When I visited Jane Austen’s house a couple of weeks ago, I felt—and I think most Americans would feel—that getting that glimpse of her life put me in touch with real history, history-with-an-upper-case-H, things that happened A Very Long Time Ago. Jane Austen was born in 1775; every American knows the importance of 1776, and anything that happened that long ago must be History.
In 1811 when Jane Austen’s first novel saw print, farmer George Tupper, plowing a field only about 30 miles away, hit a rock. A rock, that is, that turned out to be part of a house dating from the time that Rome occupied Britain, because that’s the kind of History we’ve got over here, where the evidence of human habitation goes back not just hundreds of years but thousands and you never know when you’ll stumble over a bit more of it.
Last week I went to see Bignor Roman Villa, that farmer’s Roman find, now in the care of his great-great-great-great-grandson. It’s a conglomeration of wings and corridors and bathhouses covering about a hectare, or two-and-a-half acres. And that’s just the house; add the farmyard, which was within the same boundary wall, and you double that, plus the farm had a further 6000 acres under cultivation. That was in its heyday, the 3rd or 4th century, when Romano-British people, a hybrid of local and Roman genes and cultures, lived the genteel Roman life to the extent possible here in the very hinterlands of the empire. The villa, only part of which has been excavated, is one of the largest in the UK, with some of the most sophisticated Roman mosaic floors to be seen in this country.
Mr Tupper’s plow struck the edge of a pool or fountain in the villa’s summer dining room. No one has yet found the water supply that fed the pool; they’ve even tried dowsing for it, but the water courses seem to have changed too much in the intervening years. In any case, the dry pool stands as evidence of a luxurious lifestyle; I don’t know many people who have a heated dining room for winter and an unheated one with a reflecting pool for summer.
Mosaic dancing girls with flowing veils surround the pool—the guidebook calls them maenads, though I think that may show a bit of poetic license. From what I’ve read, maenads went out into the woods and tore animals limb from limb with their bare hands in ecstatic frenzied worship of Dionysus; these figures are altogether more decorous. Most of the mosaics have been leveled, but these have been left as they were found, the undulating floor making the dancing seem that much more vigorous and the dancers that much more alive.
At the other end of the room the floor shows Zeus, in the guise of an eagle, abducting Ganymede because he was the most beautiful of human beings, bearing him off to Olympus to become the cup-bearer of the gods. The tesserae (individual pieces that make up the mosaic) here, smaller than those at other Roman sites I’ve visited, allow for finer detail and more subtle shading on Ganymede’s body, the folds of his mantle, the feathers of the eagle.
I’d have been delighted to have been invited to dinner there, but as it is, I was happy enough to find that the paths around the edges of the rooms where I’d been walking on what I thought were modern tiles, little square red things, were in fact the original borders for the designs, laid down in Roman times and possibly made by recycling old roof tiles. Since this villa is still privately owned, English Heritage, government overseer of historic sites, can’t make them build elevated walkways to keep tourists off the borders. The guide pointed out that those walkways getting the most traffic are in the best shape, so the owners are happy not to have to put in elevated walkways, or to have to pay for them.
The mosaics go on, room after room—here they had representations of the four seasons; there they had geometric patterns incorporating symbols of good fortune. Each section seems to have some special touch—here the artist signed the work; there the mosaicist chose glittery glass tesserae to make some figures stand out. A picture of a woman is said to be Venus but the details around her face aren’t the symbols of Venus or Juno or any known goddess, so this might actually be a portrait; if it is Venus, epitome of Beauty, she’s a fitting forerunner of contemporary models who confront viewers with stony faces (literally, in the case of this mosaic). Her pout wouldn’t be out of place on a modern catwalk. Or perhaps she’s frowning at the collapse that has destroyed the patterns in the other half of her room. The floor there had been supported by brick pillars, leaving spaces between them for hot air to flow through and heat the room, a nicety that depended, as did a lot of Roman-era luxuries, on slave labour, in this case to stoke the furnaces.
The mosaics were composed in workshops, where craftsmen stuck the tesserae—usually black, white, red, and yellow, though some designs here also use pink—onto cloth using a soluble adhesive. Sections of the finished mosaics, sandwiched between pieces of wood for protection, could be moved to the site, where the builders pressed them into position on wet cement. When the cement dried, they only had to moisten the cloth to remove the glue, then pull the cloth away and reveal the finished floors showing anything from cherubs to Medusa to a simple Greek key—there’s corridor here done in a Greek key that runs for 24-metres (almost 79-feet), thought to be the longest existing expanse of Roman-era mosaics in the country.
The fact that these artworks remain in such good condition after having opened to public view in 1815 speaks well for the Tupper family, who’ve put a lot of effort and money into conservation and upkeep. The early 19th-century thatched buildings that protect the mosaics, some built using the foundations of the Roman buildings themselves, are listed structures in their own right (which means that they’re designated as having historic importance to the nation). John Hawkins, the amateur archaeologist who had charge of the first excavations, called for these to be built to keep the exposed surfaces dry. He had the advice of one of the era’s foremost antiquarians, but was apparently quite capable himself; a contemporary account says he was “celebrated throughout Europe for his general knowledge on all subjects.”
Despite his extensive knowledge, Hawkins could only get the project started. Much of the villa remains to be excavated, though during Roman Week celebrations thiscoming September a team from a nearby university plans to dig. They’ll have little more in the way of power tools than Mr Hawkins did in the earliest 1800s, as there’s no electricity on the site. (The tea shop’s hot water and refrigeration depend on gas cylinders.) The building would in its heyday have faced the main Roman road from Chichester to London, but today Bignor is out in the middle of glorious nowhere, too far from any inhabited place to string cables, surrounded by wheat fields, orchards, vineyards, and views.
The villa remained in use at least until 400 AD, though by then its fortunes had begun to decline. By 410, the Romans were virtually gone from the province they called Britannia, drawn back in part by the need to defend Rome against attack from without and civil disorder within. The Roman occupation of Britain lasted only about 450 years, an extremely influential and culturally important blip in British history, but just a blip nonetheless. The farmers who built the house and farmed its acreage might well have snagged their plows on evidence of occupation in the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, even the Stone Age.
So I visit Jane Austen’s house, and think it’s old; people of her day went to see Bignor Roman Villa and thought of it as old; and Stonehenge was old when the Romans got here. A word to American visitors: you may need to adjust your idea of History.