There are two remarkable aspects to the history of Bignor Roman Villa, which stands – or rather, largely doesn’t – some way north of Chichester, in South Downs National Park.
The first is the villa itself: what it was, what it represented, and what remains of it.
The second is the story of how it was rediscovered, documented and (in the case of what remains of it) preserved. Both of these aspects are detailed in a comprehensive new study, Bignor Roman Villa, authored by David Rudling (Academic Director at The Sussex School of Archaeology and Director of Excavation at Bignor from 1985-96) and Dr Miles Russell (Senior Lecturer in Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology at Bournemouth University), and published by The History Press.
To understand the nature of the site, first one must try to cast one’s mind into the Roman worldview. Fortunately, this is not too much of a stretch; it is one that very much underpins our own. Western civilisation and classical antiquity are so closely linked that classical style and thought have long been the touchstones of the former. Both for better and worse. With Britain’s industrial age came a wave of neo-classical revivalism which produced much of its greatest civic and residential architecture. The classical style was also the basis of the plans drawn up by Albert Speer for a rebuilt Berlin in a future Nazi empire that, happy to say, never came to pass. Speer devised, to satisfy the hubris of Adolf Hitler, what he portentously labelled “the theory of Ruin Value”; that is, the rather obvious notion that the greatness of a civilisation may be deduced from the structures whose traces are left behind.
We may assume that those who commissioned, built and lived in the Roman villa at Bignor had no such fatuous ideals. It was constructed to convey a message not to the future, but very much to its present. At the peak of its grandeur, in the Fourth Century, and only a few years away from the end of Roman rule in Britain, the “villa” was more of a complex – a walled estate which sprawled across four acres of land. It was, so the authors tell us, “designed to impress through extravagant displays of art and architecture. ‘Being Roman’ was all about show and the capacity to flaunt wealth, especially within houses, both rural and urban – the larger countryside examples being like their later eighteenth-century ‘stately house’ equivalents. Such large establishments were designed not only to take in the best view, but also to be seen from a distance: a dramatic statement in stone, timber, plaster and tile forever altering and transforming the landscape.”
This is underlined by their account of how different it is to visit Bignor today. Where once the villa would have loomed above the surrounding countryside in an imposing, indeed intimidating fashion, now only a sign directs one to a site otherwise hidden in hills and fields. To understand truly the scale and scope of the Bignor villa, it would be better today to see it from the air than from the ground; the aerial views offered in the compendiously illustrated book give a truer picture of how it must have dominated its environs.
The principal surviving attraction at Bignor is the abundance of richly detailed and magnificently constructed mosaics, of which the book also offers ample pictorial evidence. Perhaps the best way to think of these is as a parallel to the lavish oil paintings which would have decorated (and in many cases still do) the stately homes to which the authors refer. One of the many ways in which classical civilisation has influenced our own is in the deployment of art not merely as a means of expression, but as a signifier of status. More lately, we see this manifested in corporate surroundings. Our contemporary equivalents of Bignor Roman Villa are not so much private homes as corporate towers, in which expensive art – either specially commissioned or bought for outlandish sums at auction – broadcasts to the awestruck and suitably humbled visitor the wealth and importance of the institution to which they have been permitted ingress, The mosaics at Bignor are prime of examples of a development then surely novel in the isolated outpost of empire that was Britain.
It was one of these mosaics that is crucial to the tale of how Bignor Roman Villa was rediscovered. One summer morning in 1811 – the year in which the future George IV assumed the Regency, with his father, George III, incapacitated and his country in the thick of the Napoleonic Wars – another George, surname of Tupper, was at his usual and usually rather less historic work. Thursday July 18 would be an exception. He was steering a team of horses through the fields he farmed when his plough struck a large stone, or so he thought.
Tupper went to clear the obstruction, and found he couldn’t. Digging soon revealed the reason why: he had uncovered what would turn out to be a water basin from the fifth of the villa’s 65 rooms. As he kept clearing away the soil, Tupper encountered, “the tessellated face of a young man … naked except for a bright red cap and fur-trimmed boots, an immense eagle and, further afield, a series of scantily clad dancing girls … Tupper had revealed, for the first time in nearly 1,500 years, an amazing collection of high-quality Roman floors.”
It was posterity’s good fortune that Tupper’s landlord, the owner of the field, was one John Hawkins, a wealthy former lawyer, and an early adopter of his century’s favoured interests for the educated gentleman: Hawkins was a Fellow of the Royal Society, widely travelled, and a collector of ancient artefacts. He commissioned an expert, Samuel Lysons, to conduct an archaeological dig, one which would continue for the next eight years. In 1819 Lysons, who had been in ill-health throughout, died. His brother Daniel then completed the Reliquiae Britannico-Romanae volume detailing the work and discoveries thus far.
Remarkably, much of the land was thereafter returned to agricultural use. Not until 1925 would any substantial archaeological work be carried out again, and that only a limited dig. At last, in 1956, Professor Sheppard Frere began excavations in order to check and augment Lyson’s “Great Plan”, showing the layout of the flourishing fourth-century villa. By now the site was owned by Captain Henry Tupper, a direct descendant of the ploughman George. Once Frere had completed his work in 1962, the latter-day Tupper opened a small museum on the site of two of the rooms, to display some of Frere’s discoveries.
The villa remains in the hands of the family; it is currently owned by Thomas Tupper, who in the Seventies and Eighties (the latter under the supervision of book author David Rudling) oversaw the re-excavation and restoration work, and the setting up of the current facilities, that today make Bignor Roman Villa such a notable attraction. The full story, and all the historical backdrop, is laid out in the new book with a wealth of detail that will fascinate any enthusiast. While for those with a more casual interest, the ample illustrations may be a spur to go and see for themselves the mosaics which rank among the finest, and best preserved, examples of Roman life and culture to be found anywhere in this former colony of that extraordinary empire.
David Bennun uncovers a story of ruined grandeur and centuries of archaeological detective work at the Bignor Roman Villa