Abermagwr: The remote Welsh Roman villa which produced a unique cut-glass bowl and early evidence for the slater’s craft in Wales
The final excavation report for one of the most remote Roman villas in Wales, at Abermagwr in Ceredigion, has just been published in the Welsh journal Archaeologia Cambrensis. It tells the full story of this extraordinary discovery, which has told us so much about the Romanisation of the rural west Wales landscape 1800 years ago.
The Roman villa was a comparatively rustic building, with clay floors and open fireplaces, but it surprised archaeologists by producing fragments of one of the finest Roman glass vessels from Wales. New work on the roof slates also revealed the staggering logistics of this task; some 6,600 stone slates were used to roof the villa and weighed up to 23 tonnes.
The most remote Roman villa in Wales
Abermagwr Roman villa, Ceredigion, was discovered by aerial photography in the drought summer of 2006 and was the first Roman villa to be found along the entire sweep of Cardigan Bay. It is still the most remote villa in Wales, lying 50kms from its nearest neighbour, and its excavation has shed light on unexpected aspects of late Roman life in west Wales. In particular its discovery changed our view of late Roman mid- and west Wales, hitherto thought to have been a ‘militarised’ zone with little interaction between the Romans and local populations and little adoption of Roman ways of life.
The discovery and excavation
Roman villas are not common in Wales; just over 30 known or possible villas are known and these are mostly in the south and east of the country. Cropmarks of the Abermagwr villa were discovered less than a mile from Trawsgoed Roman fort. Although suspected as a Roman building, the prospect was so unusual for mid-Wales that Dr Toby Driver and Dr Jeffrey Davies embarked on excavations in 2010 to date the building with the support of the Royal Commission, the Cambrian Archaeological Association and the Dyfed Archaeological Trust. The dig confirmed what was – and remains – the only recorded Roman villa in Ceredigion. Excavation continued in 2011 and 2015 as a lively community dig assisted by a volunteer workforce, with over 300 visitors to an open day in 2011 and the involvement of local primary schools.
Excavations showed that the villa was established around AD 230, at least a century after the nearby Roman fort was abandoned. It was occupied until around AD 330 when it was abandoned following a catastrophic fire. A cooking pot dropped on the kitchen floor was never picked up showing the urgency of the evacuation. There is evidence for partial re-occupation of the villa ruins sometime in late-Roman or post-Roman times, but in recent centuries the building was systematically robbed of building stone and eventually forgotten in the landscape.
Extraordinary finds: the Roman glass bowl
The star find from the excavation was an extraordinary late Roman cut-glass vessel – very likely a small bowl – which originated from the Rhineland in Germany. Surviving fragments of the bowl are decorated with three bands of geometric facet-cutting and such vessels are not very common in Britain. Professor Jennifer Price of Durham University, who wrote the specialist report, described it as one of the finest examples of late Roman glassware from Wales. She writes; ‘Its quality is vastly superior to the rest of the glass vessels found at the villa, and indeed to virtually all the late Roman tablewares known in Wales…’
No bowl with an exactly similar decorative scheme in Roman Britain has been identified, but some of the decorative zones are recognisable on other bowls. It was an extraordinary item of luxury for this modest villa, probably used for mixing wine and water at grand dinner parties and celebrations. One can only wonder what circumstances led to it being left broken and lost in the rear room of the Abermagwr villa. It is due to go on display at Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, following specialist conservation work.
Roman craft and innovation: The slate roof
The slate roof of the villa was also the subject of one of the most thorough modern studies of the Roman slater’s craft, guided by historic slate specialist Bill Jones. Due to the comparative softness of the local shale-slate used to roof the villa a range of marking-out lines – or slater’s marks – are preserved which do not survive at other villas. The marks show direct continuity in slating skills, practice and tools from the Roman period to the recent industrial past, and the presence of a specialist on site during construction.
The finished roof of pentagonal and hexagonal pointed slates would have been highly decorative. Bill Jones estimates approximately 6,600 slates were required for the roof of the main villa block, and around 2,475 slates for the separate smaller roofs of the wings. The entire roof would have weighed between 18-23 tonnes, depending on the different sizes of the Roman slates used, whose enormous weight was supported by substantial oak beams.
The Roman villa lies buried beneath modern farmland but excavated finds are on display at Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth while photographs and plans are available for study online at www.coflein.gov.uk
The final report and full appendices by specialist authors is published as: Davies, J.L. and Driver, T. The Romano-British villa at Abermagwr, Ceredigion: excavations 2010–15. Archaeologia Cambrensis, Volume 167 (2018)
All the finds from the villa have been deposited in Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, with the best finds on display. The digital and paper archive resides with the National Monuments Record of Wales, Aberystwyth.
For more information visit the online Royal Commission record:
Visit the Facebook page for the Roman villa: www.facebook.com/AbermagwrRomanVilla
Dr Toby Driver
Senior Investigator (Aerial Survey)
Ffordd Penglais | Penglais Road, Aberystwyth, SY23 3BU
+44 (0) 1970 621 207
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