The site lies on the crest of a greensand ridge a little north of the scarp slope of the South Downs and close to Stane Street about sixteen kilometres from Chichester - the Roman Noviomagus Regnensium - less than a half day's journey away on foot. Stane Street was a Roman road built in the first century A.D. to link the new Roman military base of the Second Legion at Chichester to London; but the military phase of occupation was very brief in Sussex and by A.D. 75 the military base had been replaced by a market town and the countryside had reverted to civilian occupation. A group of military harbourside warehouses at Fishbourne, near Chichester, were replaced by a magnificent Roman palace, remains of which are now open to the public, and many of the pre-Roman Iron Age farmsteads, which were scattered across the South Downs and the coastal plain, were replaced by Romano-British villas. Iron Age pottery sherds hint at a pre-Roman settlement at Bignor but the discovery of part of a field system under the villa suggests that the actual pre-Roman farmstead was not on the same site.
The close proximity of the villa to Stane Street, which passes a few hundred metres to the east, meant that access was easy and the villa was approached directly by a metalled track from the road. Direct communication with the Roman market town of Chichester and the high quality of the agricultural soil at Bignor meant that the occupiers had the opportunity to become quite wealthy from farming, and it is interesting to note the way in which the plan of the villa was altered to accommodate a farming family of ever-increasing size. As the villa was extended it was the east elevation, which looked directly towards Stane Street, that successive owners developed in order to impress visitors and passers-by.
In its final form Bignor Villa was one of the largest in Britain covering nearly two hectares, with an inner domestic or garden courtyard and an outer yard containing farm buildings to the east. It is unlikely that the villa extended beyond the line of the enclosing wall, so its entire extent is known, but the site has not been completely excavated and new evidence will come to light as further excavations are undertaken in the future.
The mosaics on display, which are some of the finest in the country, date mainly from the fourth century A.D. and allow an interesting comparison to be made with the first- and second-century mosaics at Fishbourne.
Soon after its initial discovery a local resident, John Hawkins of Bignor Park, took responsibility for the excavations of the villa and he invited Samuel Lysons, a leading antiquary of the day, to supervise the work. Lysons lived at King's Bench Walk in London and could spend only a limited amount of time in Sussex but they corresponded regularly and many of their letters survive in the West Sussex Record Office at Chichester; these throw considerable light on the way in which the site was explored and the problems faced by the excavators.
After its initial discovery in 1811 the Ganymede mosaic was covered over until the June of the following year when it was re-exposed; but by this time the owner had become concerned about vandalism and ,secured it from intruders by a high thorn fence and from nightly depradations by the erection of a hovel in which one of his sons can sleep'. John Hawkins was concerned about the effect of exposure on the mosaics and wrote to Lysons `earthworms doing much injury by raising the tesserae but the evil would be removed by keeping the place dry . . .'.
In June 1812 work was commenced on the erection of a covering building constructed of bricks and local greensand blocks.
Bignor Roman Villa (grid reference: SU 987147) lies about six miles north of Arundel and is signposted both from the A29 (Bignor-Billingshurst) and the A285 (Chichester-Petworth) roads.