Black and white archive photograph of an archaeologist uncovering a buried mosaic floor depicting a classical mythological scene.
The famous Dido and Aeneas Mosaic under excavation at Low Ham in the 1940s. Image out of copyright.
The famous Dido and Aeneas Mosaic under excavation at Low Ham in the 1940s. Image out of copyright.

Low Ham: a Roman Villa and its Environs

Historic England’s work on the scheduled Roman Villa at Low Ham, Somerset, is a multidisciplinary effort involving teams from across the organisation. The project aims to investigate the villa buildings themselves as well as their landscape setting.

Research leading to greater protection

The project is casting new light on a site first discovered by farmer Herbert Cook in 1938, then investigated by Lionel Walrond, Steven Dewar and C. A. Ralegh Radford in the 1940s. The site is currently threatened by animal burrowing. Through increased knowledge of the depth and character of the archaeological evidence, the buried remains can be afforded better management and protection.

Geophysical survey

As a first stage of the investigation, the HE Geophysical Survey team carried out caesium magnetometer and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) surveys. The vehicle-towed caesium magnetometer survey (12.4 hectares) revealed extensive ranges of buildings arranged around a central courtyard and contained within a sub-rectangular enclosure defined by double ditches with a north-east facing access corridor, surrounded by a wider system of associated trackways and enclosures. The GPR coverage (6.9 hectares) targeted the villa buildings.

Excavation

Three excavation trenches were opened to sample the geophysical results. One targeted a possible ladder settlement north of the villa, revealing a succession of enclosure ditches, a large flue, perhaps from a corn drier, and an area of rubble with little underlying structural evidence. The flue incorporated worked stone which may be derived from the main villa.

Another trench targeted a quadrant of a large rectilinear enclosure south of the villa that lay alongside a trackway. Excavation revealed that the enclosure succeeded at least two roundhouses of different construction styles, with another roundhouse not stratigraphically related. Further post-built structures were also present. The enclosure ditch proved to be large, deep and repeatedly recut, and elaborated to the exterior with additional boundary features including a small v-shaped ditch and postholes, possibly cut through a bank. Both Iron Age and Roman pottery were found in this part of the site. There are hints of a rectilinear wooden structure in the centre of the enclosure.

The final trench evaluated the villa buildings in the newly discovered south-east wing, located beyond the scheduled area. This revealed a complex sequence of late Roman industrial activity and structural redevelopment of the villa buildings. Quantities of industrial debris were found, particularly in association with a hearth and pits, alongside disturbed tesserae and pottery, iron and animal bone. The structural sequence provides the first evidence of the chronology and development of this wing of the villa, and the only modern excavation of the site.

Towards publication

Prior to this current work, most of our knowledge of the villa came from the findings of Radford’s excavations undertaken after WW2. He excavated the west range, including one room containing the internationally famous Dido and Aeneas mosaic, now in the Museum of Somerset. It was Radford’s intention to publish a report on these excavations. His manuscript account will form part of the monograph now being prepared for publication. During the dry summers of the 1950s and 1970s parch marks in the grass allowed further parts of the building plan to be recognised by Prof. Roger Leech, further elaborating the plan of the villa.

As part of the current excavations, a comprehensive sampling strategy was employed across the site for the recovery of finds, industrial debris and environmental evidence. The assessment work, undertaken by a combination of Historic England’s own Investigative Science team and external contributors, has been completed and analysis is now underway. Historic England are working alongside Prof. Roger Leech, who is writing up the 1946-8 excavations of the villa with the support of the Roman Research Trust and Somerset Heritage Grants, to produce an overall monograph on the site.

Rachel Cubitt

Finds Specialist

Rachel is a small finds specialist with particular expertise in artefacts of the Medieval and Post-Medieval periods. Her extensive experience of the post excavation process has been developed through many years of working within commercial archaeology. She has dealt with finds at every stage of the process from field to archive, as well as having undertaken curatorial work. Rachel is enthusiastic about the dissemination of archaeological research to a diverse audience. In addition to publishing and speaking about her own research, she has played a key role in managing and contributing to other publication projects. You can read some of Rachel’s work on her Academia profile. Rachel is a member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists at Associate level.

Contact Rachel Cubitt

David Roberts

David is a researcher into later prehistoric and Romano-British archaeology, human interaction with the landscape and archaeological theories of practice. Key work include leading the Low Ham Roman villa project, the Historic England Archaeological Training Programme, and the Southern Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site Survey Project excavations. David has particular expertise in designing and managing archaeological field schools and working with the university sector. He has published widely on later prehistoric and Romano-British archaeology. You can read some of David’s work on his ResearchGate profile. David is an accredited Member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Contact David Roberts

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