I missed a week at the IHR between Hallowe’en and the 14th November, when I was back there to hear Caroline Goodson talk about a villa and monastery site that she and some others have been digging at Villa Magna near Rome, under the title “The Vassals’ Post-Holes: living in medieval Villa Magna”. I had lost touch with Caroline it seems, as last I heard she was working on Alatri, but it seems that that’s all terribly 2004. Now she has a new site, which she was led to from that one by a similar piece of wall-building.
Her new site, the villa and later monastery of Villamagna, whose charters will be edited with facsimile as part of the project, which gives me joy, is of unclear chronology as yet. This is mainly because the church seems to have been raised several times due to the amount of burial in the neighbouring cemetery, which it kept coming close to being swamped by, so the whole structure seems to have been rebuilt at least once with doors and windows a good four foot higher than they had originally been. Meanwhile, the layers upon layers of bodies in the cemetery have to be cleared, carefully, before they finally hit the bottom layers of the site and work out how old it is.
That however is the church, and elsewhere on the site is the old villa, and here’s where the title comes in. There is, we were told, a surviving letter from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius about a stay at this villa, which used to be an Imperial property and was, intriguingly, apparently fortified some time after the early fifth century. In the letter he says that he remembered visiting, in the tow of his father Antoninus Pius, the then-reigning emperor, and they had a good day’s hunting and then ate dinner in an arcade in the villa watching the peasants crush grapes for the vintage.
Now, when the Villa Magna team were digging in 2006, they quite quickly found a room in the villa, with expensive opus spicatum flooring (a term I’d seen before and of which she had a slide so that at last I learnt what it meant), into which holes had been put to expose the necks of big fermentation vessels for wine-making that were sunk into the clay beneath. Here’s a small section of the floor exposed:
Caroline had pictures of the whole floor exposed and a volunteer sitting in each vat with room to spare, but those photoes are all cunningly hidden on their site as yet. Here, the big chunks eaten out of top and bottom are where the vessels were later robbed out (leaving the marble floor, surely worth more!) and the square holes are the post-holes of the title, which as yet await explanation but may, only may, relate to a later known set-up of wooden houses belonging to papal dependents in the thirteenth century somewhere on the site. Anyway, the story does not end here. At the end of the large wine-making room, they found a semi-circular kind of apse structure, which is apparently best interpreted as a dining arcade by analogy with other villas where this is known to have occurred.
Or, in other words, it seems kind of likely that they’ve found the exact room Marcus Aurelius was writing about. Among a lot of other things, of course: the whole dig project has a site up here, but that bit’s the coolest I think. I love it when texts and material evidence come together. They can hope for more such connections as the charters are brought into play, but probably not with quite as auspicious a dramatis personae…