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'Roman villa' site in UK saved from housing

Land thought to contain important archaeological remains has been saved from being used for housing after a mystery benefactor bought it for a seven-figure sum.

'Roman villa' site in UK saved from housing
The Roman villa was first discovered to the east of Southwell Minster 
in the 18th century [Credit: Google/Infoterra Ltd/Bluesky]
The site in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, is next to where remains of a Roman villa have previously been discovered. The land has now been given to nearby Southwell Minster, which will act as custodian. It can only be used for educational, conservation and cultural purposes.

The acting dean Canon Nigel Coates said: "It's a benefaction we never anticipated and he or she has been extraordinarily generous in giving us this site. It's their wish to remain anonymous but we do hope that in the future the connection with Southwell and the person's identity will be made known."

Southwell Minster already owned most of the land where remains of the villa have previously been found. The development site used to belong to the minster too, but it was given to the Minster School, which built premises there in the 1960s. The school later sold the land to raise money for new buildings in a different location, and the site became "an eyesore".

Newark and Sherwood District Council granted planning permission for nine houses, despite the plans being opposed by the Save Roman Southwell campaign.

'Roman villa' site in UK saved from housing
This mosaic from the villa's south wing was discovered in 1959 
[Credit: University of Nottingham Museum of Archaeology]
Roger Merryweather, chairman of the Southwell Heritage Trust, said the benefaction was "absolutely amazing" for the town.

"We are extremely grateful to the benefactor for what he or she has done," he said. "Now there will be the scope and the opportunity to recognise that area and perhaps preserve it better than it might have been preserved before."

Long-term plans have not been decided, but the site will be cleared of rubble, levelled and grassed as an immediate first step. The houses were due to be built on the former site of the Minster School, which has been demolished since the image above was created.

The original development proposal encroached on what is thought to have been the east wing of the villa, including the bathhouse. This area was removed from the development proposal following the discovery of a monumental wall. Newark and Sherwood District Council said houses had not been permitted where the Roman villa was.

'Roman villa' site in UK saved from housing
This Cupid wall painting from the villa bath house is now 
displayed at Southwell Minster [Credit: BBC]
However, Dr Will Bowden, Associate Professor in Roman Archaeology at the University of Nottingham, said the villa complex would have extended onto the development site. This is because excavation carried out on behalf of the developer revealed Roman remains across much of the site, including a line of Roman buildings.

"Villas were massive farm complexes with agricultural and industrial functions that could extend over a wide area," said Dr Bowden. "As far as we can tell, it is one of the largest and most impressive villas in the region. It features extensive mosaic pavements and some very high quality wall painting, both located when parts of the villa were excavated in the 1950s."

The school was extended in 1971, and 225 bodies thought to be medieval were removed and reburied in an unknown location.

"They are a major lost archaeological resource," said Dr Bowden. "It was partly this sense that the history of the town was being repeatedly eroded in this way that spurred the community protest about the development."

Source: BBC News Website [October 31, 2015]

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