When rug designer Luke Irwin and his wife decided to create a space for their kids to play table tennis, they never imagined it would lead to one of the more compelling archaeological finds in recent history. In early 2015, the Irwins hired workers to lay electrical cable to an old barn on their property in Brixton Deverill, a small village near Warminster in Wiltshire, England. Soon after the workers began digging in the garden, they hit a hard layer some 18 inches below the topsoil. Archaeologists later confirmed that the vivid mosaic of orange, grey and cream ceramic tiles formed part of the floor of a grand three-story villa, built between A.D. 175 and 220 and thought to be one of the largest such structures ever constructed in Roman Britain.
Archaeologists from the Wiltshire Archaeology Service, the Historic England organization (formerly English Heritage) and nearby Salisbury Museum excavated eight trenches on the Irwin property. According to their findings, the footprint of the Roman villa built on the site some 1,800 years ago measured at least 50 meters (or nearly 55 yards) square, and would have had some 20 to 25 rooms on the ground floor alone.
Experts believe the villa was probably built as a country house for its wealthy Roman owner, who likely kept a city residence in London or Cirencester. Brixton Deverill is located some 20 miles from the former Roman spa town of Aquae Sulis, now known as Bath. At the time the villa was built, Britain had been a Roman province for more than 130 years, after Emperor Claudius’ forces defeated the native tribes in A.D. 43. The sprawling home appears to have been comparable in size to the villa uncovered at Chedworth, in Gloucestershire in 1864, one of the most important Roman sites in Britain.
The Roman family that inhabited the villa found on the Deverill property was undoubtedly wealthy and important, judging not only from the home’s vast size but also from artifacts found at the site. In addition to a bathhouse, well-preserved well, pottery and coins, the archaeologists found bits of stone from at least 13 different British quarries. They also turned up an array of oyster and whelk shells, a delicacy that would have to have been transported some 45 miles from the ocean in barrels of salt water, at considerable expense. When the scientists examined a stone planter near Irwin’s kitchen–used to plant geraniums–they found it had originally served as a coffin for a Roman child.
Archaeologists determined that the Irwins’ 17th-century house, formerly two laborers’ cottages, was built in the center of the former Roman villa atop a slab of Purbeck marble, probably of Roman origin. They believe the structure was remodeled several times before the mid-fourth century. Intriguingly, the villa wasn’t destroyed after the Roman Empire fell, as timber structures were found on the site dating to the fifth century. As a result, the new find gives archaeologists a window into a little-known period in British history, between the end of Roman occupation in A.D. 410 and the completion of Saxon domination of England in the seventh century.
In a statement, archaeologist David Roberts from Historic England described the importance of the find: “The discovery of such an elaborate and extraordinarily well-preserved villa, undamaged by agriculture for over 1,500 years, is unparalleled in recent years and it gives us a perfect opportunity to understand Roman and post-Roman Britain.”
Artifacts found at the site were removed and placed in the care of Salisbury Museum, but the remains of the villa and its mosaics have now been reburied, as Historic England cannot afford to fully excavate and preserve the site. Plans for future excavations are not yet determined, but Irwin has said he hopes it will be given the proper excavation it deserves.