The Roman villa at Whatley Combe

Whatley Roman villa

Visit Nunney has delivered a privately owned collection of artefacts from Whatley Combe Roman villa to the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton.

Whatley Roman villaVisit Nunney was approached by the owners, Penny and Robbie Walker of Nunney Court, with the request to find a suitable home for it. Nunney Court was recently sold. The items are thought to have been handed down with the house since the 19th century.

After careful consideration and discussions with various stakeholders the Walkers decided that curators at the Somerset Heritage Centre were best placed to examine the rare objects. After examination, the curators may decide to lend the artefacts to the Frome Museum or to keep them in secure storage.

A Heritage Centre is part of plans for an overhaul of visitor facilities in Nunney Church. Temporary local history exhibitions are already held in the church in collaboration with Visit Nunney. The church committee felt, however, that security considerations and insurance requirements would provide problems.

IMG_3706The collection would have to be locked away in a safe every night, for example. Although the items are of historical than intrinsic value, theft from museums and churches is unfortunately endemic. Safeguarding the objects whilst serving tea in church would place an extra burden on local volunteers.

Frome Heritage Museum was another option that was favoured by some. The museum has a stone model of the Roman villa and houses other ancient objects found in the area. Although the volunteers running the museum are widely admired for their excellent work, the lack of appropriate storage and research facilities in Frome led the Walkers to opt for Taunton.

Somerset Heritage Centre

Steve Minnitt
Steve Minnitt is Head of Museums for Somerset County Council.
The Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton houses all parts of the Museum of Somerset‘s collection that are not on display. The team of curators at the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton is led by Steve Minnitt, who is both archaeological curator and Head of Museums for Somerset.

The single largest collection of Roman coins found in Britain, the Frome Hoard, was discovered not far from Nunney in April 2010. It was excavated by Steve and his team from the Somerset Heritage Centre and was bought by the Museum of Somerset in Taunton.

Initial examination showed that ‘the Nunney box’ included roof tiles, mosaic pieces and parts of the villa’s heating system. Mixed in with this was a 19th century geological collection of fossils, rocks plus sea shells. Large nails and a puzzling curved piece of metal were most likely part of a temporary shed built to protect the site in 1837.

Steve Minnitt said: “We are very pleased to accept the material from Whatley Roman villa. We have a few finds from work done on the site in 1958. Whilst we are aware that there was some investigation in the 19th century, we don’t have any finds from that period. These finds form an important part of the site’s history.”

Somerset Heritage Centre
The Somerset Record Office, part of the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton, already provides a home for Nunney’s royal market charter of 1260.
“We have thinned out the finds by removing the fossils and shells but this does leave some useful Roman material from the site – roof tiles, fragments of box flue tile from a heating system and tesserae and a piece of mosaic,” he added.

“I will have the nails and piece of iron looked at but suspect they are ‘modern’. For what was clearly a very fine Roman villa, very little survives. Every piece that we can recover is therefore important.”

The Somerset Record Office, part of the Somerset Heritage Centre in Taunton, already provides a home for Nunney’s royal market charter of 1260. A Civil War period helmet and ammunition found near Nunney Castle are on display at the Museum of Somerset in the centre of Taunton.


Whatley Combe Roman villa
A 19th century drawing of the mosaic floors at Whatley Combe Roman villa
The Roman villa was discovered in August 1837, by men digging holes for posts in Chessils Field at Whatley Combe, on land that is now just inside the north boundary of Nunney parish.

The Roman villa was partly excavated at the time and again in 1848. After three feet of soil were removed, two large mosaic floor were visible.

In June 1839 national newspapers reported that many other “very interesting” discoveries had been made since the first discovery. “In making some further excavations a small part of a wall has been laid open; it is covered with paintings on fine plaster. The pattern is rudely executed, but the colours are distinguishable.”

“There have also been found on the spot some coins of the Emperors Claudius and Constantine, a curious bronze spoon, a small bronze animal resembling a goat or sheep, probably a tutelary god of the Romans, a large needle of the same metal and some fragments of fine pottery, which had been broken and joined together with molten lead, the parts so mended being discovered in that state; its value therefore must have been considerable.”

