A Governors country retreat? Lullingstone Roman Villa

This week’s mid week mini is about Lullingstone Romans villa in Kent. The land itself has evidence of occupation from the Iron Age but archaeologists and historians cannot defiantly say if this was the case. What is certain was that there was occupation around 100AD when a villa was built in the small area in Kent. This villa would be inhabited for around 300 years where it was developed and enlarges to become very fine home. It had underfloor heating luxury dining rooms with mosaics; it has some of the earliest evidence of Christianity in Roman Britain, a church house and a cult room.

“Lullingstone is unique because it is a family home…this is about people just getting on with their everyday lives’ – Simon Price Johnson, Historic Property Steward at Lullingstone Roman Villa

Around 100AD, a winged-corridor house was built on the site, which also had another wing room built over a cellar. This type of structure was made up of block rooms with a wing at each end and was typical of the time. English Heritage believe that due to the number of entrance to the cellar including from outside the Villa this may have always been a cult room for people to come a worship in.

Roman Temples were one of the most important buildings in Roman culture, so many homes of the aristocracy would have one built at their properties, and this was the case with Lullingstone. The Cult Room would have been the main room of the temple and where the image of the deity whom the temple was dedicated would have been placed or painted. Evidence of Lullingstones Deity still survives today in the form of water nymphs.

Around 150AD, the House Church was built on top of the cult room. It was the discovery of this House church, which makes Lullingstone so special as it is a rare find in England. On the walls, there is evidence of the chi-rho monogram, which is a very early Christian symbol. They are the only known surviving paintings from this era with clear Christian symbolism. When discovered many of the parts of the House Church had collapsed into the Cult Room below. The pieces were pieced together to revel the images that once existed.

Both the House Church and the Cult room in existence t the same time is this evidenced of a conflict in faith for those who lived there or a split family.

The final development stage in the life of Lullingstone Roman Villa came in the late 3rd century, the northern range was demolished, and a narrow range of 5 rooms was added, three would have underfloor heating. The veranda was widened and transformed into an audience chamber with a new veranda built elsewhere.

Some mosaics also have managed to survive the test of time, which would have been on the walls of the large audience chamber in the villa. They depict Bellephone on a winged horse Pegasus fighting Chimera.

What of the people who lived there? Well although we know that Lullingstone was a home to those in the upper ranks of Roman society. We unfortunately cannot be certain of WHO they were. Two Roman busts which were uncovered in the archeologically digs could give an insight into those who called Lullingstone their home. They are of Publius Helvius Pertinax and his father Publis Helviuss Successus. Publius Pertinax was once the governor of Britain from 185-187AD and would become Emperor of Rome in 193AD (for only 87 days!). One of the busts bears his likeness; this with the face that a seal was found outside the villa with his personal seal backs up the theory that he could have once used Lullingstone as his country retreat.

‘We have always known that the site must have belonged to someone of high status because of its size, the quality of its mosaic floor and the archaeological finds.” – Joanne Gray, curator at Lullingstone

Only two skeletons have been uncovered at Lullingstone and they were found buried in the mausoleum. There was one of a male and one female both in their 20s. Grave robbers in ransacked the female’s tomb … so not much can be found out about who she was or her life. Only fragments of her skeleton remain. The male skeleton was preserved in a better condition although there was still no obvious cause of death. Buried with him with other grave goods was a game with 30 counters. Was this game something he cherished or just his favioute pastime when he was alive? We do not know and can only speculate. Were these to people residents of the Villa?

After the Romans left Britain, the site of Lullingstone was not used or inhabited and eventually decayed away. We jump forward nearly 1,500 years to 1949 when Ernst Greedfiled and Edwayn B…. two archolgist from Kent began excavating the site. Work had stated in 1939 by the Darent Valley Archaeology group who had found roof tiles and some other items of interest, but due to the outbreak of World War Two, any further investigations ceased. Greenfield and Birchenough were joined by Colonel Geoffrey Meates in a few years later who would become the sole person on charge of the investigations from 1955. He lived nearby in Lullingstone Castles gatehouse.

 In 1956, it was given into the long-term protection of the Ministry of Works who eventually became English Heritage. What we see today is what was visible in 1963 when it first opened to the public.

Managed by English Heritage Lullingstone villa is not your average ‘museum’ attraction. The visitor centre is built atop of the archaeology from the villa. The focus is the archaeology in the centre of the site where every 10-15 minutes a light show starts which talks through the history of Lullingstone an lights up the various areas. It is very interesting to see and was specifically commissioned for the site. Around the buildings sit various other items of archaeology interest found from the villa and a number of information panels giving the visitor more of an insight into what life was light on the sight.

The site itself does not take too long to look around and explore. When I went, my friend and I tied in a visit to Lullingstone Castle down the road and in the afternoon, we went to Upnor Castle (part of English Heritage). See blog post https://fortheloveofhistory.home.blog/2019/04/30/the-raid-on-the-river-medway-and-upnor-castle/

For more information on Lullingstone Roman Villa and visiting information head over to their web, page https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/lullingstone-roman-villa/

Sources:

Wilson, P (2009) Lullingstone Roman Villa. English Heritage: London

Anon (nd) Spotlight on Lullingstone. Available from: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/inspire-me/spotlight-on/spotlight-on-lullingstone/ [Accessed 15/09/2019]

Anon (2019) Roman Temple. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_temple#cite_note-Summerson_1980,_25-1 [Accessed 29/09/2019]

Narain, J (2010) British villa fit for an emperor: Experts finally solve puzzle of Roman ruins at Lullingstone. Available from: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1304086/Lullingstone-Roman-Villa-treasures-reveal-home-future-Emperor.html [Accessed 20/09/2019]

Wilson P (2009) Lullingstone Roman Villa – a History. Available from: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/lullingstone-roman-villa/history/ [Accessed 15/09/2019]

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