Bernard Adams joins pupils on a visit to a Roman villa and finds latrines and hygiene habits make the highlight of the tour
Chedworth Roman villa was the home of well-off Romano Britons, built in a remote and beautiful fold 500 feet up in the Cotswolds. Despite being British, the occupants had a Roman lifestyle and the villa follows the classic design used throughout the empire.
It's an atmospheric site which gives a clear picture of what life was like in 4th-century Roman Britain. So a visit comfortably hits every target in the key stage 2 topic, Invaders and Settlers, the Romans. On a brisk day, 60 Year 4 pupils from Hungerford Primary School arrive by bus. First, they are guided around the site in two large groups. The tour starts with the nymphaeum - the shrine of the water-goddesses. With a spring running through it and an octagonal pool, it is elaborate enough to support the theory that Chedworth was a religious centre rather than just another large farm.
The pupils are interested but get even more so when the guide turns from mind and spirit to the body and matters practical. During the day we are guided by two former headteachers, both masters of involving while informing.
We move to the luxurious bathrooms (warm, tepid and cold plunge) and the hypocaust system - fires outside the villa which provided under-floor heating. We hear about how bathers used a strigil to scrape off the olive oil and dirt, because they didn't have soap.
Some mosaic floors have survived in the bathrooms and there are more in the adjacent dining room. These mosaics came from Corinium (nearby Cirencester), which was the second largest city in Roman Britain, where there was a mosaic workshop that delivered bespoke floors to the many sizeable houses in the locality.
In the dining room, the Corinium supplier created a scene showing the four seasons - the winter section of which reveals a Briton holding a dead hare (no rabbits in Britain yet). He is wearing a byrrus britannicus - a hooded, locally made, waterproof, woollen garment which was the traditional winter dress of Britons - "our first anorak," says the guide.
The bathrooms and the dining room go down well with the pupils, but the major attraction, as far as the eight and nine-year-olds are concerned, is about to come - the latrines. These consist of a well-constructed hole in the ground, with seats and running water and, best of all, sticks with sponges on the end and plenty of vinegar - the Romans had not yet got round to paper.
After the tour there are activities for smaller groups: in one session pupils dress up in colourful tunics and enjoy preparing spices and learning about Roman cookery, medicines and hygiene. In another, would-be archaeologists are presented with stones, bones and shells. They identify the rough and the smooth sides of tesserae (mosaic squares) and they learn how these were cut by slaves. They also hear that the Chedworth gourmets had snails on their menus and learn to use the pointed handle of a spoon to winkle out the contents of the shells. (Another surprising fact: the Romans did not use forks for eating.)
To round off the visit, pupils can see the museum which, among other relics, displays the lead collars which bound together the wooden pipes that took the water from the spring to the rest of the site. There's also a 15-minute video.
Chedworth was discovered in 1864, when a gamekeeper was rabbit-hunting with a ferret. The ferret disappeared down a hole and the keeper had to dig him out. In doing so, he discovered the scattered tesserae. Chedworth was excavated in Victorian times and, some 140 years later, digging is still going on.
On the map
Chedworth Roman Villa
Yanworth, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL54 3LJ Tel: 01242 890256 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org