used it to redesign the gardens. A drawing of Dunster in 1735 shows a white building in the area where I drew the mosaic. There is a painting dated 1754 which also shows the building. Is this the building which covered the mosaic. There’s no similar structure for the north pebble floor and the the type of mortar doesn’t work for such an early date. ‘Roman cement’ was invented by James Parker in 1798 and is unlikely to have been used at Dunster until the early 19th century.

18th century

The early 18th century painting at Dunster showing a little white building on the left side of the Castle in the area of the pebble floor.

Henry Fownes Luttrell 1747-1780 had money and lived at Dunster much of the time as did his son John 1780-1816 but the next owners lived mainly in London and the Castle went into decline.  Then, in 1867, George Luttrell inherited and took the place in hand. He commissioned fashionable architect, Anthony Salvin, to design a gothic revamp for the place.

The surviving later 19th century photos maps and plans give no hint that the mosaics were created at this time.

However, they may have been designed and seen for just a few years and any covering pavilion or summer house building may have been a light timber framed structure quickly removed.

My best bet… given the type of mortar …and the occupation history of the Luttrell family, is that the floors were commissioned by John Luttrell before 1816… can’t prove it though.

Unfortunately William Turner’s painting of 1811 shows nothing and neither does the tithe map of 1840. But they were  not created to show garden detail….

1840 Dunster

Dunster’s Tithe Map 1840

so I must hope for a future researcher who one day.. at Taunton.. at a table in the Somerset County Record Office…working through deep pile of papers in the Dunster Archive, will suddenly alight on the conclusive document ….I hope he or she spots it.


Day 12 – the last hurrah

The last day is upon us, Martin is on site at the crack of dawn to get on with recording the trenches, while its quiet. When we get to site he has exposed more of the large stone in the Buckeye tree trench and enlists our help to lift it to see if it is carved. It appears to be shaped and shows signs of  wear from possible foot fall. Martin will look at it in relation to the rest of the trench and surrounding walls, so more later.

When moved the shaping of the stone is clearer. the edge at the top of the picture is smoother and angled down slightly. There is also an area in the bottom right that looks like a square area has been cut out.

When moved the shaping of the stone is clearer. The edge at the top of the picture is smoother and angled down slightly. There is also an area in the bottom right that looks like a square section has been cut out.

A side view of the stone, the sloping edge is on the left

A side view of the stone, the sloping edge is on the left

While everyone else started the task of back-filling the trenches, Carol finished the mosaic trench excavation, and Fay and Rob headed for the bath house trench looking for the floor level.

Back filling comenses

Back-filling commences

The back-filling produced one last find. Max, not to be out done by his Dad, Steve the finder of the key, found this object still found in may shops but more expensive now 🙂

An old Maltesser packet costing 1 shilling/5p so datable to about 1972

An old Maltesers packet costing 1 shilling/5p so datable to about 1972

Fay and Rob came up trumps! The floor of the hypocaust phase of the bath house room we have been excavating was found. The pilae are each sat on a large limestone slab which then sits on a very hard mortar floor. There is often nothing better than finding a good floor surface!

Three pilae with a box flue tile (bottom left of the picture) the lovely hard mortar floor inbetween

Three pilae with a box flue tile (bottom left of the picture) and the lovely hard mortar floor in between

Two other areas were excavated to check the floor carried on at the opposite end of the trench and it did

Two other areas were excavated to check the floor carried on at the opposite end of the trench, which it did

Once Martin had finished his recording of the floor and sections (sides) of the trench it was time to put back all the soil we had just spent two weeks digging out!

Martin taking some levels in the bath house trench

Martin taking some levels in the bath house trench

The spoil heap now you see it....

The spoil heap: now you see it…. you don't!

….now you don’t!

It only remains to thank all our wonderful volunteers especially our core team, Rob, Fay, Carol, Alex, Peter and Harry. So until next year its au revoir Chedworth Villa, thank you for making us so welcome and providing the Wows!

And finally .....

And finally …..

Day 8 and 9 – Plaster, plaster everywhere and some iron and mosaic!

