Discovered in 1942, this courtyard Roman villa was found purely by chance by a local farmer. Excavated over the next 30 years and more recently by Time Team, the villa and its artefacts are on display in a small but comprehensive museum in the small village of Rockbourne, not far from Downton and Salisbury.
Just outside the New Forest and buried in deepest, darkest rural Hampshire is the tiny village of Rockbourne, a place of thatched cottages, woods and farmland. Just outside the village and undercover of woodland, a small track leads off a narrow country lane and into a large grassy car park. There are no formalities here, you plonk your car on the grass and wander into the small museum, named after A.T. Morley-Hewitt, author and archaeologist who excavated the site over the course of 30 years.
Excavations revealed that Rockbourne started life in the late Iron Age as a simple timber roundhouse with a chalk floor. In use as a farm before the Roman invasion of 43AD, the Romans often built on top of existing sites and in this case built three rooms directly on top of the original, with outbuildings added over the years.
Around 150AD the original house was demolished and a larger one built (known as the West House) with a bath suite of a plunge pool and hot room. About 200AD a large extension was built as well as a separate bath suite, hypocausts and mosaic flooring. In the 4th century it was again re-modelled and a well was dug, but by the early 5th century there are indications that attempts were made to repair the increasingly crumbling building with signs of collapsed roofing, broken mosaics and postholes.
TOP TEN THINGS TO SEE AT ROCKBOURNE
1. The Oyster Shell
The very first item you see as you walk through the door is an oyster shell, the very one which led to the discovery of the site.
A local farmer was digging out a ferret in a corner of West Park Farm, and he uncovered several oyster shells and pieces of mosaic. Oysters were a prized food in Roman times, the shells discarded in the waste, which just goes to show that one mans rubbish is another mans treasure.
He notified local archaeologist Morley-Hewitt who dug a test pit and uncovered a mosaic floor. Full scale excavations started in 1956 when Morley-Hewitt bought the land, and he worked on this until his death in 1974.
2. The skeletons
Several skeletons were found during the excavations. Roman law forbade burial within properties except for infants, of which four were found at Rockbourne - on display is one found by the well.
There were also two adult male skeletons found however, one of whom was found under a pile of roof tiles, probably sheltering in the abandoned outbuilding when the roof collapsed on him, from the end of the Roman occupation or just after. He clearly was never found, or if he was, he was just left to rot there.
The other is on display in the museum. He was found face down missing his feet and right hand, which may have been a result of Saxon punishment, or the work of stone robbers helping themselves to flint from the walls. He had a deformed jaw and pointed chin, probably from a traumatic birth. He also had a hole in his skull which had started to heal - clearly he had undergone a trepanning operation to either relieve his pain or cast out the demons which caused his deformity.
He dates from Saxon or medieval times and it is not known why he was buried face down in such a remote place away from the general burial site (which is yet to be found).
3. The Breamore Bucket
The Breamore Bucket is really something special. Found in the nearby village of Breamore by a metal detectorist in 1999, it was made from a single sheet of metal and decorated with a frieze, with an inscription in Ancient Greek: Use this, lady, for many happy years. It is one of only 3 found in England - one was in a burial ground near Sutton Hoo and the other was part of a rich female grave in the Isle of Wight. All three of the buckets were produced in Antioch in the 6th century AD. Archaeologists believe it to be a symbol of high status and probably related to bathing and female health.
It was the discovery of this bucket which led to Time Team conducting a 3 day dig on the site where it was found. They uncovered a Anglo-Saxon cemetery with a high incidence of weapon burials, mass graves and other burials with buckets.
A replica of the bucket is on display, which was made for the Time Team programme. I think the original is held in safety in Winchester.
