The Roman villa that made history: Abermagwr Villa, Ceredigion
Ten years ago this month, initial excavations directed by Dr Jeffrey Davies and Dr Toby Driver confirmed the existence of Ceredigion’s first (and still only) recorded Roman villa, and the most remote villa in Wales.
Roman villas are not common in Wales; fewer than 40 known or possible villas are recorded, and these are mostly in the south and east of the country. Abermagwr Villa was discovered as a striking cropmark during aerial photography in the exceptional drought of 2006, less than a mile from Trawsgoed Roman Fort. Parts of the cropmark had shown since the 1970s but had never occasioned any interest.
A geophysical survey as part of a television programme in 2009 revealed two projecting wings on a 20m long building – a classic villa plan anywhere else in Wales. Although suspected as a Roman building, the idea was so unusual for mid Wales that an excavation was essential to be sure.
A community dig to uncover the Roman past
In 2010 funding was obtained from the Cambrian Archaeological Association and others for an exploratory excavation in 2010 by Dr Toby Driver and Dr Jeffrey Davies, with loans of equipment from the Dyfed Archaeological Trust. This confirmed what was – and remains – the only recorded Roman villa in Ceredigion (Cardiganshire) and the most remote known in Wales.
Excavations continued at the villa in 2011 and 2015 as a lively community dig assisted by a local volunteer workforce, without whom there would have been no excavation. We welcomed over 300 visitors to an open day in 2011 and visited several local primary schools to show Roman finds before welcoming pupils to the excavations in progress. There was even a ‘children’s trench’ where young visitors could dig for themselves.
Romanised villa lifestyle that ended in flames
Although the villa was a comparatively modest late third- to early fourth-century AD house, it nonetheless preserved a range of evidence not found elsewhere. 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 villa was established around AD 230, at least a century after the nearby Roman fort was abandoned. It is likely the villa was built from military-cut stone blocks from the demolished bath house of the fort. It stood offset within a large double-ditched yard, probably used for corralling sheep and cattle from neighbouring farmland. Inside the house was a rustic clay kitchen floor and central open hearth with a bread oven against the wall.
The villa was occupied until around AD 330 when it was abandoned following a catastrophic fire. A cooking pot dropped on the kitchen floor which was never picked up showed the urgency of the evacuation. The heavy slate roof and oak beams collapsed, burning, onto the kitchen floor. There is evidence for the partial re-occupation of the villa ruins sometime in late-Roman or post-Roman times, but in more recent centuries it was systematically robbed of building stone and eventually was forgotten in the landscape.
A unique Roman cut-glass bowl from the villa ruins
The star find was fragments of an extraordinary late Roman cut-glass vessel– very likely a small bowl – which originated from the Rhineland in Germany. The vessel had been dropped in the small rear room of the villa and never picked up, possibly during the fire. Such bowls are not very common in Britain, and Professor Jennifer Price of Durham University described it as one of the finest examples of late Roman glassware from Wales.
She wrote; ‘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 has been found in Roman Britain, 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. It is due to go on display at the Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, following specialist conservation work.
Ceredigion’s earliest slated roof
The slate roof of the villa has also been subjected to 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 – were 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 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!
A short recorded talk on Abermagwr Roman Villa by Dr Toby Driver is available here:
The final report has been published in the journal Archaeologia Cambrensis, Volume 167 (2018), as Davies, J.L. and Driver, T. ‘The Romano-British villa at Abermagwr, Ceredigion: excavations 2010-15’. The report can be read here: http://orapweb.rcahms.gov.uk/coflein/6/647060.PDF
All the finds from the villa have been deposited in Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth, with the best finds on display. http://www.ceredigionmuseum.wales/
The full archive resides with the National Monuments Record of Wales, Aberystwyth. The online record has 100 images to view and several PDF documents, including exhibition panels, to download: www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/405315/details/abermagwr-roman-villaabermagwr-romano-british-villa
By Dr Toby Driver