1958 excavation

Woodchester elephant
An account of the Roman antiquities discovered at Woodchester (1797) is a magnificent study of the newly-discovered Roman villa and mosaic by Samuel Lysons – a Gloucestershire antiquary of note. The book contained several anomalies such as the picture of an elephant – similar to the one found at Whatley – which Lysons said had disappeared. Lysons’ private diaries include a reference to a meeting in 1780 with the Rector of Woodchester who had seen the elephant decades earlier and drawn it for him.
The Whatley Combe site was last partially researched by a team of archeologists from Cambridge University over five weeks in August and September of 1958, prior to the plowing over of the site by the farmer who owned the land.

This concentrated on an area between two areas that had been excavated in the 19th century. A trench was excavated across the triclinium or dining room, which had first been uncovered in 1838, but this failed to located any tesserae still in their original place.

Part of the apse was cleared and the mosaic border was found to survive here, but all figured work (which had been uncovered during the 19th century) had been destroyed.

In the area of the bath-suite, three trenches were excavated to check the position of walls marked on the stone model that was made after the 19th century excavations (now in the Frome Museum). The excavations concentrated on the villa’s central rooms in the hope that an undisturbed area might be discovered.

A fish, part of the Whatley Roman pavement
A rare 1928 photo of the Whatley Roman pavement, showing a fish seen in the centre of the semi-circular top end of the above drawing (Source: Somerset Heritage Centre)
Unfortunately the Roman villa’s central wall had been previously exposed, isolating it from surrounding layers. Finds included around 30 coins from the 3rd and 4th century, two spoons with offset handles, a dolphin brooch, part of a shale bracelet, a shale spindle-whorl and a green glass bead. Three infant burials were discovered below floors.

It is believed that the Cambridge University excavation removed the bulk of the remains. The Whatley Combe Roman villa was covered up with sand and soil and its location is not open to the public. Recent inspections describe the site as ‘under pasture’, with little or no surface indications of its location.

The 1958 excavations showed that the villa was built circa AD 300. Extensions making the length 180ft were added in the first half of the 4th and basic changes to the plan occurred in the middle of the 4th century.

The villa appears to have fallen into disuse by the third quarter of the 4th century (350-375AD), partially destroyed circa AD 350, but occupied until at least AD 370.

Chedworth Roman villa
This pelta or semi-circular shield pattern seen in the frigidarium or cold pool of the bath-house at Chedworth Roman villa was also found at Whatley.
Shortly after the 1958 excavation a semi-circular limestone masonry structure, with every appearance of Roman work, was discovered round a spring 500 feet south-east of the villa – perhaps a Roman nymphaeum.

Small fragments of mosaic were said to be in a miscellaneous collection of local material at Nunney School in 1964. They were donated by Messrs J K Seldon and G L F Garthwaite, two student teachers from Newton Park College, who carried out a small excavation in 1962.

The villa had at least one long row of rooms with hypocausts and apsidal chambers, a series of baths. The opulence of the villa bath suite, of a standard rarely seen elsewhere in Britain, is a notable feature of Roman sites in the southwest of England. This is normally the result of enlargement and refurbishment of baths in the third quarter of the fourth century, particularly in Dorset and Somerset.

John Henry Shore

window whatley church
Whatley Church has a window dedicated to the memory of John Henry Shore.
The owner of the land at the time of the discovery in 1837 was 19-year old John Henry Shore of Whatley House, a fine old mansion standing in about 25 acres of park and garden land close to the site of the villa.

Mr Shore was very proud of the Roman villa and had a stone building erected on the Roman foundations to protect the mosaics. In the decades after the discovery he would often entertain guests at the villa, sometimes erecting a marquee for the occasion in which visitors could enjoy lunch or tea.

