Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa

Caroline Mackenzie introduces the research behind her new publication

Background to the book

2019 is a rather special year for Lullingstone Roman Villa – it marks the 70th anniversary of the commencement of the excavations. The first clues as to the existence of a Roman site in the vicinity of Lullingstone in the Darent Valley, Kent had been recorded in about 1750 when the fence around Lullingstone deer park was being renewed and diggers of the post holes struck a mosaic. However, it was not until 1939 that an archaeological survey undertaken by Ernest Greenfield and Edwyn Birchenough of the Darent Valley Archaeological Research Group concentrated on the Roman finds and that the remarkable story of the discovery of Lullingstone Roman Villa properly began.

The Second World War halted the 1939 survey which had to be put on hold until 1947 when the archaeological team was joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Meates, recently retired from the Royal Artillery and by this time resident in the gatehouse at Lullingstone Castle. Excavations formally commenced in 1949 and these revealed the remains of a Roman villa which boasted much evidence of a luxurious lifestyle: mosaics, sculpture, wall-painting, a hypocaust and baths. By 1955, Meates had become leader of the excavations and he oversaw them until their completion in 1961, documenting the finds in a series of publications.

The excavation team included numerous volunteers, some of them still schoolchildren, who dedicated much time and effort to uncovering the site. Many of these volunteers, now in their 70s and 80s, returned to the villa in July this year to celebrate the anniversary at a special reunion. I was fortunate to be invited to meet them and their families and it was fascinating hearing their stories.

I, too, visited the villa as a schoolchild. By this time the excavations had been completed and the site was being managed (as it is today) by English Heritage. I was inspired by the beauty of the mosaics and enthralled by the thought that this had been someone’s home over 1,500 years ago. I became fascinated by the Greeks and Romans and went on to study Classics at university. Many years later, and after a career as a solicitor, I visited Lullingstone again. Within months I had become a Classics teacher at a local school in Sevenoaks. I believe Lullingstone may have had some influence on this decision!

01 Caroline Mackenzie at the reunion of the original diggers at Lullingstone Roman Villa, July 2019.jpg
Caroline Mackenzie at the reunion of the original diggers at Lullingstone Roman Villa, July 2019. © Claire Lowe Photography.
02 Caroline Mackenzie presenting her research at Lullingstone Roman Villa, July 2019.jpg
Caroline Mackenzie presenting her research at Lullingstone Roman Villa, July 2019. © Claire Lowe Photography.

A few years later, when I began studying for an MA in Classical Art and Archaeology at King’s College London, the choice of topic for my dissertation was obvious. I lived near Lullingstone and visited it often, and I wanted to learn more about its history. I decided to focus on two main aspects: first, the villa within its landscape setting and the role of topography in the owner’s self-representation; second, the choice and use of mosaics in the fourth century villa and how the patron presented his cultural identity and status through pavements. Two modern television programmes sprung to mind: Location, Location, Location and Grand Designs! I started to wonder whether modern criteria for choosing a home have changed much from Roman times.

In assessing the landscape setting, I realised I would need to explore the vicinity of the villa on foot. This was an approach first adopted by Tilley in his innovative 1994 book.  I also wanted to research the ancillary buildings which included a circular shrine, a temple-mausoleum and a granary. I used the experience of exploring the area to examine the relative prominence of the villa and its ancillary buildings; for example, were they highly visible in the landscape? I also considered how the architects combined the setting with the layout of the villa to create a conspicuous display of the owner’s standing and worth.

03 Lullingstone Villa in its landscape in the later fourth century AD.jpg
Lullingstone Villa in its landscape in the later fourth century AD (illustration by Peter Urmston). © Historic England Archive.

By way of comparison, I decided to examine some other Romano-British villas. I had recently visited the Isle of Wight and the magnificent site of Brading Roman Villa. Themes such as the four seasons in Brading’s stunning mosaic provided direct comparisons for Lullingstone and helped me to answer questions such as what might have been represented in the part of Lullingstone’s mosaic which had been accidentally dug up in the 1700s. Chedworth Roman Villa, now managed by the National Trust, provided a particularly interesting case study in the context of its landscape setting.

In addition to Lullingstone’s central room which boasts the seasons mosaic framing Bellerophon killing the Chimaera, the adjacent apsidal dining room is celebrated for its mosaic of Europa riding the bull. The Europa mosaic is accompanied by a Latin inscription and, in this context, I studied Classical literature in other Romano-British villas to see if Lullingstone is what we would expect or whether it is exceptional.

