Volunteers give the Romans a new lease of life
They might have left Britain centuries ago, but on the Isle of Wight the Romans are still very much alive, thanks to researchers from the School of Archaeology.
Photo credit: Ian.R.Cartwright School of Archaeology Oxford University.
In 2008, Professor Barry Cunliffe and his team came to the island to dig new areas of a Roman villa site. Fully supported by the Friends of Brading Roman Villa (FBRV), a proactive group of volunteers, the team revealed the story of the villa and the people who made it their home. For three years, the summer dig near the villa uncovered scores of artefacts: funereal urns, pottery, tools. These finds proved snapshots of Roman life, building up a rich picture of life in the villa, 1600 years ago.
The dig teams were made up of specialists, students and local volunteers, sharing knowledge and skills to piece together Brading’s story. Other volunteers led visitors around the dig, giving people the chance to see the ancient discoveries as they were unearthed. FBRV and the UK youth group Young Archaeologists developed technical skills as they processed and maintained the finds with support from the Oxford researchers. This strong volunteering ethos continues today: FRBV lead tours around the museum, giving 6,000 hours of their time every year to tell the story of the villa to visitors.
This museum is a lesson on how to make a potentially dull visit exciting! It provides clear and interesting information on the history of the house and its inhabitants
- TripAdvisor member
Every year 2,500 children come to see what Roman life was like, tracing the story of life in Britain and in the villa itself through the museum exhibits and guided tours. The centrepiece is the mosaic of Mars that would originally have sat at the heart of the villa, spiritually protecting the lives and livelihoods of the families that lived there. Oxford researchers worked closely with museum staff to create educational activities for children to connect with those Roman families. Educational activities are aimed at specific Key Stages, and don’t just stop at History. Students can spend the morning handling ancient artefacts, and the afternoon plotting routes through natural and manmade landscapes: past and present in one day.
The Oxford team and the FBRV wanted the story of the villa to run throughout the exhibition site. The exhibition plan was redrawn to capture the development of the villa over 300 years, the surrounding area was mapped, revealing still-hidden Roman sites, and the team produced drawings of reconstructions of the villa as it would have looked in 400AD. A Roman garden sits next to the exhibition hall, and cobnuts have been re-established for the first time since the Romans ruled. The combination of scholarly expertise and volunteer passion has created a successful and sustainable enterprise that brings the fifth century to the 21st.