Constructing a first century Roman house with 21st century builders was not easy. Alison Jones talks to the expert who leapt at the chance to do it for a TV series.
There is a local, and somewhat bizarre, legend that says Wroxeter Roman City was carried away overnight by a flock of sparrows.
As fanciful, in a creepy, Hitchcockian way, as this explanation is, it is highly unlikely that preternaturally strong passerine birds had anything to do with the Romans leaving their buildings.
In the first century Wroxeter, or Viroconium, was a military base and home to the legion who helped to quell the revolting Boudica.
The soldiers were eventually withdrawn and redeployed to fight on other fronts on the continent.
Wroxeter grew to become the fourth largest city in Roman Britain but by the sixth or seventh century it had been abandoned.
The bustling metropolis which boasted a public bath house large enough to accommodate up to 1,000 people – 20 per cent of the city’s population – rotted and crumbled away over the centuries, its architectural glories forgotten until 1859 when Victorian workmen began excavating the baths.
As impressive and informative as the unearthed ruins are, it is hard to visualise the low walls and the stacks of tiles – part of the heating system – as working buildings. Until now.
For the remains of Wroxeter Roman City, near Shrewsbury, have a new neighbour – a gaudy, mustard yellow and red timbered replica town house, constructed by a bunch of 21st century Bob the builders under the guidance of an archaeologist and an architect, who died more than 2,000 years ago.
“We have a time machine to the best of our ability,” says Professor Dai Morgan Evans, the academic who, armed with De Architectura (On Architecture) by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, provided the project’s historical expertise.
“Ruins can be a turn off, even for me, after a while. You can only go so far with low walls trying to interpret and explain to people what they mean. If you have a time machine you can actually see the thing and get the feel of interior spaces.”
It has been built as authentically as possible with local materials, versions of tools and methods that Roman builders would have recognised and used – from animal dung on the walls to lime mortar and from pilae under the floor to a model of a phallus on the wall (a sign of good fortune).
Channel Four viewers have been able to follow the progress of the project in the six part series Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day.
The gimmick of the programme was that, rather than using craftsmen and artisans experienced in restoration work or familiar with ancient forms of decoration such as frescos and mosaics, they hired a modern-day foreman, brickie, plumber, plasterer, carpenter and labourer for the task.
Though they were guided by specialists they had to learn the techniques on the job and compress a build that would have traditionally taken two years into six months.
The result is something akin to Auf Wiedersehen Pet meets Grand Designs meets Time Team.
“The production company were looking for new audiences for archaeology,” explains Dai, who is the visiting professor of archeology at Chester University. “They got the idea of using six builders rather than craftsmen so that the viewer would learn through them learning the hard way.
“They picked on a Roman building, which is when I got involved.”
Channel Four funded the project and recruited the builders – none of whom had worked together before – who were more accustomed to knocking up an extension using all the labour-saving devices they could get their hands on.
The result was reality TV with a point, or at least with a product – one that has now been passed on to English Heritage to conduct tours round and for the professor to continue to study.
Human drama was supplied by the clash of personalities on the job and a battle of wills between Dai and the foreman Jim, who was also responsible for health and safety on the site, particularly over the issue of the use of wheelbarrows.
Faced with having to haul quantities of rock to the site by hand after the cart made by the carpenter broke its axle, the builders started using wheelbarrows. Though the wily Jim argued that barrows had been used back in the day, Dai maintained that although this might have been the case in China there was no evidence that the Romans had them.
“I really did go back to the literature and check that,” says Dai. “I did learn from the builders. They would ask questions that were really hard to answer and made some interesting observations and I would have to go and work on the answer.”
Eventually expediency won out over authenticity, a compromise was reached and the barrows stayed. “The Romans would also have been labour rich,” says Dai.
“Lots of people carrying small loads. We had forgotten that. But the point had been made – it was very hard, manual work.”
The Wroxeter half dozen did have their own version of slaves, relying on volunteers – mainly women – from the local community to pitch in and help out.
One of the builders cheekily daubed some graffiti, a Roman tradition, on the roof about the argument. Dai good naturedly said he would rather they had written it in Latin.
The programme has been edited to highlight some of the confrontations between the builders themselves and between Dai and the workforce, provoking a heated response from viewers.
“There has been, I wouldn’t say hate mail, but dislike mail. I’ve been called a pompous prat and a hard taskmaster,” says Dai. “People have seen me as unreasonable, difficult, not sympathetic.
“I was slightly surprised but it is water off a duck’s back. One of my daughters got very upset and won’t watch it at the moment. I said forget it, it is just a soap and like it or not you are just a character.
“What really matters to me is the building and the fact that English Heritage has taken it on.”
The design was based on building number six at Wroxeter which, unusually, had a domestic bath house comprising a steam room with a tank that would be full of hot water, a warm room heated by the underfloor hypercaust and a cold plunge pool – complete with niche for a statue of Fortuna to protect the bather when they are naked and at their most vulnerable.
Dai envisages the owner of the house as being one of the elite. There are slave quarters and public rooms including a shop and a status room with several functions, including being used for morning salutations.
“People would come in and have a quick grovel to basically express their dependence on the owner who had lent them money, or who they are asking for jobs or favours.”
Dai has used the building to test out some theories about materials that might have been used but there is no evidence of in the ruins because they have rotted away – like bulls intestines for glazing or oak roof shingles. I have been trying to make this a Wroxeter building and the county is rich in timber. We have shakes, what you would know as shingles, on the roof.
“I have been getting a certain amount of grief from some archaeologists over that and support from others.
“It is interesting that when you look at collapsed Roman sites there isn’t as much tile as there would be if all of the roof were tiled. To an extent this is experimental archaeology.”
An experiment in heating rooms using a brazier resulted in dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide which can lead to hallucinations and even death.
This added credence to the theory that it had accounted for the demise of at least one Emperor, Jovian, who was discovered dead in a badly ventilated room where braziers had been used to try and dry off recently applied wall paintings.
The Romans were great makeover artists and the professor feels it is entirely fitting that work shall continue on the house, that local students learning traditional crafts might be brought in to do some extra painting work and maybe improve on the efforts of one of the builders.
“I am afraid the frescos aren’t quite Roman. They are very 21st century in feeling. I tried to get him to do them face on and in separate panels, very formal, but he went his own way,” sighs Dai.
Channel Four is now looking to see whether the format can be repeated but Dai says he will not be involved.
“I actually want to digest and write this up. There is an academic duty to finish this off and the finishing off is not the television programme, that is just the end of the beginning, it is a the research framework that goes with it.
“It is actually a very serious project which has got huge potential and we have hardly touched it yet. That is going to be the fun bit.
“My reply to colleagues who say I shouldn’t have got involved is ‘who else is going to put up this sort of money and give us the chance to build something like this?’
“It is not perfect but we have learnt and we are learning. I am looking forward to the argy bargies that are going to take place because there are going to be at my throat for a number of things and that is great. Maybe I have got it wrong but you make sure the world knows and you won’t repeat those mistakes again.”
* Visits to the townhouse are included in the admission price for Wroxeter Roman City, which costs from £2.20 for children up to £4.40 for adults. The city and townhouse are open daily from 10am to 4pm or until 5pm from March 1.
For more information call 01743 761330 or visit www.englishheritage.org.uk/wroxeter
* Channel 4's webpage for Rome Wasn't Built In A Day is here