4. The Rockbourne Hoard
More than 700 coins had been found scattered across the site throughout the excavations, but in 1967 the archaeologists hit the motherlode - a hoard of 7,717 bronze and silver-bronze antoninianii and three silver denarii, was found buried in a two-handled storage jar. Dating to 305AD, it must have been buried during times of threat from the outside. What is curious though is that although the villa remained in continuous occupation, the hoard was never retrieved. Had the person who hid it been killed? Morley-Hewitt gave some of the coins to his workers, sold some to finance excavations and when the site was acquired by Hampshire County Council, only about 500 of them remained, which are on display in the museum.
5. The Milestone Markers
The two milestone markers are very unusual finds for the area. Both are made of Chilmark stone and were found at the villa, having been reused in the building.
One translates as 'For the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Augustus …' and can be dated to 249 - 251 AD.
The other translates as '…for Esuvius Tetricus, most noble Caesar…'. and can be dated to 271 - 274AD. They probably both came from the road from Old Sarum (Sorviodunum) to Badbury Rings (Vindocladia). By the third century, landowners were responsible for road repairs, and these milestones were probably on the part of the road owned by this estate. Over time, they would have been brought back to the estate and used to help with repairs as the villa aged and crumbled.
6. The Mosaics
There are several mosaics to see still in situ outside in the villa. What I like best about them is that they are not the hugely ornate, over the top mosaics you often see in museums - these are the everyday mosaics that people had in their homes. There were more luxurious mosaics in the property, but they didn't survive excavation.
One of the rooms was given a red and white mosaic with the positions of three couches marked on it - this shows it was a dining room or triclinium. Animal bones found at the site show that they ate beef, chicken, pork, venison and duck, as well as oysters, fruit and nuts. One mosaic found was an eight pointed central star, which would have been in the courtyard, towards the end of the villa's heyday.
7. Building materials of Chilmark Stone
Chilmark stone, quarried in the village of Chilmark about 20 miles away, is a Purbeckian limestone, ideal for use as a building material as it is easy to work and long lived. It is the primary building material for the main structure of Salisbury Cathedral, and was also used to infill one of the uprights at Stonehenge. On display in the museum is a carved roof finial and ridgepiece from the villa, and it shows that Chilmark stone was in use long before the cathedral was built.
There are also other objects from the construction of the villa, including nails, clamps, hinges and a piece of Roman glass. Not all windows would have been glazed, but enough shards of glass were found to indicate that some were, and on display is a piece of misty greenish glass. Roman windows let the light in, but were no good for looking through.
8. The baths
Hypocausts were used to heat the warm rooms in the bath houses and were essentially underfloor heating. The Romans took bathing very seriously, and it was something that Romanised Britons would adopt as part of their lifestyle. Bathers would move from warm rooms to hot; they would either sweat off the dirt of scrape it off with olive oil and a strigil, before a cold plunge to close the pores. This hypocaust is unusual in that they cemented together two curved roof tiles, rather than using a stack of flat ones.
9. The Roman Garden
This is not the original garden, which would have disappeared centuries ago as the land returned to farmland, but it is a very pretty little part of the site.
All villas had gardens for growing fruit, vegetables and plants and herbs for medicinal uses. They also had an ambulatio, flowers and shrubs arranged as place for a shaded, fragrant walk away from the more functional areas of the site. This garden has been recreated using plants which were found in the nearby well during the excavations, such as cherry and plum stones, hazelnuts, silver birch, moss and a wicker basket, as well as plants mentioned by Pliny the Elder.
Rockbourne is small, but detailed, and is a great place to spend an hour or so. The setting is lovely and if you happen to be in the area, then it is definitely worth stopping off for.
As you are exploring the villa outside, you will see a tall monument in the distance, towering over the trees. This is the Eyre-Coote Monument built in 1828, which is 100 feet tall and looks out over 3 counties.
It was built as a memorial to Lt. Gen. Sir Eyre-Coote, 1726 - 1783, soldier and politician, and it stands on land which was part of his estate.
Sadly it is not accessible to the public, except for a few open days run by the New Forest National Park Authority. I was able to get this photo by kind permission of a farmer on a neighbouring estate who allowed me to cross his fields to get as close as I could.