On the morning of Thursday 18 July 1811, George Tupper hit a large stone while ploughing his land on the Sussex Downs. What he had stumbled upon was a Roman villa of some size and importance.
Bignor Roman Villa
Sussex is full of important Roman sites, centuring around the important town of Noviomagus Reginorum (Chichester). Bignor itself is located about 10 miles from Chichester, close to Stane Street, the major Roman road which ran to London.
The Villa sits on an imposing site with impressive views of Bury Hill, a dramatic promontory whose colours and outline shifts hourly with the changing weather.
The hill may also have provided the villa owners an income, if they provided support for travellers needing to carry goods over it.
The Villa as it survives largely dates from the 2nd and 3rd century CE but there is proof for earlier occupation. We know little about the owners beyond the fact that they were clearly very wealthy and as a result would have been important figures in the region. One suggestion is that the Villa was a unit of several different households, one of which became wealthy at a later stage. Another theory is that fire destroyed the earlier buildings and they were rebuilt on a more luxurious scale possibly reflecting the increasing power of the owners.
Although Bignor Roman Villa is a luxury house, it would also have been a working farm. The farm area would have been in front of the domestic building and visitors would have travelled through the animal sheds and barns before arriving in the elegant house. This created a dramatic contrast between the more ‘earthy’ smells of the farmyard and the cool classicism of the Villa.
Like many villas in Roman Britain, speculation remains about how the building ended. There is some proof that the villa became unoccupied in the fourth century. It has been suggested that this may be linked to the political fall out following the rebellion of Magnentius. The Emperor, Constantius II sent his officer Paul the Chain to the province to hunt down ex-supporters of Magnentius. He was noted for his excesses and even the Vicarius (or Governor) of Britain felt he went too far and attempted to kill him but failed.
Yet we do not know if the end of the Villa is linked to these events, or sea raids, or just gradual change.
It is the mosaics for which the site is justly famous.
The mosaic depicting Jupiter and Ganymede was a centerpiece, close to a water feature. It depicts the god in the form of an eagle abducting Ganymede, a young man. This was a common motif both in the ancient and modern world and is sometimes called ‘The Rape of Ganymede’.
The mosaic at Bignor is beautiful. Individual feathers are picked out and the colours shift as if in the light of the sun.
Close by this image is a water feature surrounded by dancing Maenads, or followers of Dionysis.
Another mosaic has Venus in the roundel at the top of the room surrounded by symbols of fertility and images of gladiators fighting. The inhabitants of the Villa might have revered the goddess. A gold ring has also been found on which an image of the goddess was engraved in the gemstone.
An underfloor heating system (hypocaust) is partly exposed beneath the floor.
Due to its exposed location, the weather is an important force at Bingor. Perhaps it is for this reason that there are two mosaics depicting the Four Seasons.
The most sophisticated mosaic is in Room XX. All that survives is winter. A forlorn looking goddess covered in a thick hood and holding a bare branch. Unfortunately we do not have the other three seasons, but the original mosaic must have been something.
There is also a more stylised depiction of this theme.
Perhaps the most famous of the mosaics is the Medusa centrepiece which was originally located in the changing room of the bath complex. A very effective mosaic depicting a woman’s head surrounded by flowing locks and writhing snakes. She is a friendly figure welcoming intrepid bathers.
Who made the mosaics is not totally clear, but they are believed to have been British craftspeople. One mosaic includes the letters TER tucked into a corner which many scholars have argued might be the name of the mosaicist.
We are perhaps fortunate that Bignor Roman villa was discovered when it was. Tupper’s landlord John Hawkins was a wealthy gentleman with an interest and knowledge of Roman antiquities. As a member of the Royal Society in London, he was able to draw on other scholars. The Vice-President of the Society, Samuel Lyons was brought in by Hawkins to bring the remains of the Villa to light.
Although Lyons’ work on the site was hampered by illness, his influence meant that accurate records were kept.
The excavations began in 1810s, continued on and off until summer 2000, making it an important site to understand Roman history and the history of archaeology.
To make money to fund the excavation, small prints and guide books were sold to visitors. This makes Bignor arguably the oldest archaeological tourist site in the UK.
To this date, the name of George VI is reviled at Bignor. When he visited, he donated a mere two pounds.
One important element of the site are the thatched cottages. These were built on top of the Roman walls in the local agricultural style of the time. This isn’t something which is done any more however, the cottages themselves are now historical buildings in their own right. The architecture style is no longer practiced and they are rare surviving examples.
They also give visitors some sense of what it would be like to visit the spaces in the Roman period.
Bignor is an important site and well worth a visit.