Lockleys Roman villa


The monument includes the buried remains of a Roman villa and traces of an Iron Age settlement situated on the south western slope of a hill overlooking the Mimram valley some 300m south west of Lockley Farm. The site was first identified in 1930, and part excavation in 1936-37 revealed phases of occupation dating from the first century AD to the last quarter of the fourth century AD.

The earliest structure on the site was considered to be a circular hut located on what was probably a natural terrace c.300m south west of the present farm buildings, represented by a shallow, circular depression c.3.5m in diameter. A single shallow gully c.10m to the north west was thought by the excavator to represent a later Iron Age house destroyed when the first villa building was constructed.

Finds recovered from these early phases included pottery, brooches and coins, all of which suggest that the site was occupied at least intermittently from c.AD 20 to the mid first century AD.

The remains of a substantial ditch situated some 30m to the south east of these early features is thought to date from this phase of occupation, and to have continued to function as a boundary throughout the Roman period.

The first building on the site which shows clear evidence of Roman influence was considered to have been built around AD 60-70 as a direct replacement of its Iron Age predecessor. Building debris containing fragments of samian ware dated to AD 54-79 found beneath the foundation layers of flint and chalk rubble may represent the remains of this Late Iron Age house.

This first villa was constructed over the site of both the earlier buildings. It was a simple cottage house of four rooms in a row, orientated north west-south east and measuring some 23m long by 7m wide. The northernmost room was subdivided into two, and the whole building was fronted by a verandah along the western side supported by a row of posts. The foundations and dwarf walls were of dressed flint, forming sills to carry the timber framing of which the house was mainly constructed. This framework would have been infilled with wattle and daub panels and finished inside with decorated plaster, remains of which were found on the site. The inner partition walls would have been similarly constructed and finished.

By the beginning of the fourth century AD the house had been remodelled utilising the existing foundations, and extended. A stone corridor replaced the verandah and a northern wing was added. The severe nature of the slope to the west was overcome by splitting the level of this wing. The rear room’s foundations are contiguous with the original building, but those of the projecting room are set lower down. A second storey over half this lower room rose above the height of the rest of the house.

The northern wing thus had one room adjoining the existing foundations, fronted to the west by a second, larger room with a tesselated floor of red, yellow and green brick cubes, and entered on its western side via a porch. The upper floor, constructed over the eastern half of this room, is thought to have had access from the main range by a wooden staircase.

It is thought that a matching wing was added to the south but, as this area was subsequently built over during the fourth century, little is presently known of its form and extent.

Soon after these extensions were built, the rear room of the northern wing was divided by a rough masonry partition and another room was constructed in the angle of the western room and the corridor.

By about AD 340 the building was in ruins. This was probably the result of a fire, debris from which sealed datable deposits in three of the rooms. However, the collapsed walls and ceilings of the two storeyed western room suggest a degree of dereliction before the fire occurred, and may even indicate deliberate burning as a means of clearing the site before the final phase of construction.

The final house, built to the south east of the original building and partly overlying its foundations, is thought to have been both simpler and flimsier than its predecessor. Only three small rooms ranged along the southern end of the original house are known, together with the remains of one or possibly two others which may have utilised the foundations of the old southern wing. The building extended southwards but, as the excavation was limited, the full ground plan has not yet been recovered.

A coin found in the foundations of the east wall indicates that the house was built after AD 330, while the pottery discovered beneath the burnt debris of the previous house has been dated to the first half of the fourth century. The site was probably abandoned during the last quarter of the fourth century when the coin sequence ends with an issue of Valens (AD 364-78), and there appears to have been no reoccupation. This date coincides with a period when conditions in Britain were extremely unsettled: rural areas were subjected not only to the depredations of bands of Gaulish marauders but also to similar treatment at the hands of army deserters. A few years of relative stability were secured by a military reorganisation which fortified the coast and strengthened town defences, but a subsequent wave of rebellions and usurpations undermined both social order and the economy. By the last quarter of the fourth century life at Lockleys villa may have been untenable.

The relative simplicity of the villa building with its lack of any heating system may indicate that Lockleys was occupied by native British farmers who only gradually adopted Roman ways and whose home reflects fairly modest means. However, the relative lack of datable deposits for the late second century and the third century may mean that the site was abandoned during this period, and not rebuilt and extended before AD 300. A second, more elaborate villa some 300m to the south west in the Mimram valley (Dicket Mead villa, the subject of a separate scheduling) was built during the third century when the Lockleys villa may have been abandoned, and was itself largely derelict during the final phase of occupation at Lockleys. The interrelationship of these two villas is not yet fully understood but it is possible that both were part of the same estate. Dicket Mead could represent a phase of prosperity which led to the desertion of the hillside house in favour of the sheltered valley floor, with Lockleys remodelled at the beginning of the fourth century to house a bailiff or tenant. A reversal of fortune, necessitating the virtual abandonment of the more luxurious establishment may be reflected in the final house at Lockleys which, it has been suggested, was constructed from material salvaged from demolished buildings at Dicket Mead.

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