I was fortunate to be supervised in my research by Dr John Pearce at King’s College London. I learned a huge amount from him and he made the project of researching and writing up rewarding, challenging and enjoyable. After my dissertation was complete and as preparations for the anniversary celebrations at the villa began to get underway, I started to work with Dr David Davison, Director at Archaeopress Publishing, on what would become my first book, Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa. David and all the team at Archaeopress made the process as smooth as possible and were such a pleasure to work with.

In the remainder of this blog, I shall set out the main themes of the book and hope you will be inspired to learn more!

Landscape setting

Wall-paintings from Lullingstone and now on display at the British Museum indicated that Christian worship had taken place in the villa. The evidence of religion has been exploited and applied to the mosaics in the adjacent rooms.  However, I interpreted the evidence in other ways and asked questions based instead on the use of space, landscape setting and architectural context of the mosaics. Wallace-Hadrill’s work in Pompeii and Herculaneum focused on the use of domestic space and the public and private spheres of a home.[1] Scott subsequently applied a similar concept to the interior space of Romano-British villas and extended it by placing more emphasis on the landscape setting.[2] In my research, I applied Scott’s methods to examine how Lullingstone’s inhabitants used domestic space to assert their status and cultural identity. A key example for Scott was that, by alluding to knowledge of Graeco-Roman culture, owners expressed their paideia: their appreciation of literature, philosophy and mythology enjoyed by the Roman élite.[3] In my research, I examined the practices of the inhabitants primarily during the late third and fourth centuries AD and how they adopted Roman culture in their domestic space.

Lullingstone Roman villa is in the Darent Valley in west Kent. It sits on a terrace cut into the hillside 55m west of the west bank of the river Darent, whose valley cuts through the North Downs, and was around 20 miles from Londinium (London). Lullingstone was a favourable site because of its access to varied resources and agricultural riches.

04 North Kent in the Roman period.jpg
North Kent in the Roman period.  © Historic England Archive.

In total there are around sixty known/suspected villas in Kent, most of which are in north Kent. Lullingstone was therefore part of an intensively exploited and agriculturally rich landscape. The Darent Valley villas probably supplied food and other agricultural produce to London and provided residences for the London elites.

A symbolic dimension of the owner’s appropriation of the landscape and its resources was the establishment of a cult room apparently relating to water deities complete with a niched wall-painting of three water-nymphs. This was created c. AD 180, contemporaneous with the baths, and demonstrated the owners’ reverence for water. It was located at the northeast of the villa, where the slope had been excavated to create what is known as the ‘Deep Room’.[4] The niche was later blocked up and could have easily escaped the excavators’ notice but, in a twist of fate, the site flooded mid-excavations and dislodged the plaster concealing the water-nymphs.[5] The villa-owner who created the water cult room might have seen this as a sign!

05 Reconstruction of ‘Deep Room’ shown at underground level, c. AD 380.jpg
Reconstruction of ‘Deep Room’ shown at underground level, c. AD 380 (illustration by Peter Dunn/Richard Lea). © Historic England Archive.

Visitors today may appreciate the tranquil setting and the view from the villa. While modern subjective assessments of ‘a lovely setting’ must be qualified, we know from Roman authors that observers then were sensitive to the aesthetics of views and this is not just a modern phenomenon (Ausonius: Moselle; Pliny the Younger: Epistulae 2.17).

06 Modern view of Darent Valley, taken from modern road approaching the villa.jpg
Modern view of Darent Valley, taken from modern road approaching the villa. Photograph: by author.

In c. AD 100 a circular building was constructed on a prepared terrace 24.4.m northwest of the villa. A flint and mortar construction with a thatched roof but no windows, it is thought to have been used for cult purposes until c. AD 180. The slope is steep and the elevated shrine must have made an imposing statement.[6]

It is believed to have fallen into ruin following disuse in the third century. However, the terrace on which it stood was extended to receive a temple-mausoleum in AD 300. This stood prominently around 6m above the ground to the west of the villa[7] and exemplifies skilful use of the hill-slope to create monumentality and visibility. The building took the form of a 12.2m square Romano-Celtic temple.[8] Beneath this was a tomb chamber with two lead coffins and various grave goods. We do not know the identity of the couple buried but it may be the villa-owner and his wife, and the temple-mausoleum seems to have been created for this double burial.

