Exciting new publication

Hello again! Although I have been very preoccupied recently by matters doctoral and nuptial, I thought I should spare a moment to tell you about a new publication which has excited me considerably:

Cunliffe, B. (2013). The Roman Villa at Brading, Isle of Wight. The excavations of 2008-10 (Oxford University School of Archaeology: Oxford).

(distributed, naturally, by Oxbow)

This is the much-anticipated report on the new campaign of excavations at the Isle of Wight’s archaeological celebrity: known as Brading Roman villa, but close to the village and medieval manor of Morton, situated at the foot of the chalk downs that constitute the island’s central spine. The site is famous for its mosaics: some of the finest (and most mysterious) in Britain, even northern Europe. The cock-headed man alone has inspired its fair share of speculation since its discovery in the 1880s.

But my own particular interest is twofold: firstly, I wrote my undergraduate site report on the villa in 2008; and immediately afterwards, I was lucky enough to join the volunteer digging crew for Prof. Sir Barry Cunliffe’s excavations of 2008, 2009 and 2010. The first two years were spent re-excavating the north and south ranges of the villa quad which, lacking mosaics, had long been backfilled (except for a hypocaust section that I vividly remember from old school visits). The third season broke new ground beyond the carpark (!) and discovered, amongst other things, Iron Age cremation urns. Published with these excavation results is a composite geophysics survey of the all the land surrounding the villa, mostly now owned by the Oglander Roman Trust. As the great professor emeritus himself remarked at the dig, the whole project shows that much can still be learned from “old” villa sites like this, with targeted, focused research agendas. Despite centuries of antiquarianism-cum-archaeology, we cannot claim to have “done” Romano-British villas.

All very well, you may say, but where’s the farming? Well, it’s more a matter of future potential in this case. The excavated villa has corn-drying ovens, yes – one of them, scandalously, sunk into a mosaic pavement. And the apparent importance of the Celtic bean (Vicia faba) has been noted repeatedly: most recently in the study of charred plant remains by Ruth Pelling in the new volume. Animal bones and marine molluscs further fill out the picture of villa cuisine. But even more tantalizingly, the geophysics reveal a complex network of ditches and other features in the surrounding lands, some of which presumably represent enclosures and tracks/droveways; the report also flags up the potential for finding ancillary structures (stables? granaries? quarters for farmhands?).

There is a vast literature on villa mosaics in Roman Britain, a great number of guidebooks detailing the functioning of a Romano-British bath suite and hypocaust… but are there so many comprehensive studies of luxury villas in their agricultural contexts? Wouldn’t it be grand if we could tell the (relatively) complete story of places like Brading – from farm to fork to cock-headed men?

Hm… does anyone have a research grant?

MJM.

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