For the first time in 150 years visitors to Chedworth can have a full Roman experience, walking just above precious Roman mosaics on walkways and viewing platforms thanks to a new conservation shelter at Chedworth Roman Villa.
Opened this month, the £3 million development, which includes a refurbished visitor centre, lets people see recently excavated mosaics not seen for 150 years – with more to be uncovered over the coming year. Visitors will be able to see the archaeologists at work and also meet conservators preparing mosaics for display.
The National Trust’s project to protect the fragile remains of the villa has involved creating a new environmentally-controlled conservation shelter over the mosaics in the west range, to replace old Victorian sheds. Uniquely, the shelter rests on the original walls of the villa, recreating many of the rooms inside the villa and allowing people to experience, for the first time, the scale of the spaces the villa’s owners lived in.
To add to the experience for visitors, a new café and a refurbished visitor centre have been included in the development which has funding support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Instead of looking into the sheds put up by the Victorians following the excavations in the 1860s, visitors will be able to enter the new Conservation Shelter and walk on suspended walkways just above the Roman floors looking down through the steel gratings and timber slatted covering. The shelter gives visitors a sense of the sights, sounds and smells which would have greeted visitors to the villa in the 4th Century, giving a glimpse into Romano-British life of 1600 years ago.
In addition, the Victorian built museum on site has been re-displayed, showing the artefacts recovered after the villa was first discovered in 1864.
‘Our archaeologists have known these extra mosaics lay hidden here at Chedworth since the Victorians reburied them but they were not as well protected underground as they could be in this new building, protected from frost and other damage,’ said Janet Gough, Property Manager.
‘Importantly the new building also allows much better access to the Roman remains and mosaics, with the walkways allowing visitors to look down on the mosaics and new ways of explaining the Roman history of Chedworth which we hope really brings the place to life.’
National Trust archaeologist Martin Papworth said the newly revealed mosaics include one of the longest in-situ corridor mosaics in the country at 35 metres long, excavation of which will be completed in the summer.
The Victorian shelters previously displayed three mosaics in the Bath House and one in the Triclinium or dining room. The excavations will, for the first time in 150 years, allow the display of the corridor mosaics, and three others in an additional room and two short corridors.
Martin explained: ‘There is still one section of the corridor mosaic to be excavated in the centre of the corridor. We know it is where the doorway was and we hope that it might reveal a new design in the mosaics that we don’t know about. The walkways will provide ideal platforms for people to watch us this summer and see if we do find something exciting. Once excavated we are simply cleaning the mosaics and stabilising them with other conservation work to follow to ensure they remain in the condition they were found when revealed.’
The conservation shelter and other developments are all designed to be sustainable, with air source heat pumps serving the main buildings and a rainwater harvesting system allowing scarce water supplies to go much further. The villa was built close to a natural spring, venerated in the water shrine, but the borehole which supplies it today has a very limited supply so water is harvested from the roofs of the buildings and stored in a tank under the car park and used for flushing toilets.
Unlike other cover buildings at Roman sites, the Chedworth building sits directly on the villa walls, removing the need for foundations in such an archaeologically sensitive site. The lightweight timber glulam structure has been designed to minimise the loads on the villa walls, and fixings have been carefully located so that they are not installed into any Roman masonry
‘Interest in Chedworth is growing all the time, we are welcoming more school groups to the new Salway Learning Room and with archaeologists returning in the summer to complete the excavation, we’re expecting an exciting year,’ added Janet
Alongside the conservation shelter visitors will be able to explore the north bath-house, the water-shrine and see the Roman underfloor heating system.
The project was made possible thanks to a £700,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £150,000 from the Gloucestershire Environmental Trust with landfill tax contributions donated by Cory Environmental, a £100,000 grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation and generous donations from the Summerfield Charitable Trust, the Roman Research Trust, the Cotswold AONB Sustainable Development Fund and the Kinsurdy Trust together with a number of National Trust supporter groups and individual donors who have sponsored protective winter covers or ‘socks’ which will prevent damage to the Roman stone pillars which support the underfloor heating system over the winter.