The date of construction of the temple-mausoleum coincides with a major refurbishment to the villa and its surroundings, all of which demonstrated the wealth and aspirations of the owner. The bath complex had been rebuilt and extended in around AD 280 and in AD 293-297 a large granary was constructed to the northeast of the villa,[9] a statement of agricultural prowess. The temple-mausoleum was a necessary part of the refurbishment for a villa-owner who wanted to make his mark on the landscape, in death as in life.

07 The baths as they may have appeared in the late third century AD.jpg
The baths as they may have appeared in the late third century AD (illustration by Peter Dunn/Richard Lea). © Historic England Archive.
08 Reconstruction drawing of Lullingstone Villa in the fourth century AD.jpg
Reconstruction drawing of Lullingstone Villa in the fourth century AD (illustration by Alan Sorrell) © Historic England Archive.

This illustration shows both the temple-mausoleum (top centre) and the circular shrine (top right). However, the circular shrine is believed to have fallen into ruin following disuse in the third century and before construction of the temple-mausoleum.

The large granary would have complemented the architecture and positioning of the villa.  The granary may also exemplify ‘the conspicuous display of agricultural production, processing and storage’. Taylor argues convincingly for more detailed studies of entire rural settlements and not just domestic buildings, the latter which attract scholarly analysis due to the existence of their mosaics, hypocausts and baths.[10]

The use of landscape to create immediate impact on visitors was used to similar effect in the villa at Great Witcombe in the Coln Valley, which was built into a steep hillside with the main part of the complex highest up ensuring that the most important visitors and household members were, quite literally, placed above everyone else.

09 Remains of Great Witcombe Roman Villa, Gloucestershire.jpg
Remains of Great Witcombe Roman Villa, Gloucestershire. © Historic England Archive.
© Historic England Archive.
10 Reconstruction drawing of Great Witcombe Roman Villa in the fourth century AD.jpg
Reconstruction drawing of Great Witcombe Roman Villa in the fourth century AD (illustration by Ivan Lapper) © Historic England Archive.

Chedworth villa merited a more detailed discussion in the context of its landscape setting and display of wealth and status. It was constructed in a small steep-sided valley of the river Coln, Gloucestershire.[11] Visitors to the late fourth century villa would have been struck by its impressive stature in its landscape setting.

The mosaics

The central room was a part of the villa which had been in use in every phase of its occupation but in c. AD 330-60[12] it was given a facelift with the instalment of a lavish mosaic. It depicted Bellerophon mounted on the winged horse Pegasus and killing the Chimaera. Surrounded by a cushion shaped guilloche, this part of the mosaic also contained four dolphins and two shell-type objects. Around the guilloche was a plain, square border, the four corners of which each contained a roundel depicting one of the four seasons, represented by female busts.

11 Bellerophon on Pegasus, spearing the Chimaera.jpg
Detail: Bellerophon on Pegasus, spearing the Chimaera. c. AD 330-60. © Historic England Archive.

The location and size of this room suggest that it served as an audience chamber, like the atrium in Italian villas, where the aristocrat held his morning salutatio (greeting) by his clients. The British equivalent might have been the farmworkers coming to the villa to receive instructions for the day, or tenants coming to pay their rent.[13]

12 Summer.jpg
Detail: Summer. c. AD 330-60. © Historic England Archive.

Seasons were a popular mosaic choice in Roman Britain (c.f. Brading and Littlecote) and the rest of empire. In my book, I discuss several possible interpretations of the seasons including them reflecting the liberality of the owner;[14] this might be exactly the message the Lullingstone patron had in mind, at a time when he was investing finances in his property.

Bellerophon could represent a heroic model for the patron’s own hunting exploits[15] and an allusion to power.[16] It was comprehensible to most viewers familiar with Homer’s Iliad in which the story was first told (6.155-202). The Homeric reference therefore reflects Lullingstone’s owner’s classical learning, a message consistently conveyed in all the mosaics he chose.

The apsidal room at Lullingstone was added as part of the overall embellishment of the villa c. AD 330-60.[17] A 23cm high step led from the audience chamber to the apse’s entrance, providing a natural extension to the space used for receiving clients and entertaining guests.[18]

13 Reconstruction of Lullingstone’s apsidal dining room with stibadium.jpg
Reconstruction of Lullingstone’s apsidal dining room with stibadium c. AD 330-60 (illustration by Peter Dunn). © Historic England Archive.
14 Reconstruction of Lullingstone’s audience chamber and apse.jpg
Reconstruction of Lullingstone’s audience chamber and apse. c. AD 330-60 (illustration by Peter Dunn). © Historic England Archive.
15 Europa mosaic.jpg
Europa mosaic. c. AD 330-60. © Historic England Archive.

