ROMAN VILLAS AND COUNTRY ESTATES
The Romans were the first people to construct buildings in England characterised by substantial stone foundations, tiled roofs, timber framing, plaster work, mosaic floors, and even central heating. The Roman villa was to become a significant feature of the English country landscape, particularly in the Darent Valley, which had one of the highest densities of villas and villa estates in the whole of Roman Britain.
Roman villa sites are generally found in the fertile lowlands and valleys of the southern half of England. The Latin word villa means a farm or agricultural estate. The design, layout and construction of Roman villas varied from place to place according to the building materials available in the area and the wealth and taste of the owner. The average villa seems to have been a single-storey half-timbered building standing on foundations of stone.
Some villas were fairly ordinary functional farmhouses, others were the luxurious homes of Roman or Romanised government officials, designed to impress, with an emphasis on elaborate paintings, marbled floors, expensive mosaics, a suite of baths and beautiful gardens. The villa at Lullingstone was at one stage a luxury residence. Other local villas at Dartford, Wilmington, Darenth, Farningham (2), Horton Kirby (2) Longfield and Ash (3) were a lot less opulent and were primarily concerned with farming.
DARTFORD ROMAN VILLA
The remains of Dartford Roman Villa were first discovered in the 1890s, and were re-located and excavated by archaeologists from Dartford District Archaeological Group in 1979. Remains of the villa were found buried beneath playing fields currently (2000) owned by Glaxo Wellcome, between Darenth Road and the River Darent. Reconstructed evidence suggests that the villa would have been approximately 100 feet long from east to west, and about 50 feet wide from north to south. The villa was conveniently situated close to the river, providing a constant source of fresh water for the resident family and their animals. It is possible that the villa had it own granary for the storage of grain.
Dartfords villa was occupied during the second and third centuries A.D. Despite considerable erosion of the site over successive centuries, it was possible for archaeologists to deduce that the main villa building was of the winged corridor type and consisted of a large hall surrounded by small rooms of differing sizes. When complete, the villa probably comprised four wings of buildings forming a rectangle. One room at the eastern end of the villa contained a hearth and considerable signs of burning; this room was therefore presumed to be the kitchen. The east wing of the villa also housed store rooms.
At the extreme south-east of the villa was a room with a floor made from a mixture of crushed tile and mortar. The floor curved up towards each wall in the room, forming a sort of skirting board. Substantial walls were painted on the interior and the exterior. Evidence shows that the internal walls were painted red, white and blue; the external walls were painted predominantly red. It is thought that this room was a Shrine Room devoted to a pagan deity. To one side of the room a plinth or base was located - possibly the foundation of an altar. Fragments of a pagan mother goddess figurine were found on the Dartford Villa site.
There was no evidence to suggest that Dartford Roman Villa had its own suite of baths or central heating system. A deep drainage ditch did however produce a rich and varied assortment of Roman rubbish including bone pins and needles, pottery, nails, a beam balance with its lead weight, door keys, glass and items of jewellery.
WILMINGTON ROMAN VILLA: A CENTRALLY HEATED FARMHOUSE
Evidence that there was a Roman villa at Wilmington, near Dartford, was first uncovered in 1886 not far from Trafalgar Road, close to the site of the Orange Tree public house. Members of the Dartford District Archaeological Group excavated this site in 1975.
It was only possible to excavate part of the villa site, but the section of building uncovered measured 57 feet wide by 72 feet long. Archaeologists concluded that these impressive remains were only a fragment of a relatively large villa complex at the centre of a farming estate. The plan and layout of the Wilmington Villa was very different from that of other villas in the Darent Valley. Most of the buildings were associated with farming.
A large flint structure with walls over two feet thick was probably the remains of a stockyard where stables or cow byres were located; these smaller structures had substantial lean-to type tiled roofs. Animal remains excavated on the site indicated that horses, oxen, pigs and sheep or goats were among the domestic livestock.
Unfortunately, it was not possible for archaeologists to excavate the whole site and therefore the main villa building was not found (the main villa building probably lies buried under Hawley Road). However, enough evidence was uncovered to suggest that Wilmington Roman Villa was furnished with a large hypocaust (central heating) system, and that the walls were decorated with painted plaster. This evidence suggests that the owners were reasonably wealthy.
Pottery and coins retrieved from the site show that it was occupied late in the third century A.D.
LULLINGSTONE ROMAN VILLA: FROM FARM HOUSE TO LUXURY RESIDENCE
Lullingstone Roman Villa just a few miles along the Darent Valley from Dartford is one of the most famous villa sites in Britain. The site of the villa is open to the public.
The villa was constructed on a low artificial terrace cut back into the hillside above the River Darent. In front of the villa a garden ran down to the river. Behind it, on a second terrace higher up the hill stood a circular temple and a temple-mausoleum. It is likely that the villa was built on the site of a former Iron Age farmstead, perhaps by a native farmer who considered it fashionable to rebuild his house in the new Roman style.
Between A.D. 80-90 a rectangular house of flint and mortar was erected at Lullingstone. This had a corridor running the whole length of the house, living rooms in the middle, and wings jutting out on either side of a veranda at the front. Below one of the wings was a cellar used for storage.
Towards the end of the second century the house was enlarged by the addition of a bath suite on the south, where the usual range of cold, tepid and hot rooms and plunge baths can still be seen. At this time the cellar became a shrine to the cult of a local water-goddess. The owner of the house at this time was somebody of high rank. Suddenly, about A.D 200, this high-ranking officer deserted his house leaving many of his personal possessions and works of art behind.
The buildings at Lullingstone remained empty and in ruins for almost a century. However, about A.D. 280 the villa was repaired, altered and enlarged and a granary was built near the river. By about A.D. 330 the house had entered the most luxurious period of its existence, and was extended to include a dining-room and reception room, both with elaborate mosaic floors. Christianity reached the villa soon after A.D. 360, and a house church with wall paintings was constructed above one of the rooms, whilst the pagan religion was still practised in the room below. Fire destroyed the villa early in the fifth century A.D.
Behind the villa on a terrace, a circular pagan temple was built early in the second century, and a square-domed temple-mausoleum was set up about A.D. 300. This became the final resting-place of a young man and woman.
DARENTH ROMAN VILLA: ONE OF ENGLAND'S LARGEST VILLA ESTATES
The site of Darenth Roman Villa was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. Initial excavations revealed an extensive series of buildings and gardens covering an area 414 x 370 feet, which at the time were the most extensive villa remains yet discovered in Britain. A further excavation in 1969 led to the discovery of a bath building and a large aisled building, which appeared to be a fairly plain Romano-British villa, lacking any major refinements.
The villa at Darenth was at the centre of an important agricultural estate built in the middle of the third century A.D. Facilities for the off-loading, threshing, drying and storage of grain were included in the main villa building. The complex of buildings discovered at the end of the nineteenth century probably represent the country-house of the owner and his family. The baths, guest-house, swimming pools, mosaic floor, ornamental pools and walled gardens suggest that the owner was rich and an important member of the local community.