Gorhambury Rural Villa


Gorhambury, just north of Verulamium, was the site of a substantial Roman villa complex.

Neolithic Settlement at Gorhambury

The villa was found to have grown out of a settlement belonging to Neolithic Age. On the site of the later villa there was a rectangular hut dating back to the fourth millennium BC dated. Two urns date from the Bronze Age. However, there are no remains of settlements, but there were remains of a palisade that may date from this time. 

Gorhambury Rural Villa in the First Century

The actual villa was built around AD 20, when Britain was not yet Roman. Ditches were dug that formed two rectangles, apparently enclosing the residential and utility buildings of the complex. Various wooden structures stood within these demarcated areas. The western fence probably housed primarily residential buildings, while the eastern fence was more of a utilitarian nature. Among these service buildings is a type of basilica with three naves, the earliest structure of this type in Britain. The wooden buildings have been rebuilt and expanded several times. The high number of Celtic coin finds indicates wealthy owners. In 43 AD Britain was conquered by the Romans, but there are hardly any changes in use. The regime change seems to have taken place here without dramatic changes. Sometime in the first century the buildings burned down. This likes with the Boudicca rebellion in 61–62. In nearby Verulamium, large parts of the city burned down at the same time. The villa continued to be inhabited, but the buildings from the following years are not very well preserved.

Gorhambury Rural Villa in the Second to fourth Centuries

Around 100 AD the manor house of the complex was replaced by a stone building. It was initially a simple rectangular building with two or three rooms. However, this building received a portico and corner projection a short time later. In a third expansion phase, various other rooms were added. Especially in the south, an apse was built, which was next to a large room, which in turn had a basement. During the excavations, the basement was found full of rubble, including fragments of mosaics, wall paintings and stucco. The stucco work and wall paintings are of exceptionally high quality and demonstrate the prosperity of the villa owners. The find of figural stucco work, which is unique in Roman Britain, is particularly noteworthy. A massive granary (6.4 × 5.8 meters), built of stone, also dates from this period. A bath was built about 40 meters east of the villa. It was a simple rectangular building measuring about 11.5 x 7 meters. Around 175 AD the mansion was completely rebuilt. The moat that separated the two enclosures of the villa complex was filled in. In addition to the old manor house, another, larger manor house was built on the west side. It is curious that the new manor house was not built on the site of the old one, but the old one may have continued to be lived in until the new one was completed. The new building had a portico with two corner avant-corps on the west/front side. There was another portico on the east side. At least two rooms had mosaics. In the south there was a three-room bath. Other buildings were erected within the enclosure. To the west was a bathhouse. Next to it was a barn. The villa was in use until the fourth century, but the main house was probably abandoned by as early as 300 AD. However, the construction of new storage buildings shows that farming continued until around 400, when the facility was completely abandoned. In the Middle Ages there was a farm here for a short time.

During the excavations, the remains of numerous window glass shards were found. A particularly large number of cattle were found among the animal bones. Eel bones were also found, which must have been caught in local waters. Some bones come from herring and mackerel , fish that probably traded here from further afield.

Excavations at Gorhambury Rural Villa

The villa was partially excavated between 1956 and 1961. Systematic excavations then took place again between 1972 and 1982, whereby the villa was explicitly selected because it was not built over in a modern way and the aim of the excavations was to systematically examine an entire villa complex with all the outbuildings. The villa is one of the few Roman estates that has been fully investigated.

Sites near Gorhambury Rural Villa