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The Roman Villa at Cranhill Farm in West Challow was apparently already well-known to local people by the mid-1850s, but it was not until twenty years later that a local antiquary was able to examine the building in some detail. Unfortunately, this was not due to a systematic archaeological excavation, but through observations made during the wholesale destruction and removal of the remains by farm labourers in the Autumn of 1876. A rather wordy description of his findings subsequently appeared in volume 33 of the Archaeological Journal, but, sadly, it reveals rather little about the villa and its inhabitants.
The villa was positioned in an idyllic spot on the Berkshire Downs, commanding delightful views over the Vale of the White Horse to the north. It is only half a mile from the prehistoric Icknield Way which was much used in Roman times. Only one building was uncovered: a 82ft by 36ft rectangular house, with 3ft thick walls, divided into five rooms. Along its eastern frontage was a long heavily-buttressed corridor giving access to each. The large central room was presumably a reception hallway. That at the southern end had its own brick tiled hypocaust (underfloor heated system) and may well have been the triclinium (dining-room). The other rooms must have housed a kitchen and sleeping accommodation. The walls were apparently plastered in a dull red colour, but no evidence of other decoration was found. Apparently some of the foundations walls descended to a depth of some 12ft!
Amongst large amounts of pottery recovered were some plain pieces of Samian ware. Other articles unearthed included a number of iron fixings, such as door hinges, and a few shards of thick green glass, probably from glass vessels. Animal remains showed something of the inhabitants' diet as well as, perhaps, some of the animals farmed at the site: mutton, beef, venison, poultry and game were all in evidence. The Romans here were, apparently, also partial to snails and oysters.
The few coins preserved show that this simple farm building was occupied from the 2nd to the 4th centuries. There were probably associated boundary ditches and agricultural structures, perhaps of wood, but none were recognised
Details of this Roman are rather few and far between, despite two large scale excavations having taken place here. The first, undertaken upon the villa's discovery in 1884, is particularly badly recorded. It apparently centred upon three patterned mosaic floors - a rare occurrence in Berkshire. The first, depicting "a series of compartments divided by a coil pattern", was certainly that rediscovered during excavations in 1955. The second - a geometric mesh of octagons, diamonds and rectangles "with conventional rose ornament" - appears to have been that which was supposedly lifted and removed to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (from where it has since disappeared). The third is often confused with the other two since it is known only from a description. It was made of larger tesserae forming a "well-known key pattern" - presumably a swastika meander pavement like that on display in the corridor of the villa at Bignor in Sussex. It was found some thirty yards away from the main building.
The twentieth century excavation has considerably expanded our knowledge of the Woolstone Villa, though only small portions were actually uncovered. It seems to have been of the standard winged corridor type, but with corridors on both sides of the main structure, as well as within the western wing. These were paved with either plain red or plain white tesserae. The first mentioned mosaic was housed in the large western room between the two corridors. It was 14ft wide and contained at least one design of concentric squares with geometric patterns in white, yellow, orange and red. The room had no hypocaust (underfloor heating) but two burnt patches on the floor indicate it was heated by standing braziers. There were probably other associated buildings surrounding the main house and its cobbled courtyard on the southern frontage.
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