A visionary's villa

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Yolanda Brooks looks at how an archaeologist's foresight and a building team's dedication could change the way people think about Roman houses

Take one crazy idea, an eminent archaeologist, a dedicated band of dreamers and mix in a lot of lime mortar and 200 tonnes of flint and you have Butser Roman Villa. The 21st-century villa has been built by hand in a field in Hampshire by a team with limited building experience.

The villa is at Butser Ancient Farm near Petersfield, which is also home to three Iron Age roundhouses. The idea to build it started with experimental archaeologist Dr Peter Reynolds. When he died suddenly in 2001 his partner Christine Shaw took over the project, which was initially estimated to take 20 weeks. Building stopped due to lack of money, but then the Discovery Channel stepped in and offered to fund the project on condition that they would be able to film the process.

The real work began in May 2002 with a disparate band of volunteers, including a former plasterer, archaeology students and an artist, all of whom have had to learn a range of new skills including mixing motar, building walls, laying mosaics, painting frescoes and threading lattice grills. As well as using the same materials used by the Romans, the team tried to use similar techniques and tools, keeping the use of modern technology to an absolute minimum.

After 18 months in which there have been sackings, a divorce, many sleepless nights, and several broken deadlines, the villa is ready for public inspection.

"We have talked to people to try and get it as close to being right as we can," explains project manager Christine Shaw. "Academics all have their own opinions and we'll please some and upset others, but that's what experimental archaeology is all about."

Despite its rough and ready origins, the villa would make a wealthy Roman dignitary proud. The building includes summer and winter dining-rooms, frescoes, a mosaic floor, under-floor and wall heating and a kitchen.

Dai Morgan Evans, general secretary of the Society of Antiquaries and an inspector of ancient buildings and monuments for English Heritage has been involved in the project as the chairman of trustees at Butser. He believes that the villa will change the way people look at this period of history.

"The Iron Age houses transformed people's approach to the Iron Age, because they looked at it suddenly with totally different eyes," he says. "I'm hoping that this will cause people to look at Roman buildings, again, with totally different eyes."

While the villa and the volunteers will enjoy their 15 minutes of fame in the television programme Rebuilding the Past, the villa has a long-term future as an educational visitor centre, says Christine Shaw. "We are going to use it for schools, primarily as a teaching aid," she reveals. "We already have quite a comprehensive teaching programme and we'll just incorporate the villa and expand our teaching area more into the Roman period. Here, children will be able to come inside a Roman space rather than just going to a Roman site." Rebuilding the Past will run daily during Roman week on the Discovery Channel. Two episodes will be shown each day at 12 noon and 12.30pm and 7pm and 7.30pm from Monday, November 17. For full transmission details, visit www.discoverychannel.co.uk

Butser Ancient Farm - described as an open air laboratory for archaeology - was founded in 1972 to carry out research into pre-historic and Roman agricultural and building technologies. The site is open year-round for school visits and free planning visits for teachers are available on Monday afternoons. Curriculum-linked workshops on Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings for key stages 1, 2 and 3 are run by an experienced education team and activities such as spinning, weaving, corn-grinding, fence-making and pottery are included in the day-long sessions. Admission costs pound;5.25 per child (minimum group admission pound;100). Tel: 023 9259 8838; www.butser.org.uk

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