On the 17th October The Duke of Gloucester officially opened a new formal Roman garden outside the reconstructed Roman villa at Butser Ancient Farm; a not-for-profit open-air museum in East Hampshire.
The Royal visit coincided with the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the construction of Butser’s villa, based on the archaeology of Sparsholt Roman Villa near Winchester.
The original build was featured in a ten-part documentary series for the Discovery channel called ‘Rebuilding the Past’ in which the triumphs, trials and tribulations of bringing a villa to reality – something that hadn’t been attempted for 1,600 years – was filmed from start to finish.
Over the subsequent 20 years the villa has undergone many developments and renovations as Butser Ancient Farm has grown, welcoming hundreds of thousands of school children and visitors through its doors in its lifetime.
The Duke of Gloucester, who has had a career in architecture and a strong interest in historic buildings, was fascinated to see the development of building technology and house construction on a tour of the farm led by Butser Director Simon Jay. Butser’s timeline of ancient homes, which spans from the Stone Age to Anglo Saxon periods, uses the techniques of experimental archaeology to offer insight into how things may have been achieved and what life was like in the ancient past.
Simon first became involved at Butser as part of the build team on the construction of the villa 20 years ago. This anniversary is particularly significant to Simon, who has seen the Farm develop from a small research site, to a centre which welcomes over 60,000 visitors a year to learn about the past.
Simon Jay said
“I first became involved at the farm in my early 20’s helping to build the Roman Villa. It was an incredible challenge, but hooked me on the amazing and pioneering place that Butser is. I’m very proud of where the farm has developed to today and it’s fantastic to see the place continue to grow and expand as we bring the past to life for our visitors.”
To coincide with the anniversary this year a major project was launched to create a formal Roman garden in front of the villa, representing the types of garden features and plants present in Romano-Britain. The garden was generously funded as a legacy and in memory of long term Butser volunteer Joan Rundle, whose special interest was Roman gardens and their plants.
The new garden includes sweet chestnut pergolas, stone benches, urns, raised flower beds and opus signinum paths, all elements known to have featured in Roman gardens. The design was created with access in mind and is fully wheelchair accessible with the raised beds allowing easier access for both visitors and volunteers.
Kathryn Bingham, Butser Ancient Farm garden volunteer, described the process behind some of the planting choices;
“It’s been fascinating to research and explore the types of plants the Romans used and brought to this country almost 2000 years ago. Many of which we still use for the same purpose today. One of my favourite features in the garden is the Rosemary hedging, not only does it smell beautiful and attracts the bees and butterflies, but it was also an important herb in Roman times, known as the herb of memory and the renewal of energy. Washing with rosemary was said to be a natural method of keeping one’s youthful looks, and scholars would wear garlands of rosemary on their heads to improve their studies!”
The centrepiece of the garden is a beautiful 6m diameter circular mosaic floor, created by a team of volunteers using genuine Roman tesserae. These tesserae were originally part of a villa complex that happened to be in the path of the construction of the M4 motorway near Swindon in the 1970’s. They were rescued from the bulldozers by a team of archaeologists and, last year, were donated to Butser Ancient farm to use in their experimental reconstructions.
The tesserae now have a new lease of life, to be admired and walked upon by the feet of visitors, volunteers and students, following in the Roman footsteps of 1600 years ago.
Rachel Bingham, Butser Ancient Farm Creative Developer who led the garden and mosaic project said;
“It’s been a pleasure to see this project grow from early sketches and conversations into the flourishing garden we see today. It’s been a huge amount of work and a labour of love for the many staff and volunteers involved in bringing the vision to reality. The creation of the mosaic alone took over 300 volunteer hours of labour with an estimated 10,000 tesserae used in the design! It’s been amazing to work on something that we hope could itself last for thousands of years, just like the ancient Roman mosaics. Now that the garden is complete we are looking forward to seeing it being enjoyed by all our visitors and for it to continue to bloom and grow for years to come.”
Other additions to the villa for its 20th anniversary have included a household shine created by Royal College of Art Senior Lecturer Isabel Young. Shrines such as this – known to the Romans as a Lararium – were the location of daily rituals to the gods of the Roman household, to give thanks for prosperity and offer protection to the family. The shrine helps tell the story of ancient beliefs and sheds light on an important element of life in Roman Britain.
Following the tour of the farm, which included seeing timber framing and metal-smelting in action, and meeting some of the excited pupils on their school trip to the farm, The Duke of Gloucester officially opened the garden and mosaic. An ivy garland was cut and speeches made in the presence of members of the original build team, mosaic and garden volunteers and local representatives including His Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of Hampshire; Nigel Atkinson Esq., the High Sherriff of Hampshire; Ms Amelia Riviere and the Chair of Hampshire County Council; Councillor Patricia Stallard and of East Hants District Council; Councillor Anthony Williams.
The Royal visit demonstrates the great support and recognition for the work of Butser Ancient Farm in the local and wider community and the important contribution the farm makes to our understanding of the ancient past.
Butser Ancient Farm is currently open to visitors on weekends and school holidays up to the end of October. It will then reopen in December for a season of magical festive events connecting visitors to the ancient traditions of midwinter. In the spirit of the original TV show about the villa build, Butser now also document and record their own videos of projects and experiments on Buter Plus – a supporter platform to get exclusive behind-the-scenes content, including videos on the creation of the roman garden and mosaic.