Ferrets are not usually thought of as a way of finding archaeological sites, but in 1863 it was a ferret that led to the excavation of one of the grandest Roman villas in Britain – one of the few now on public display – the villa at Chedworth, between Cirencester and Northleach.
The ferret's digging had thrown up small pieces of coloured stone in woods on the Stowell Park estate and during a pheasant shoot in the winter of 1863/64 its owner, a gamekeeper, showed the stones to one of the guns, James Farrer MP, guardian to the young Lord Eldon, owner of the estate. Farrer was interested in archaeology and recognised the stones as tesserae – the cubes that went to make up a Roman mosaic.
In summer 1864, he organised the uncovering of most of an elaborate Romano-British villa with a superb set of mosaics and two bath houses.
The villa came into existence in the second century AD as a modest group of buildings, but it was in the fourth century, the 'golden age' of Roman Britain, that the villa reached its full magnificence, and it is that period that the National Trust focuses on in new displays.
The fourth century villa was the country seat of a local nobleman, very probably of British stock rather than from Rome itself or Italy. His family would have bought into Roman culture and a fourth century owner would have regarded himself as a Roman aristocrat who happened to live in Britain rather than Spain or Syria.
This is the key to explaining the site to modern visitors, since we can use what we know about late Roman aristocratic life to explain why the villa was laid out and decorated the way it was. So we have imagined what upper-class visitors to the villa in about AD 360 would have experienced.
Modern visitors start off on the wrong foot because they come into the villa through the service quarters and next to the latrine. Roman visitors would have approached the villa up the valley, with the buildings rising up to either side and closing the head of the valley. This was designed to impress. Moreover, the main reception rooms were separated off by a gallery across the valley, so that access could be controlled and important visitors kept separate from the great unwashed. Washed or unwashed mattered.
The villa had two sets of baths, which worked on the steam heat principle we now call Turkish baths. They were not only where men (and women, who would have bathed separately) got clean, but where they would have been anointed with scented oils, and where men and women could have had their hair styled and men shaved or had their beards trimmed. So they would emerge looking and smelling 'Roman'.
The baths were also spaces for 'networking' for both men and women. This explains why so much care was taken over the building of the baths here and why they were floored in mosaic and had decorated walls.
The finest mosaic at Chedworth provided the floor of what was the main dining room of the villa, with the main part of the mosaic showing scenes from the myth of Bacchus, the god of wine. A dinner party here could be quite as elaborate and as fraught as any dinner party in today's Britain.
This was the chance for the owner to show off his cook, his wine, his servants, his entertainers, or for it all to go horribly wrong. It was also where he could show himself off as an educated Roman nobleman. The scenes of Bacchus on the mosaic were not there just to look nice, but also to show the owner's command of Greek and Roman culture, even in far-off Britain.
Chedworth probably had two such dining suites. It may be that they were for seasonal dining winter and summer, or one may have been for the women of the household and their guests, while the men bored on in the other one.
The developing culture war in the late Roman world has also left its mark at Chedworth. At the head of the valley was a natural spring, which the villa-builders had made into a nymphaeum – a shrine to the water nymphs, with an octagonal basin for the water. But later on, the slabs around the basin had Christian symbols carved into them, driving out the pagan nymphs.
But these slabs were themselves found re-used as building rubble. Had the old religion made a comeback?
Once it had been exposed in 1864, the villa embarked on a new life. Very unusually, Farrer did not rebury the remains, but laid them out to view, protecting the mosaics and baths under small sheds, and constructing one of the first on-site museums in the country.
Not long after, Lord Eldon, himself a Cotswold aristocrat educated in the Greek and Roman classics like his Romano-British equivalents, built a shooting lodge onto the museum to entertain his guests surrounded by the Roman remains.
Sixty years later, the villa was bought by public subscription and presented to the National Trust, which opened the site to the general public. Last year saw the opening of the state-of-the-art cover-building, financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and other donors, replacing Farrer's sheds, which had become very ramshackle.
But in the run-up to this, it was realised that the site had never been properly analysed and published and it was high time to do this. This was not made any easier by the fact that any records Farrer may have kept have not survived and he threw away the bulk of the finds.
Nevertheless, by comparing what does survive with records from more recent work on the site and with other villas in Roman Britain and elsewhere, the picture presented above can be built up to help us understand this corner of Roman Britain.