The Villa at Tockington Park, Sth Glos

The Story of Tockington villa is one of discovery and neglect. It was first mentioned in Seyer’s History of Bristol in 1787. Despite this it was then forgotten so completely that archaeologists working nearly 100 years later initially believed they had found an undiscovered site. This belief was shattered even further when an anonymous letter claimed that there had been yet another excavation in the 1830s. The confirmation came when the author of the letter supplied an exact location leading to the discovery (or re-discovery) of rooms 7-10 and 30-32. And now, well over 100 years on again, the villa has once more all but disappeared from record. Nothing has been published since 1889, no further excavations have taken place and Tockington rarely gets a mention in the abundant books on Roman Britain. The villa has once again become one of the most forgotten about sites in the area. And yet, reading between the lines of the understated Victorian reports, it would seem that it was quite an elaborate building.

Plan of Tockington Park

fig.1 Plan of Tockington Park (Malkin 2002 after Maclean)

The excavations were fairly thorough for their day. Most of the floor plan was uncovered and the rest can be fairly easily guessed. The recording of the findings was adequate, and in any case most of the artefacts had already been removed long before the digs in the late 1880s. So little would be gained from further field work, but it would be interesting to re-enact the excavations from a modern archaeologists viewpoint. Maybe I’m just easily pleased but I find it incredible that the chief archaeologist can declare “...the relics found in the excavations were of trifling interest” (Maclean, 1888-9, 201), when we have before us finds such as the wonderfully ornate sideboard/table top (figs.8&9), the column bases (figs.6&7) and the fine quality mosaics.

The excavation reports are inconclusive as to the usage of individual rooms, although it’s fairly safe to assume that rooms 30-32 would have been the bath suite. Apart from the hypocaust tiles found in this area there is also evidence of the same in room 23. This suggests a substantial heating system in what must have been an impressive villa.

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The grandeur of the building can be seen in its mosaics. According to the excavation reports they are of “an early date in the Roman period” (Maclean, 1887-8, 168), although they are almost certainly 4th century, and probably the work of the Corinium group of mosaicists. They are all geometric but the lack of figurative work does not detract from the skill in both design and execution.

The mosaic in room 2 is the simplest one found. A detail of it is shown here (fig.2). The interwoven swastika design is repeated throughout this small room.

mosaic in room 2

fig.2 Mosaic in Room 2

mosaic in room 3

fig.3 Mosaic in Room 3

The mosaic in room 3 (fig.3) is slightly more elaborate. It shows a stylised flower with four ivy leaf petals enclosed in a square guilloche border.

In room 9 (fig.4) is a much more impressive mosaic. The ivy leaf design is repeated, this time in a circular guilloche border. Surrounding this are four pelta urns, all of which are enclosed in a large saltire with another swastika design in each corner. The surrounding wave crest pattern, guilloche and swastika border finish off the design perfectly.

This brings to the last and most decorative of the illustrated mosaics, in room 12 (fig.5). It is square in design and filled with a complicated interlacing of guilloche and saltires. The central motif is a sunflower with a duplex knot in the middle. In the four corners are alternate lotus and pelta urns. The whole design is surrounded by double-knot guilloche. The red, blue and white design in a room of about 5.5 metres square must have been a magnificent sight.

mosaic in room IX

fig.4 Mosaic in Room 9

mosaic in room XII

fig.5 Mosaic in Room 12

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Column 1

Columns are usually one of the first things to be robbed as re-usable building materials. Yet here we have two column bases, one of particularly fine quality (fig.6). The columns in this style would probably have either stood alone in an entrance way or have been part of a portico. The other column style (fig.7) would have lined the walls of the bath suite (the were found in situ and have a flattened edge for placement against a wall). Evidence of columns can also be seen in room 24. This could have been a covered portico attached to the outside of the building.

fig.6 Column, possibly from an entrance or portico.

fig.7 Column base probably once lining the bath suite walls.

Column 2

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One of the most striking finds at Tockington was the intricately carved stone slab (fig.8 & detail in fig.9). It has almost certainly been placed upside down in the diagram, which led to the excavator’s belief that it was a base for a table. More likely is that it was the table top or side board itself. It would either have been supported by four legs or by a single dwarf column in the centre. The edge furthest away from us in fig.8 would have been plain. This would allow it to be rested, and probably cemented, against a wall.

