A visit to Braiding Roman Villa

Braiding gets some things very right. The custom build that comprises the main section of the centre is gorgeous. It's sensuous wooden curves are a wonder of structural design, at once modern and old world, eye-catching and blending into the folds and contours of the landscape. It's layout also mirrors that of the main wing of the villa therein, helping to orient the interior with exterior layout. The distinctive rotunda bulwark marking the ancient portus certainly helped in this respect. Furthermore, the surrounds would have looked lovely in the sun (we visited in a downpour unfortunately): a well laid mock Roman hortus; a shack with the remains of a hypocaust; and the skeletal outline of remains of a further wing.

The exterior though brings me to one of the major problems with Braiding Villa: the lack of site specific literature. Most sites I have been to that have a shop also have a guide book (and quite a few without shops too come to think of it). In fact I actively wanted to buy such a thing but was informed the only had a complimentary guide leaflet, which though a nice touch could not compare in terms of depth to a true publication. It was an especially sad oversight in light of the shop being reasonably well stocked for archaeo-historical Roman literature. Without a book to pore over (perhaps to be done in their lovely and friendly cafe) it was difficult to get a sense of archaeological phases, nor for what the north and south wings have revealed. The continuing involvement of luminaries such as Prof. Cunliffe in ongoing digs could have made such a book highly interesting.

Generally the interior presentation of the remains of the villa and some of its associated artifacts, was to a very high standard, the skeleton on show (pictured) certainly showing a great deal of design nous, but unfortunately the informational presentation was much less so. This managed to be at once vague and shallow as well as subject to occasional conjectural assertions. In particular are an attempt to weave the villa into the narrative of revolt of Allectus using some very faulty logic and the assertion that the iconic mosaic cockheaded man is symbolic for the emperor Gallius, again presenting an extremely speculative point (one refuted by the definitive Roman Mosaics of Britain on display in the foyer) as established fact. They don’t show their working out!

This kind of underlying solipsism is belied by a small photograph accompanying some text on the last display board inside (pictured). It is captioned “Roman walled town”. It isn’t. I know it isn’t because it’s the rear of Cardiff Castle, taken from a North East angle. Cardiff Castle may have a claim to Roman foundations, but the current structure is most definitely modern in construction. Indeed, it would be a rare Roman wall that survived in the perfect condition shown. This shows that either the curators don’t know their Roman archaeology, don’t know the provenance of materials they are using to convey historical facts or are fine with manipulating such materials to meet narrative and presentational designs. Any combination of any or all of the above shows a kind of basic incompetence.

Still, a visit to Braiding Roman Villa is well worth it. It’s a brilliant example of museological design. Just don’t necessarily trust what the (mis)information panels tell you.

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