Due to technical difficulties it’s a bumper edition of the blog 🙂 Day 8 turned into a day of recording, with walls and sections to draw in some of the smaller trenches and the other trenches that are still being dug, had a lovely clean up for photos. Not a lot of fresh digging was done and that that was involved more plaster and ‘little cubes of loveliness’ aka tesserae.

Lovely colourful wall plaster

Lovely colourful wall plaster

Day 9 was an early start as some filming was being done for a documentary about the National Trust. We also had a small section of turf to start lifting to see if there was any mosaic under the turf next to the main north range corridor. We started with a couple of turfs being removed to see what depth the hoped for mosaic was at. Hurray it was there, large whitish and smaller white tesserae of the border of the main entrance room. It did not survive across the whole piece we did but hopefully we will have time to check a larger area.

The small area of mosaic next to the fresh hold stones of the north range corridor

The small area of mosaic next to the threshold stones of the north range corridor

In the north bath house trench loose tesserae hindered the digging, we ended the day with three seed trays piled high with them. The painted wall plaster is still being found, but with no time to check each piece we are waiting for our finds cleaners to have the eureka! moment when they clean of the mud and a face or animal stares back.

A lump of mortar with the ghost lines of the tesserae that have fallen off and lie in the hole it came from

A lump of mortar with the ghost lines of the tesserae that have fallen off and lie in the hole it came from

We have had our first metal objects from the bath house trench a couple if T shaped and L shaped nails/brackets, there are also very small fragments of probable knife blades as well.

L shaped iron object 'a very fine example of its type' as we say when not very sure of what it is!

L shaped iron object ‘a very fine example of its type’ as we say when not very sure of what it is!

More metal was found in the Nymphaeum in the form of water pipes, there were three next to each other, two iron ones and a lead one. Sadly all look to be 20th century. But tomorrow the guys in the trench will be digging around and down to find if the original roman culvert is under these pipes.

Harry cleaning the pipes so we can record them

Harry cleaning the pipes so we can record them

Carol has been slogging away often on her own in the trench below the Nymphaeum one, just behind the wall of the bath house. She has been looking for walls and may have a new one to record. Her best find today was part of an iImbrex which is the curved tile that sat on the join between tegula, the large clay tiles of the roof.

Carol happy with her large piece of imbrex

Carol happy with her large piece of imbrex

We had a treat for lunch, Sue the historic en-actor set up her roman kitchen and we were able to sample her roman creations from bread salad to sweet toast and something with the fish sauce they fermented called garum all very tasty 🙂

Sue and her yummy tempations

Sue and her yummy temptations

Tune in tomorrow to see if we finally find the floor in the north bath house ….





Day 7 – Plaster paradise

Hurray! the sky is blue and a shiny ball is warming the earth, rain hats stay in the bag as sun lotion is applied.  Now. once again the eyes are on the bath house trench and everyone squeezes in the get a taste of the amazing painted wall  plaster feast.

Rob, Fay and Allan trying to dig down but held up by numerous lumps of plaster and loose tesserae

Rob, Fay and Allan trying to dig down but held up by numerous lumps of painted wall plaster and loose tesserae


What's in the tray? Painted plaster they cry

What’s in the tray? Painted plaster they cry

A small sample of painted wall plaster

A small sample of painted wall plaster

New possible scenes and designs are being dug up with each scrape, many different colours including greens that maybe trees and bushes. Then Fay finds a piece with a nail hole, it still has the rusty stain of the nail! Was it for a laying out line for a new painting or for building work of some kind? Or ……..?

The possible rural scene

The possible rural scene

The nail hole!

The nail hole!

close-up of the nail hole

close-up of the nail hole

After filling three large finds bags with single loose tesserae, Rob uncovered a large piece of mosaic in the last half hour of the day.

Robs Mosaic

Rob’s Mosaic

We must not forget Pat who has helped with post excavation work on the finds today, everyone is getting joy from the painted plaster and the warmth of the sun.

Lovely Pat cleaning the plaster

Lovely Pat cleaning the plaster