Roman Villas – Farms

A great deal of the evidence of this sort comes from other buildings – granaries, barns, cattle sheds, and stables. Then there are other smaller structures which also tell us some­ thing about farming – corm-drying ovens, hay-stack bases, threshing floors and wells. In and around all of these places the archaeologist also recovers farming implements – ploughshares, sickles, blacksmiths tools, spade blades, harness pieces. From rubbish dumps they may well obtain thousands of animal bones, and if lucky and careful may also recover remains from various plants, both wild and domesticated, that grew on the farm, Finally, beyond the immediate area of the farmyard they may be able to identify the remains of fields, droveways and paddocks. From all of this information we can piece together a picture of farming on a villa estate.

The Gardens

Although large ornamental gardens were probably restricted to the big courtyard villas, many villas probably had small formal gardens. At Frocester Court, flower beds have been identified flanking the path up to the villa’s front door.

Much of the immediate area around the villa, however, was often given over to fruit and vegetable gardens. The iron blades fitted to wooden spades are quite frequent finds on villas and they were probably used in turning over the vegetable gardens. We know that cabbage, carrot, celery, turnips and parsnips were all grown in Roman Britain. An area behind the villa at Frocester was identified as the likely vegetable garden there.

Tree-pits found to the front of the Frocester villa are thought to indicate the position of a small orchard. From other villas in the region, particularly Chew Park, we know that cherry, plum and hazelnut were all grown, and probably pear and walnut too. Discoveries of pruning knives and saws also point to the care of fruit-trees.

Apart from fruit and vegetables, the area immediately around the villa was probably used for the rearing of chickens, ducks and geese. All three are known from their skeletal remains at Frocester and at a good many other villas too. In most cases the quantities of fowl, fruit and vegetables produced were sufficient only for consumption on the estate.

Fields and Ploughing

The profits from an estate came mainly from corn, cattle and sheep. Most villas operated a mixed- economy producing all three, and crops were protected from animals by field boundaries. In some areas such fields still survive and can be related to a nearby villa.

Copper alloy figure of a ploughman wearing a hooded cloak with a plough drawn by a bull and cow f ound at Piercebridge, County Durham.
Despite appearances, this statuette is probably not intended to be a simple representation of everyday life. The team yoked to the plough consists of a bull and a cow, a pairing that is impractical for various reasons: the difference of size and strength could make it difficult to keep the furrow straight, and the male could be difficult to manage in such close proximity to the female. The pairing of the bull and cow here may refer to the setting out of the boundaries of a new city. On these occasions a furrow was ploughed specifically by such a team because of the good luck associated with the fertility that the male/female pairing suggests. The ploughman wears a hooded cloak, a rainproof woollen garment typical of Britain and Gaul.
© British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

At Lye Hole (Avon) at least eight such fields have been recognised attached to the villa enclosure. The boundaries are made up of low stone banks, and the fields were each about 30 metres wide. Their original length is uncertain, but at Barnsley Park Villa (Glos) over 80 hectares (200 acres of fields survive and fields of about the same width here were commonly about 80 meters in length. The fields seem to be longer and narrower than earlier ‘Celtic’ fields, and the change in shape may refer to the appearance on Roman estates of heavier ploughs with a large ploughshare and a coulter (a blade which cuts the turf verticaly), Ploughs such as these were pulled by a pair of oxen (as seen above).

The presence of ox-teams on villa estates is usually indicated by finds of ox-goads and by the recognition of byres in which the oxen were stalled. At Pitney (Soms), for example, it is suggested that 6 or 7 pairs of oxen were ‘maintained in the byre, and this in turn allows us to estimate that 350-400 acres a year were under plough on this estate.

Processing the Crops

When the crop, usually of wheat or barley but sometimes including oats or rye, was ripe it was harvested by hand with short sickles or reaping hooks. Although a donkey­ propelled machine called a vallus was used in Gaul we have no evidence of its use in Britain.

