Littlecote Roman Villa in 2023

Littlecote mosaic cleaning

Dr Hugh Pihlens is a well-known figure in Hungerford; his talks on various aspects of Hungerford history are always well attended. The subject for his talk to Hungerford Historical Association in May was the history of Littlecote Roman Villa.

Hugh arrived in the town in 1972 and quickly established himself in the town’s medical practice. In 1979 he founded the Hungerford Historical Association, with inaugural speaker Bryn Walters talking about the first archaeological examination of the Roman Villa at Littlecote. We were pleased to welcome Bryn and Luigi Thompson to Hugh’s talk as both are closely associated with the care of the villa.

Many will be aware that Hugh is currently leading a team of Hungerford Historical Association volunteers who have been re-establishing the site which has been neglected since the late 20th century, making interpretation of the complexity and size of the villa difficult. Before bringing his audience up-to-date with progress, Hugh outlined the history of the villa since the arrival of the Romans in AD42. Like many developments, it started in a small way and was, unsurprisingly, a military outpost in its early days by the then Roman road to Bath. Over the years, it grew in size and morphed from military use to farming and ultimately to extensive accommodation for worshipers of the Orphean cult. This latter change resulted from the building of the Orphic Hall and the Orpheus mosaic, the latter being one of the largest Roman mosaics found in Britain and one of the few freely available to view.

The decline of the Roman Empire in the fifth century led of course to decline at Littlecote. Materials were removed to build smaller buildings, both on the site and in Chilton Foliat. The villa was eventually forgotten; the site changed its nature several times until the villa was re-discovered in 1727. This created much interest but the landowner of the time discouraged visitors by once more covering over the villa. Finally, in the 1970s, the mosaic was again unearthed and a full archaeological investigation commenced.

The mosaic is perhaps the most fascinating part of the site. Its design is one of stories from Greek mythology centering around Orpheus and the tragic Eurydice in the Underworld. Hugh told this tangled tale with great clarity, though he admitted Greek mythology was omitted from his schooling!

The excavations in the 1970s-1980s were highly successful but little was done in the subsequent years to maintain the site. By 2018, moss, weeds and undergrowth disguised the extent of the villa and the mosaic was in rather a poor state due to moss and bird droppings. Saddened by this, Hugh recruited a working party from Hungerford Historical Association members with a five year plan to restore this gem to its former state.

Periodic working parties over the last four years have transformed the villa and surroundings, which can realistically only be appreciated by visiting it. Hugh’s work has been supported financially by the Association for Roman Archaeology with grants for some of the work and by the landowner, Bourne Leisure, with materials and day to day maintenance. He has further plans for better protecting the mosaic from the weather and birds, a big project beyond the reach of his team of volunteers.

Hugh’s passion for local history is amply illustrated by his leadership of this project which is fully covered at https://www.hungerfordvirtualmuseum.co.uk

Chairman Caroline thanked Hugh for his characteristically absorbing talk, clearly endorsed by the applause of the audience.

The next open Hungerford Historical Association meeting will be the first of the new season on 27 September when David Drake will speak about the History of Highgate Cemetery.

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