The discovery and excavation of a Roman villa at Abermagwr in 2010

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Villa shown in aerial photographs

Fragments of a double-ditched enclosure with sharp-angled corners have been known from cropmarks at Abermagwr since 1979, but were not characteristically Roman in appearance. Royal Commission aerial photography in 2006 revealed more of the 1.1 hectare enclosure in a severe drought, together with a buried stone building in one corner. This was confirmed as a winged building during a geophysical survey by David Hopewell in 2009, like the ‘geofizz’ of the Time Team.

Although the plan was characteristic of a Roman villa, and the building would have been confidently identified as such in south Wales or southern England, it was both unusual and unexpected in mid Wales. For this reason a trial excavation was carried out for two weeks in July 2010 funded by the Cambrian Archaeological Association with logistical support from the Dyfed Archaeological Trust and the Royal Commission.

A High Status Home

Roman villas were high-status homes of wealthy landowners which sat at the heart of a farming estate. They are common throughout southern England and to a lesser extent in south-east Wales, with a few outliers Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire and a singleton in the middle reaches of the Usk valley. 

Trial excavations in July 2010 showed that the Abermagwr villa had all the trappings of established villas elsewhere, including a slate roof and glazed windows. The building had a main block with three main rooms measuring 22m east-west by 8m north-south, with a verandah and two projecting alae or wings on the south side. A small room measuring 5m x 4m was appended to the rear of the building at a later date.  It was roofed with local slates but these were pentagonal, cut with five sides and a fine point to form a highly decorative roof, common amongst villas in south-west England and the Isle of Wight. The walls were built of local stone on cobble foundations though the upper storey (if such existed) may possibly have been timber-framed and plastered.  The villa was fronted by a cobbled yard.

A new reconstruction of the building draws on evidence found during the 2010 excavations. Other buildings, including an estate barn, probably stood within the courtyard but no evidence has yet been found for them.

The Excavation

All the masonry from the wall bases had been systematically robbed with trenches dug down to the clay and stone-packed foundations. Discarded quarried stone and quantities of complete and broken roofing slates from the robbing were found high up in the site, intermixed with original collapse layers.

Robbing may have occurred when the nearby Trawsgoed mansion was under construction in the sixteenth century, as place-name evidence indicates that the villa was probably a standing ruin into medieval times. No convincing evidence has yet been found of any tessellated floors, mosaics or wall plaster.

The principal (central) Room 2 was floored with clay, as was the verandah, into which was set a stone-edged hearth at the west side. Evidence of several other hearths was uncovered in Room 2, comprising areas of intense burning on the clay floor. These may be attributed to later squatting activity, although one yielded a Roman cooking vessel broken in-situ together with drops of lead, perhaps resulting from industrial activity. 

Finds, and further work in 2011

While the nearby Roman fort at Trawscoed was abandoned by AD 130, finds from the villa indicate occupation in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD showing continuing occupation, or later re-occupation, in this landscape.

Finds include sherds of Black Burnished ware and fine ware bowls from Oxfordshire. Three coins of Constantine I, minted in the first quarter of the 4th century AD, were crucial for the dating the site and were all found lying on or near late clay floor surfaces underneath the collapsed slate roof.

The excavation would not have gone so well without the help and support of the landowner, Huw Tudor, and the interest of the local community.

The excavation was visited by pupils from three local primary schools in Llanilar, Llanafan and Llanfihangel y Creuddyn, and the local Young Archaeologists Club.

There are plans to return to the site in 2011 to answer outstanding questions on the foundation date of the building and the presence or absence of pre-villa activity, to more thoroughly explore the hearths and burnt areas in the principal room, and to date the outer enclosure ditches following an absence of dating material from the 2010 ditch section.

The discovery raises significant new questions about the regional economy and society in late Roman Wales. It also raises the probability of other villa discoveries in the heartlands of mid and north Wales, perhaps from the reassessment of unusual enclosures known from aerial photography which are currently undated or difficult to classify.

Jeffrey Davies and Toby Driver, RCAHMW