The heads of corn were taken from the fields by cart to be threshed, either on hard floor areas prepared for the job – like one found at Ditchley Roman Villa (Oxon) – or else in the nave of aisled barns. Corn also seems to have been frequently parched in Roman Britain by drying it on the floors of specially constructed corn-ovens. These take on a number of different designs, of which the T-shaped oven is probably the commonest. At Hambleden Roman Villa there were more than a dozen corn-ovens, of several different types, scattered about the farmyard.

Once the grain was ready for storage then that which was not going straight to market would be stored in a granary on the barn. Some villa granaries had raised floors like the military granaries, and examples of this type have been found at Ditchley and Horton Kirby (Kent). Other villas like Gorhambury (Herts) and Iwerne Villa (Dorset), stored grain in square tower-granaries with extra-thick walls to allow them to be built higher and resist the pressure of the stored grain inside them. A third granary type, which might also have had a raised floor, was the buttressed room such as we find at Pitney villa and at Witcombe.

Cattle-raising on Villa Estates

From the bones found in rubbish pits near villas we can learn a Jot about how and why villa owners raised cattle. The great majority of the cattle appear to have been ‘Celtic’ short-horns, which were raised to produce both beef and hides. The size of the herd varied from estate to estate, of course, and there is no way in which archaeo­logical evidence can determine the number of cattle in any given herd. Rubbish tips thought to have been used on only a single occasion at Chew Park and at Gatcombe (Avon), however, include the remains of not less than 33 cattle in each case.

In the summer the cattle could be grazed on the hill pastures and water meadows and on large estates herded by men on horseback. In winter the nucleus of the herd, least, were housed in byres like those at Spoonley Wood and Iweme.

There they were fed on hay, beans, pease or vetch. The hay was cut with huge scythes, an example of which was found at Barnsley Park villa, and stored either in barns or in the loft of the byre. Barns are not uncommon buildings near villas, as examples from Barnsley Park, Pitney and Gadebridge Park all demonstrate.

When the cattle were ready for slaughter they were usually driven to market and subsequently slaughtered in the town, although at Gatcombe a building thought to be a slaughter-house has been found on the villa estate.

Sheep and Pigs

Although most farms appear to have kept a mixture of animals, some areas were more suited to the one than the other. It is thought that the Cotswolds may have been an important sheep-rearing area in the Roman period, and shears have been found at Chedworth and Whately villas. At Frocester Court a fulling and felting shed was actually built onto one corner of the villa, and a dipping pool was found nearby. The implication is that Cotswold sheep were kept for their wool. The same picture emerges from a study of the bones from the villas at Chew Park and Star, which would have grazed sheep on Mendip.

Many villas produce evidence both for sheep production, and for the spinning of wool in the form of spindle whorls – discs used to weight spindles for hand spinning. It is significant, however, that loom weights are not found in villas, as they frequently are in Iron Age huts, and this suggests that weaving was now centralised in the towns or specialist mills.

Alongside cattle and sheep, most villa-based farmers raised pigs. In many cases they were simply left to forage in the woodlands but a few villas produce evidence suggestive of a more positive approach to pig-rearing. At North Wraxall and Pitney villas, long narrow stone buildings have been identified as pig-sties where pigs could be grain-fattened.

Tenants and Estates

We know from Roman writers that many of the large villa estates were partially rented out to tenant farmers, who might pay their rent partly in cash, partly in kind, and partly by labouring in the landlord’s fields. It is impossible to certainly identify landlords and tenants in terms of excavated buildings, but some of our largest villas stand very close to much smaller villas with only a handful of rooms and simple mortar floors. A good example is the appearance of Brislington and Somerdale villas very close indeed to the immensely rich villa at Keynsham. Here, we might suggest, we are looking at the villas of landlord and tenants.

Other tenants, however, probably lived not in villas but in small villages or isolated farmsteads. An example of the first is the site at Lockington (Leics) where ditched enclosures containing circular buildings are only 200m from a small villa. The second situation is recognisable at Lye Hole, where above the villa and its long narrow fields, there is a contemporary farmstead (Butcombe) still using the squarer ‘Celtic’ fields and featuring a complex of pens, enclosures and at least one byre-like building at its centre.
When we try to think about the way in which villa estates were farmed, we must remember that fanning activities on nearby ‘native’ sites may well have been integrated into the villa economy.