The reconstruction of Cattle Hill Roman Villa (now known as Villa Ventorum) on the Hadspen estate in Somerset is one of the most remarkable achievements of experimental archaeology in British history – benefitting from seemingly unlimited private funding that has seen the creation of a replica of a villa authentic in every detail (or, at least, in every detail we know of…). From the moment the opening of Villa Ventorum to the public was announced I was determined to see it. While it is not the first attempt at a villa reconstruction, or indeed a reconstruction of a Roman domestic building in the UK, it is the first to attempt the complete reconstruction of an entire villa on its original scale, with no expense spared, and in such a way that everything is accessible to the visitor – and even set in a reconstructed Roman landscape.
Although the villa was first discovered in 1834, a full re-investigation and excavation of the site took place between 2015 and 2017, resulting in the construction of a museum on top of the bathhouse of the original villa, while the rest of the excavated walls have been reburied and are now marked out above ground with wooden sleepers. The replica villa is located a few hundred yards north of the original and reproduces not only the appearance but also the functioning of the Roman villa: the hypocaust and wall-heating tubuli (which will never be seen by visitors, of course), the wood-fired stokeholes, the gardens, associated water features, and a full range of wattle-and-daub thatched ancillary buildings.
Villa Ventorum is a sort of Roman Dennis Severs’ House – the 18th-century house in London’s Folgate Street designed to look as though a Georgian family has just stepped outside for a moment, leaving everything in its original positions. Thus the kitchen at Villa Ventorum features an uncleaned, sooty stove, dirty cloths, and pigs’ trotters in a basin; in the triclinium, the musicians have momentarily laid down their instruments, while the bedroom of the lady of the house features an open wardrobe and cosmetics strewn over bedside tables. On the master’s untidy office desk lie imagined Latin letters and accounts. Everything is frozen forever on one day in 351, the year chosen for the imagined reconstruction.
Reconstructing a working Roman villa with the limited information we have about villas from archaeology has clearly been a challenge. Getting the hypocaust to work correctly is one of those, and I was intrigued to see scorch-marks on the walls from adjustable vents that allow the heat to escape from the tubuli (there is a backup system in case the tubuli fracture, which would cause carbon monoxide to escape into the villa).
The attention to detail at Villa Ventorum is staggering – from the furnishings to the meticulously crafted doors and windows, the terracotta acroterial decorations, the exquisite frescos – and even a Christian symbol scratched on a wall in the larder, presumably by a slave.
Villa Ventorum is not merely history that is looked at, or the sort of mock-up of historical interiors we are all familiar with from museums; it is, rather, an immersive experience that plunges the visitor into a multi-sensory, three-dimensional encounter with a reconstructed Roman past. The experience of entering into the space of a Roman villa, of experiencing its particular qualities of light, is both intense and moving. This is especially true of the bathhouse, where the visitor experiences the light, the heat of both air and water, and the faint smell of woodsmoke from the hypocaust system. The overall sense is of the villa as a living building; as far removed as can be imagined from reconstruction as mere stage-dressing or reconstruction to create a static, dead space.
It is hard to overstate how extraordinary an experience it is to visit Villa Ventorum.