Visit to Villa Ventorum

Monday 10th June 2024

A group of about 20 BAS members and friends made their way to The Newt, near Castle Cary in Somerset, an exclusive country club and hotel with beautiful gardens – and a reconstructed Roman Villa!

We were greeted at the museum entrance by Ric Weeks, now exhibitions manager but formerly a field archaeologist for Oxford Archaeology. Ric treated us to an introductory talk about the history of the original villa. It was found during deep ploughing in WW2 but only partially excavated since. The new, rich owner of the Newt decided to spare no expense in excavating it so Oxford were commissioned to spend an unheard of 18 months revealing the full extent.

The site was originally home to an Iron Age farmstead so it appears to be a classic case of a member of the local elite adopting Romanised living by building a small villa that was then expanded over two centuries. It is likely that the owner was an “ordo” in the nearby civitas of Ilchester and, due to the lack of a heated dining room, probably only used the villa in summer. The lines of the now recovered villa are marked out by wooden beams in the grass. However, the well preserved remains of the bath-house are covered by the excellent site museum.

We were given audio-guides to explore the museum, taking at least an hour to work our way through the exhibits. As well as the usual general Roman information there were many local finds with their uses imaginatively explained. Two mosaics were on display, one with the head of Diana at the centre. The bath-house remains were covered in glass with a walkway around the perimeter. We would later see the modest but complete suite reconstructed in the villa.

The new villa has been built away from any archaeology to the exact plan that was uncovered by excavation. It was decided to build to the latest extensive plan and furnish it in the style of AD350 as some coins from around that date had been found. This is the first time that so much effort (and money!) has gone into reconstructing such a large villa in this country. Everything was built using equivalents of Roman materials and techniques, though not restricting the use of tools or mass production. Colour schemes were deduced from fragments of plaster and inspiration taken from sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Known mosaics were reconstructed and a variety of other floor types were used. The front of the villa is planted with a vineyard, while the garden to the rear is an exotic evocation of a Roman garden.

Over our headsets, a bossy housekeeper guided us through the reception rooms into the bath-house, kitchen, bedrooms and finally a spectacular dining room furnished with couches and elaborate wall paintings. We were also able to enjoy a virtual reality portrayal of the family preparing for and enjoying a dinner with an important guest. Since Somerset produced the best lead in the empire, the storyline was based on a bid to win a supply contract.

Most of us stayed on to sample the dining opportunities and explore the gardens. Joining the club for regular access is expensive but RHS members can visit for free on Tuesdays and take paying guests. Note that villa visits must be booked in advance and it takes at least half an hour to get there from the entrance. Buggy transport can be arranged for the less able. Most of us stayed locally overnight but, traffic permitting, it can take less than 2 hours to drive there. Highly recommended!

Report by Tim Lloyd

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire