Wyrtig

For gardeners with a sense of history
 

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312
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Gardens of Roman Britain

The Romans began occupying a conquered Britain in 43 CE, and Roman legions remained for about four centuries, until the departure of the armies in 449 CE. The nature of agriculture in Britain was a matter of no small importance to the Romans, who were primarily interested in that damp, far-off island because of its fertile and highly productive fields of grain. Tacitus wrote in the Agricola that Britain’s

soil will produce good crops, except olives, vines, and other plants that usually grow in warmer lands. Crops are slow to ripen, but sprout very quickly because of the dampness of the soil and the air.

During the centuries of contact between Britons, Romans, and Roman mercenaries from many regions of Europe, farmers and gardeners no doubt shared garden lore, plants, and techniques. As a result, many new plants appeared in Britain, some no doubt formally introduced by the Romans, and others arriving by other means that may have ranged from merchants to monastery gardeners to returning travelers.

Romans and Romano-Britons constructed a great many farm structures as part of so-called villas throughout England. In the farmsteads surrounding Roman and Romano-British homes were a variety of gardens, among them ornamental gardens, kitchen gardens, and medicinal herb gardens. Our knowledge of these gardens increases year by year, thanks to archeologists, and our knowledge can be further augmented by the study of the art and literature of that time.

The villa in Britain

 

One of the enduring signs of Roman influence in Britain  is the villa, or Roman farm, which included fields, meadows, and pastures, as well as such outbuildings as barns, stables, workshops, housing for laborers, mausoleums, and shrines.

 

The primary residence in a Roman villa was typically rectangular. It had a masonry foundation, walls of wood and later of stone, and a roof of tile or slate. The ideal location was stable ground, high enough to be dry but with a reliable water supply, and breezy enough to be healthy.

 

Villa residences varied from modest homes, with few rooms and sometimes a thatched roof, to very luxurious. Unlike urban Roman villas in Italy, British villas seldom had the interior pool, called an impluvium, just inside the main doorway, with an opening in the roof above to allow rainwater to fall into the pool. Most British villas with pools located them in a large "front garden" outside the house.

 

Like their continental counterparts, Roman villas often had painted walls (frescos) and, in at least some rooms, mosaic floors. By the end of the Roman era in Britain, c. 420 CE, an estimated 1500 villas dotted the countryside south of Hadrian’s Wall.

The part of a villa residence most likely to survive for archaeologists to study is the foundation. As a result, we know that villa floor plans were variations upon four basic themes, the hall, the corridor villa, the winged corridor villa, and the courtyard villa:

Aisled hall

 The aisled hall is familiar to us from churches and barns. Aisled halls were the simplest form of villa home, with a large, open room divided into three aisles by the posts that supported the roof. Sometimes partitions at one or both ends of the hall created smaller rooms.

Aisled barn, photo by M. Anderson, Wiki Commons
Layout, corridor villa

The corridor villa had a floor plan familiar from modern motels with their rows of single rooms. A porch, called a portico, extended along the length of the villa house, giving access to each room or suite of rooms. The roof of the portico rested on the house wall on one side, and was supported on the other by pillars or posts that often rested on a low wall. 

Portico at Valladolid, photo by N. Perez, Wikimedia Commons

Layout, winged corridor building

The winged corridor villa added wings to the central corridor to create a U or H shape. Again, a portico ran the length of each range of rooms, and some houses had porticos on both sides of the house. The portico provided access to the rooms, as well as a vantage point from which to view the approaches to the villa, approaches that sometimes included gardens.

Model of Lullingstone villa, photo by G. Keller, Wikimedia Commons
Layout, courtyard villa The courtyard villa had substantial wings on three or four sides of a central yard. Again, a portico often connected the rooms of the villa. One wing typically served as the primary residence. Another wing or sometimes a separate building often housed a bath house, that lynchpin of Roman (and Romano-British) social life. Villa model, photo by G. Sauber, Wikimedia Commons

Gardens of Roman Britain
For much of the 20th century, archaeologists weren’t looking for Romano-British gardens, and so they didn’t find them. But beginning in the mid-20th century, gardens appear on the radar, so to speak, and advances in site and soil analysis are slowly augmenting our understanding of this aspect of Roman Britain.

It wasn't until the 1960s that the remains of what were undeniably Roman gardens were identified, first at Frocester Court, Gloucestershire, and then at Fishbourne, Sussex. These remains give us an idea of the kinds of homes and gardens favored by Romans and Romano-Britons: Comfortable living and working complexes that often included both practical and ornamental  gardens. These were often laid out geometrically, with a central path or road, and beds of plants and trees arranged on either side.

At Frocester Court, a small villa was excavated to reveal a winged house and its garden. The house was fronted by a spacious veranda that may have looked out over a balustrade onto the beds of plants that paralleled the facade. The house was approached by a central driveway, with prepared garden beds on either side. Beyond the beds to the right was a large, graveled courtyard. Beyond those to the left was an area of unimproved ground that may have been an orchard.

Near Chichester is the palatial villa at Fishbourne, also discovered during excavations in the 1960s. It may have been the home of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, British ruler of the tribe known as the Regni, and a supporter of the Romans.

Surrounding this luxurious complex of domestic and administrative structures, built in about 70 AD, was a landscaped area of nearly ten acres that included several different kinds of gardens -- ornamental gardens, a kitchen garden, and possibly a "natural" garden. While Fishbourne yielded little information about the specific plants grown, subsequent archeological exploration at other sites gives us some idea of the plants that were cultivated.

Villa gardens in Roman Britain shared some of the characteristics of their Mediterranean forerunners:

  • Porticos -- colonnaded verandas -- that faced onto the garden

  • Symmetrical garden layout, often with a central path or roadway

  • Frescos on garden walls, using trompe l’oeil to make the space seem larger

  • Water features, including water that was piped in to feed pools and fountains

  • Planting beds containing enriched soil

  • Hedges, walls, and fences for decoration as well as utility

  • Arbors and trellises to support espaliered trees, grapevines, and other plants

  • Orchards

  • Plantings of boxwood, roses, and other ornamentals

As villas in Britain developed, they also included adaptations to a climate quite different from that of the Mediterranean. Here it was cloudier, colder, and wetter, and gardens were adapted to this climate this through:

  • Walled porticos to shelter against wind and rain. The wall might run from floor to ceiling to form an enclosed passageway, or it might be a knee wall, rising to a height of only a few feet, and then supporting the columns or posts on which the roof rested

  • Paths and roadways that were paved with stone, cobble or gravel, rather than tamped earth that would often have been muddy

  • Carefully engineered drainage systems that began by leveling the building site, and included the  strategic placement of drain tiles, gutters, and pipes around gardens as well as buildings

A fair number of early gardens have been identified in Britain. A few can be described in some detail; for others, we know little more than that garden soil is present. Below are links to examples of several kinds of Romano-British gardens:

These gardens were local interpretations of villa gardens throughout the Roman Empire, which often shared or adapted garden design, art, and plants:

Resources on Romano-British gardens

Archaeobotany of Roman and medieval Britain

Agriculture in Roman Britain 

The emergence of villa landscapes

Garden Archeology - AE Brown

Gardens In Roman Britain - R.J. Zeepvat

Gardens of Roman Britain, W.F. Jashemski (English Heritage Report 14, London, 1990)

Review of the Archaeological Evidence for Food Plants from the British Isles: An Example of the Use of the Archaeobotanical Computer Database (ABCD)

The Roman House in Britain - Dominic Perring

Roman Villas and the British Countryside - Guy Le Bedoyere

What is garden archaeology? - Judith Roberts

 

 

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