On July 18, 1811, George Tupper was cutting his ploughshare through the rich soil of ‘The Berry’ – one of the strips he farmed in the northern shadow of the South Downs at Bignor.
With a sickening crack, the plough suddenly jarred to a halt, provoking startled whinnies from the tethered horses. Puzzled, George heaved himself from the plough seat and knelt down to inspect the earth.
He did not know it at the time, but the vividly coloured patterns surrounding the stone water basin he had uncovered would turn out to be part of one of the most detailed Roman mosaics discovered in northern Europe.
Over the next six years, local MP John Hawkins and leading antiquarian Samuel Lysons uncovered the remains of an unusually grand Roman residence at the centre of an estimated 2,000-acre farm estate.
To protect the most impressive archaeology from theft and burrowing, forward-thinking George erected traditional flint-and-thatch cover buildings, which even today house the majority of Bignor Roman Villa’s archaeological site and museum, and are rare in their own right.
“The Romans knew how to pick a spot, didn’t they?” is a common remark made by visitors to the villa. Yet this area had been recognised as prime for occupation since humans first started farming 6,000 years ago. Neolithic flint tools discovered here, as well as more recent Bronze Age pottery shards, suggest that prehistoric peoples valued the varied environments found nearby – from deciduous woodland and chalk downland to the rich resources of the Arun river valley.
Once completed, Roman Stane Street would have changed this landscape significantly, cutting an expressway through the region from London to the south coast at Chichester.
Still, it was only one of many factors that saw Bignor – and approximately 100 villas like it throughout Britannia – rise to prominence during the 4th century AD. Starting off as a modest strip villa in c. 190 AD, even before the original bathhouse could be completed, Bignor’s owners embarked on a lavish extension project that would eventually see it take the shape of an enclosed courtyard housing up to 70 family members and their slaves, by about 300 AD.
Some archaeologists suspect that Bignor’s incredible wealth – glimpsed not only in the mosaics, but in fragments of surviving wall plaster, decorative stonework and complex underfloor heating systems – could not have been accrued through arable farming alone. Theories abound regarding the identity of the villa’s owner: Romanised Celtic chieftain? Retired soldier? Absentee landlord-cum-industrial speculator? There have even been fanciful suggestions that Bignor might have been the site of a much-searched-for British imperial estate.
Whatever the answer, as the Roman hold on Britain withered in the late 4th century, so the villa was abandoned and eventually succumbed to burial by worms, roots and time. Less is known, at least archaeologically, about the period up to its rediscovery, although local legend has it that some of the stone was resurrected as part of Bignor Church, itself mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. At this time, Bignor boasted a modest population of 16 households working three ploughlands, two mills and two acres of meadows.
By 1811, the local countryside was being transformed once more by the agricultural revolution. What else could explain the circumstances of the villa’s rediscovery under the same fields George Tupper and his ancestors had been working for centuries? We like to think that George was excitedly testing out a newly acquired piece of modern machinery that dug deeper than ever before!
Farming looks very different in 2019, but the Tupper family still owns and works the land around Bignor, while continuing to preserve the villa’s charms for visitors young and old.
During May half-term, as part of Chichester Roman Week, Bignor Roman Villa will be hosting the Festival of Ambarvalia. As new crops poked up their heads in late spring, Roman citizens made offerings to the goddess Ceres to bless the upcoming harvest. Explore our discovery trail and try your hand at ancient crafts and seasonal family activities in our unspoiled corner of the South Downs National Park.
Chichester Roman Week is organised by the Novium Museum and takes place between May 25 and 31. The festival features a range of activities and events that celebrate and explore the rich
Roman heritage of the Chichester district. For a full programme on events, please visit: thenovium.org/romanweek
All photos are courtesy of Bignor Roman Villa
By Louisa Jones, learning officer at Bignor Roman Villa