Thursday, October 14, 2021

Sudeley, Gloucestershire

Hidden treasure

A few miles from where I live, hidden in a wood on a slope of the Cotswolds, lie the fragmentary remains of a Roman villa. The site was excavated in 1882, when some mosaics were uncovered, the remains of a few walls were noted, and the plan of a courtyard villa, which had developed from an earlier corridor-based structure, was made out. The ruins did not fare well in the years after the excavation. Damage due to frost, burrowing rabbits, and visitors occurred, and Emma Dent, the owner of the land on which they stood, removed one of the mosaics to her home, Sudeley Castle.* She had part of the site protected by wooden sheds to help preserve it, but those sheds have long rotted away and most of the remains are now all but enveloped in undergrowth and concealed by trees. One mosaic is protected by a low shelter roofed in corrugated iron. By bending down into the shelter and peeling back some sheeting held down by stones, one can see the mosaic, fragmentary but beautiful, its patterns of loops, curves and diagonals standing out in the gloom.

It’s not known for sure how old the villa is. Coins of the 3rd and 4th centuries were found on the site, and I’d guess that the building goes back well before that. That this much has managed to survive in its isolated and quiet location, in spite of animals, weather, and the removal of tesserae by ignorant 19th-century visitors, is heartening, and to me at least, somewhat moving.

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* She justified this removal because it was necessary to protect the mosaics from locals, who walked up to the site and removed handfuls of tesserae. A panel of the mosaic, having been removed to the castle, was apparently subsequently lost: its present location is unknown. A mosaic from another Roman site that Miss Dent removed had a happier fate: she had it restored and reinstalled in its original position.

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