These side boards are regularly found on Roman sites and appear to have been a very profitable sideline for masons in the south west. The Corpus signorum imperii Romani for this area has 6 pages of illustrations and 8 pages of text on similar side boards found in this region alone. The example in fig.10 shows three examples found at Kings Weston ( click here for more on Kings Weston), fig.11 comes from Gatcombe ( click here for more on Gatcombe itself ),and fig.12 shows some examples from Keynsham ( click here for more on Keynsham Roman Palace). These examples were chosen for their location but there are many more from slightly further afield, all of them similar in some way to the one at Tockington. Judging from the drawing it looks like the Tockington slab was remarkably well preserved. Unfortunately it is now lost and so we are unlikely to find how much artistic license was given in the sketch.

details of sidboard

fig.8 (above) The side board found at Tockington

fig.9 (left) Details of fig.8.

Kings Weston side boards Gatcombe slab

fig.10 Three examples from Kings Weston(Cunliffe and Fulford 1982)

fig.11 The side board from Gatcombe (Solley 1954)

FIG.12 TO FOLLOW SHORTLY.

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All illustrations by John Maclean (Maclean 1887-9) unless otherwise stated.

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Room Finds
1 A few loose floor tiles (about 8"sq), fragments of flanged tiles, large quantity of flat stones (fire damaged). A small piece of tesselated floor (not in situ).
2 Mosaic pavement in a swastika pattern of blue and white lias with a border on the two longer sides about 12" wide with greyish white tesserae (fig.2). A few flue tiles and coarse pottery.
3 A fine quality mosaic (fig.3) badly broken. Base of column (fig.6). Fragments of a vase of fine grey ware. A few broken tiles with "...eliptical groves to cause the plaster to adhere to them." (Maclean, 198?, 164)
4 & 5 Not fully explored
6 Mosaic pavement in grey and blue tesserae.
7 A rebated wall, supposedly a doorway, on the outside of the north wall. A recessed bench, or seat. Some broken window glass, flue tiles, pottery sherds, animal bones (unspecified but split for marrow), oyster and snail shells. Plaster adhering to wall.
8 Paved with flat stones. An iron strigil otherwise imilar finds as room 7.
9 Mosaic pavement (fig.4), sunken in several places due to the collapse of the flue running to room 10. Painted plaster (colour unspecified) showing signs of repair in Roman times. Many hypocaust pillars found beneath the broken bits of the pavement.
10 Roman arch. A denarius of Carausius stuck between AD287 and 293 (described as "not an indicator of the construction date of the villa", although it's probably not far off the mark).
11 Foundations become less distinct and no further excavation is possible in this to the north of this room. In NW corner, "...upon the foundation, rests a fragment of Roman-walling, consisting of four courses of masonry about 18" or 2' high, extending about 20'...constructed of dressed freestone" (Maclean, 198?, 163). Also a piece of red pottery (the base of the vase found in room 13). Fragments of Samian ware which bear the name of the potter (poss. - Docc[av]ius but definately not the known Doccius)
12 Mosaic pavement (fig.5). Two floor tiles and many small pieces of painted wall-plaster. Broken tiles showing fire damage.
13 Long corridor (50"+). Mosaic floor in swastika pattern precisely like the one in room 2 (fig.2) see p167-8
14 Two rows of pillars (illustrated). A stone step. Large quantity of loose tessarae (white, red and blue). Coarse pottery and small fragments of samian. Two pieces of channelled stone, probably for conducting water. Some roof tiles. Charcoal.Chamber destroyed by the construction of the pond.
15-22 ?
23 Several hypocaust pillars - 2" thick tiles standing 2'6" high
24 At the southern tip of the columns the sideboard or table top was found.
26 & 27 Fragments of black pottery and green wall plaster. Some flanged tiles.
26, 27 & 28 Large quantities of oyster shells, broken roof tiles, portion of a mill stone (2'6" diameter. Fragments of good black pottery (Upchurch ware?) a boar's tusk (5 1/4" long). Large quantities of tessarae and nails, a portion of a mill-stone
28 Pavement of rough slab stones.
29 Large quantity of blue and white tesserae, bones and oystershells. The flat square stone of a column base and four fragments of column(?)
30 Small piece of pavement sinking into the space below, with a row of hypocaust pillars in this space.
31 32 hypocaust pillars.
32 Probably an ash-hole.
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Page created 4th December 2002

Page last updated 9th December 2002

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