According to the Wiltshire Independent of 13 September 1838: “The tesselated Roman pavement, lately discovered in a field at Whatley, near Frome, continues to be a source of great attraction, and has been visited by hundreds of persons of all ranks during the past week. It is enclosed by a temporary erection, and shown to the public at a trifling charge.”

The Bath Chronicle of 6 September 1838 also mentions that “the proprietor of the land has very handsomely put up a temporary building for their preservation”. Unfortunately this building was allowed to fall into ruin, and the mosaics were largely destroyed.

A visitor’s account

Roof tiles and tesserae from the Whatley Combe Roman villa
Roof tiles and tesserae from the Whatley Combe Roman villa
In 1864 the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual conference in Bath. Demand for tickets for excursions, including one to the Mendips and Whatley Combe Roman villa, was so great that planned conference sessions had to be cancelled.

Some 200 geologists and archeologists were entertained at Marston House by Lord Cork after visiting Whatley.

One participant described his visit to the Roman site: “Presently we approached what seemed a low barn or pigstye, where was a little knot of country people, and by the rough entrance stood a man in a smock-frock with a tray of Roman relics, a bronze fibula, coins of Constantine, a very small bronze figure of a dog, bits of old glass, a piece of red pottery stamped with the maker’s name, and many iron nails.”

“At last I came within a few ranks of the low entrance, the dark place seemed to be swallowing up the whole party, not a creature came back, and I began to murmur to myself Dante’s inscription on a certain place, “Lasciate ogni sperenza” etc (Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate – Abandon all hope, you who enter here), when it was my turn to descend.”

Iron nails, Whatley Roman villa
Are these ancient Roman nails or parts of the temporary shelter built over the Whatley villa site?
“In this mysterious place was Mr Thomas Wright, whose specialité is excavation and explanation, holding forth, in words inaudible however, upon this being the floor of a Roman villa.”

“The pavement is of the usual small tesserae with little red and black in ornament, and figures of elephant, lion etc, in places injured, but, on the whole, tolerably perfect.”

“A head of Ceres, with cornucopia, and two fish, is the best part. A drawing was shown to aid in understanding it, which might be much better than it is.”

Roman villa relics

In August 1875 a small collection of curiosities from the Frome area was contributed by members of the Literary and Scientific Institute in Frome to the Institute’s new museum – which would later become the Frome Heritage Museum.

These items, described in the Bath Chronicle as “nearly all of a highly interesting character”, included a chalice from Nunney Church, a 15th century oak screen with modern disfigurements (now in the chancel of Nunney Church) and a sword found at Nunney Castle.

“A box of relics from Whatley pavement, copper implements, coins and lead” was shown by Mr J H Stone (possibly a typo for J H Shore). No further details are given but it is possible that the box included the items described above by a visitor to the Whatley villa.

Roman villa

Whatley Combe Roman villa
Fragments of box flue tile from a heating system and tesserae where among items in the box.
The Roman buildings were ranged on at least three sides of a square with the rooms excavated in 1958 central on the southern side. A trial trench in the field to the north proved the existence of a building along the western side, but the supposed eastern range was not examined.

The rooms on the south side had been previously excavated in the 19th century, including a triclinium (dining room) at the northwest end that was 32 by 20 feet. Here, a mosaic pavement in seven colours showing Orpheus or Cybele was discovered. The dining area was thought to have been part of earliest phase of the building, dating to the late 3rd century.

Roman mosaic sea horse
A sea horse similar to the one found at Whatley is depicted in a mosaic at the Roman baths in Bath.
A room next to it was 22 by 14 feet and also had a mosaic floor. The two mosaics included the common motive of two-handed vases or canthari and flowers as well as a procession of beasts, including an elephant, a fish, a greyhound, birds and a big cat – either a panther or leopard.

Bacchus occurs more frequently on mosaics in Roman Britain than elsewhere in the Roman Empire. This is perhaps an indication that for Romano-British villa owners and their dinner guests there was an emphasis on conviviality.

Orpheus is the preferred god in the northern parts of the south-west of England, normally surrounded by animals which he is supposedly pacifying by the sound of his lyre – as seems to be the case at Whatley.

