This 4th century Roman house is quite a landmark. It sits beside a rural crossroad below Wenlock Edge, and even though we know it is there, it always takes me by surprise whenever we drive that way to Shrewsbury – its time-slipped Mediterranean demeanour striking false notes in the midst of 21st century Shropshire farmland. But then this was once the style de nos jours across most of England – the way we were, almost fully Romanized, twenty to sixteen centuries ago.
And of course it is a re-creation, but then that is surprising in other ways. For a start it is built on the site of an actual Roman city, otherwise known as Wroxeter or Viroconium, and it is not usual for the heritage-powers-that-be to allow building work on their sites of international archaeological importance. For another, it is a product of a Channel 4 ‘Reality TV’ show broadcast in six episodes back in 2011. ‘Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day ‘ was a piece of experimental archaeology turned mainstream viewing, in which a team of UK builders was set the task of building the town house using ONLY traditional Roman methods.
They had 6 months to master new skills, guided by a 2000 year old manual written by engineer Vitruvius, and under the watchful eye of project planner Professor Dai Morgan Evans, who had based the design on an actual building excavated at the site. By all accounts it was a bit of a bumpy ride.
These days Wroxeter is in the care of English Heritage and if you follow the link you can find out more about the once fourth largest Roman city in Britain. The site’s immense historical importance meant the town house project could only proceed by first creating a foundation raft that would protect the remains in the ground. Originally, too, it was intended that the house would have a limited time span. However, it is still with us, and we finally decided to make an actual visit in November last year – on Remembrance Sunday in fact, when many of us were pondering on quite another momentous historical event, the centenary of the end of World War One.
A strange case of mixed millennia then. The day was bright and blustery day with an icy wind blowing up the Craven Arms gap between the Shropshire Hills. As we peered into the re-created domestic quarters (in much need of some serious house-keeping) we could hear the peeling bells of Shrewsbury’s churches several miles away. It sounded joyous too, this commemorative toll on so many million wasted lives.
And so it was one of those moments of complete chronological, if not ontological disorientation when you wonder what life, the universe and everything means. A ‘Who am I? Why am I?’ reaction. I took a few photos and fled back to the warmth of the visitor centre where there were two lovely young English Heritage women to chat to, and where one could also submit to the soothingly anodyne effect of graphics panels on topics Roman.
I came away thinking there are many versions of ‘reality’ that we buy into, man-made, manipulative and specious. Nonetheless, there are still some actual Roman remains at Wroxeter, the rising facade of the great Baths Basilica. And of course I remember a couple of weeks I spent here in the 1970s, a Prehistory and Archaeology undergrad, apparently gaining some required excavation skills in order to obtain my degree.
In fact I probably learned more from the gang of prisoners let out each day from their penal establishment. They worked close behind the line of us middle class student excavators, emptying our spoil buckets, barrowing the dirt into skips, all the while intent on shocking us with talk of lurid prison doings. One among them, though, grew so fascinated with the excavation process that he was promoted to the digging line and even worked through his lunch break. ‘I’m going to do this when I get out,’ he said, head down, trowel in hand, scrape-scraping away. Yes. That was a real reality glimpse. I learned a lot from that.
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell