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The first time I went to the Roman villa, ‘Villa Ventorum’, at The Newt in Somerset – I have now been four times, each with a different friend – I felt rather sorry for a bunch of volunteers, the Avalon Archaeology’s “Hands on Heritage” team. These, I knew from their blog, had been slogging away for years, every Wednesday, at a project under the auspices of the South West Heritage Trust, a not-for-profit whose work was formerly part of Somerset County Council’s responsibility, and which is now still mainly financed by Somerset and Devon councils.

At the Avalon Marshes Centre those volunteers are now creating one room of a Roman villa, on a limited budget. Although the aims of the project are very different from those of the villa at The Newt, I was concerned that they might be rather envious – to put it mildly – of the millions poured into the extremely rapid and professional job just 20 miles away.

On subsequent visits to the Roman villa at The Newt, I was delighted to learn that the SWHT had played a large part as consultants in the planning and execution of the Villa Ventorum. They also wrote almost the entire text of a beautiful book about the new villa, which covers the background history of Roman presence in Somerset (there were loads of villas), the decision to imagine a brand new villa, and enormous detail about the planning, sourcing, and construction of it. I can only hope that, given the millions that were poured, evidently, into The Newt’s project, the Trust benefited financially to a very substantial extent!

The Avalon Archaeology project has this month started offering guided tours to the public, and I joined a small group last week. It was a bitterly cold day, and I had not covered myself sufficiently, unfortunately, but the visit was still very enjoyable.

I was early, and studied the map of where I was. The area is principally known for its wildlife.

There were four items to see, and we were guided around them in chronological order, before being left to explore individually and take a longer look at various aspects. The following pictures consolidate the two ‘tours’.

The visit started with the early work by the volunteers of an Iron Age roundhouse. Natalie, of the SWHT, explained that the Hands on Heritage project is not designed to build exact replicas, but that what they carried out was experimental archaeology, that is, in this case, trying to find out by experimentation what building methods were and might have been used at the time. Although many roundhouses have been found, none has left traces much above ground level, so reproduction can only be conjectural. It was known that short stouter posts were first inserted, some weaving done, and then longer uprights added. Wattle and daub was applied, finished with a wash, and then a roof extending well out would largely protect the walls. But rot would set in from the ground, and the life of a roundhouse was only about ten years. The model for this one was those of the Glastonbury Lake Village, just a few miles away.

It was not known, because of the limited height of remains, whether roundhouses had windows, but boards of this size had been found near excavations, so these were included, in accordance with the experimental archaeological approach.

To illustrate a Roman villa, a typical dining room (triclinium) and anteroom were being built here.

Only those rooms and the bathhouse would be heated, by means of a hypocaust. This fire (the opening is about 12 inches/30 centimetres high) would heat air that would be spread underneath the rooms and through their walls.

The roof’s end tiles are purely decorative, and are based on found examples. The part of wall is left unfinished so that internal construction can be seen. It is not wattle and daub but not dissimilar. The two dark plates serve to prevent the smoke from the fire from being blown back into the house. The need for them was discovered in accordance with the experimental approach.

Laying the mosaics is slow painstaking work, and not without the occasional error – itself authentic.

Each section is shaped with a temporary ‘form’. Without such, chaos would result. The small oblong section had taken two or three people the whole of the previous day to complete.

A modern dish provides useful separation of the tesserae, made of local stone and (red) brick.

Among the wall decorations would be portraits of the mistress and master of the house.

Flora, goddess of flowers
The chi-rho sign would indicate that the house had adopted the new religion, Christianity.
Part of the ceiling in the ante-room left bare to show construction technique

The third building was Saxon long hall, home to the local lord perhaps, and also used as (my term) a sort of community centre.

Showing two kinds of wall construction
Natalie is disappointed that the fire she laid for us before our arrival has gone out. So are we – its freezing!

Gives me goosebumps to think that we can copy King Alfred’s own handwriting!

There were seven panels altogether.

I think the dark blue triangle, centre-right, may be Glastonbury Tor, with perhaps a holy thorn planted on it.

After the tour, Natalie got the fire going again. But before that there was one more thing to see.

This is full size waterline replica of a Viking trading ship from Denmark. It was built of oak by a specialist team of Viking boat builders from Roskilde. It was originally displayed in the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth. See here for a photo of it being delivered.

Finally, we learnt some etymology. This is the stern of the boat. On its side – and always on its right-hand side – is the steering board. Thus ‘starboard’. And ‘port’ is because a ship was always moored at its left-hand side, in order not to damage its steering-board. (And come to think of it, so did MS Trollfjord on my recent trip up the coast of Norway.)