Dolphin mosaic
The Lopen dolphin is similar to the four shown in the Whatley drawing (inset).
A description in 1868 also mentions dolphins: “a Roman bath, tesselated pavements, and figures of dolphins, and the head of a goddess, supposed to be Cybele, have been discovered.” Such dolphin depictions are relatively rare in Britain.

The drawing of the Whatley Combe mosaics shows four dolphin figures around the central image, similar to the one excavated in 2001 at Lopen near Ilminster in Somerset.

Above these Whatley dolphins were seahorses and other sea creatures. The second room had a parade of land animals. Although we have no information on the central image in this room, we could speculate that Orpheus featured in the centre of this second room, and that the roundel in the centre of the dolphins featured Bacchus or Dionysus.

Corinian school

corinian schoolAlthough not all survived ploughing and development, some 2,000 Romano-British mosaics are known.

The Whatley Combe mosaic may have been designed by the Corinian school of mosaicists. The Corinian Orpheus School is the best-known and probably most sophisticated of the various styles of Roman mosaics found in the British Isles.

Centred around Cirencester (Corinium), there are at least nine sites identified as belonging to the Corinian school. The Orpheus motive found at Whatley is typical for the Corinian school.

Creating a mosaic floor was a painstaking task that would have taken weeks to complete. First, a layer of fine gravel was laid as a compact foundation. Next came a layer of concrete with gravel or crushed tile or layers of lime mortar.

The pattern would then be marked out, so the craftsmen could lay the tesserae in a final layer of mortar. The spaces between were grouted using a liquid mortar.


Chedworth Roman villa
A leaf pattern at Chedworth Roman villa similar to that found at Whatley
An alternative method was to create panels in an officina or workshop. This involved sketching the design in a tray of fine sand and laying the tesserae face up. Pieces of linen cloth were glued onto the surface, using a flour and water paste.

The mosaicist used written technical guidelines,which helped him to alter the scale of the pattern to ensure the mosaic fitted the room. Each mosaic workshop had its own collection of motifs and complete designs, although it was not uncommon to use designs and motifs that were distributed throughout the Roman Empire.

After the glue had set, panels could then be transported and set in place. Washing removed the glue and the tesserae were then grouted.

Although early mosaics are rare in the south-west, there are a surprisingly high number dated to the second half of the fourth century. By this time there were relatively dense clusters of villas, particularly around Bath and Ilchester, Somerset, the latter having become an important centre by the mid 4th century.

Canthari or vase motif
The two-handed vase or cantharus was a popular motif in Roman mosaics also found at Whatley Combe.
The mosaics vary in quality from simple pavements in coarse red and grey tesserae, to complex geometric designs in fine tesserae of several colours. Perhaps the most expensive and prestigious mosaics contained figured work, and this region has some of the best fourth century examples in Britain.

With so many villas being built or refurbished around Ilchester and Bath, it is not surprising to find the same craftsmen working on mosaics at different sites, recognisable by the same schemes and motifs they used.

Where to see Roman Britain

Roman finds in Somerset
Map of Somerset showing Roman finds (Source: Somerset Historic Environment Record)
The demand in the region was so great that it is throught craftsmen from Cirencester moved to Ilchester. They laid mosaics in the towns and nearby villas across the southwest, including at Halstock, North Dorset, and at Lopen in Somerset, at some time after 350AD. One large mosaic thought to have been created by the ‘Corinian’ team from Ilchester was even found on a site in Old Broad Street, London.

Major collections of Roman mosaics found in Britain can be seen at the British Museum, the Museum of London, the Museum of Somerset in Taunton, the Roman baths in Bath, the Corinium Museum in Cirencester and the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

Roman villas in the southwest that can be visited where they were found include Littlecote in Wiltshire and Chedworth in Gloucestershire, one of the finest in the UK and with mosaics laid by craftsmen from Cirencester.

This 2006 Time Team Special shows an archeological dig at a huge Roman villa discovered in Dinnington, near Crewkerne in Somerset.