The figure scene in the apse portrays Europa riding on a bull (Jupiter in disguise) over the sea, accompanied by two cupids with an inscription above.  The allusion is to Book 1 (50) of Virgil’s Aeneid and plays on the story of Juno’s anger at her husband Jupiter’s infidelity. Ovid’s Metamorphoses 2.846-75 recounts Jupiter’s transformation into a bull to trick and seduce Europa. As with Bellerophon, the overriding message that the owner wanted to convey was his paideia, his wealth and, by the inscription, his wit.

Concluding thoughts

My book sets out to demonstrate how the ensemble of the architecture, the mosaics and the exterior space worked to persuade visitors of the owner’s wealth and status. This included his right and ability to tame the landscape. The choices of mosaics provide compelling evidence of a traditional Classical education and sophisticated knowledge of Virgil and Ovid. The inscription is a remarkable paradigm of paideia. The Lullingstone owner acted out his role as a powerful and influential individual, displaying his cultural identity and status. We are fortunate that the landscape which served the owner’s purposes in Roman times has also performed a service for us in the years since, by washing soil and debris downhill and thus preserving much of the villa and its mosaics for us to explore 1,600 years later.

I should like to thank a number of people who helped me during my research. I was fortunate to meet the team at DROP (Discover Roman Otford Project). Kevin Fromings (Project Leader) and Gary Bennett (Membership Secretary) welcomed me to their dig, just a few miles from Lullingstone. Rod Shelton kindly provided a copy of his own research on Lullingstone and images of his scale model of the villa. Rob Sherratt helpfully shared his thoughts as to the construction of the villa and provided images of his 3D reconstruction. I should like to thank Dr John Pearce at King’s College London for his invaluable help and guidance during my research and writing of my dissertation. Last but not least, I should like to reiterate my thanks to everyone at Archaeopress and in particular to Dr David Davison, Ben Heaney, Patrick Harris and Dan Stott. I am very grateful to them all for their hard work and commitment, from reading the first draft of the manuscript to all their work and support post publication.

16 Scale model of Lullingstone Roman Villa.jpg
Scale model of Lullingstone Roman Villa. © Rod Shelton.
17 Dining room and audience chamber from scale model of Lullingstone Roman Villa.jpg
Dining room and audience chamber from scale model of Lullingstone Roman Villa. © Rod Shelton.
18 3D Reconstructions of Lullingstone Roman Villa
3D Reconstructions of Lullingstone Roman Villa. © Rob Sherratt.
file1-3.jpeg
Just back from press! Caroline Mackenzie with her new book, Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa. Photograph: © Archaeopress.

References

[1] Wallace-Hadrill 1988: 52-55; [2] Scott 2000; [3] Scott 2000: 126-8; [4] Meates 1955: 59; [5] Meates 1979: 17 and 33; [6] Meates 1979: 119; [7] Meates 1979: 17; [8] Meates 1979: 122; [9] Meates 1955: 114; [10] Taylor 2011: 180; [11] Esmonde Cleary 2013: 14; [12] Meates 1979: 84; [13] Ellis 1995: 166; [14] Ellis 1995: 175; [15] Ling 1997: 278-9; [16] Ellis 1995: 175; [17] Meates 1979: 73; [18] Barrett 1978: 310.

Buy the book

9781789692907.jpgCulture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa by Caroline K. Mackenzie. 2019. ISBN 9781789692907. (eBook ISBN 9781789692914)

Paperback; 205×255 pages; viii+50 pages; 40 figures (colour throughout)

Paperback: £14.99; PDF eBook: from £9.99 + VAT

Buy print or PDF edition direct from Archaeopress (Free PDF included with the purchase of the printed edition)

Or you can buy in print from all good booksellers, including: Amazon.co.uk; Blackwell’s; Book Depository; Waterstones

Reviews

A Thing of Beauty. Clearly written and beautifully illustrated with full colour maps, photos and drawings, this is a book to treasure.

Amazon.co.uk five-star rated user review

An excellent study of a remarkable Roman villa. Mackenzie walks us through the estate, from the fields and granary to the temple-mausoleum and extravagant dining room… There are nicely produced photographs of the art (especially the incredible Bellerophon/Pegasus and the seasons mosaic), location, and comparable sites, and charming illustrations showing how the villa and its rooms might have looked in their heyday.

Amazon.co.uk five-star rated user review

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