The most important archaeological feature at Valentine is a Gallo-Roman Villa built at the place now known as Arnesp during the reign of the Emperor Constantine (first third of the 4th Century).
We know the name of one of the villa’s owners, Nymfius, from his epitaph. He was clearly an important figure locally.
The Villa was set on a ledge above the Garonne’s riverbed, protected from flooding and above the level of the thickest mists.
When a canal was dug to bring water to the small hydro-electric power station at Valentine, the site suffered irreversible damage.
Access to the Villa was via a secondary road that turned off the main Roman road that between Valentine and Labarthe-Rivière followed the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Remains of the old Roman road have been found at the site, under the modern local road. It is possible to date it fairly precisely because of the discovery on the site of a milestone (milliaire) from Constantine’s era.
The Villa, built entirely on a single-storey, covered a very large area (160m from north to south and 90m from east to west).
It had an imposing façade that opened onto the Roman road, with a columned gateway flanked by two guard posts.
Within the gateway was a vast courtyard (52m long by 21.5m wide), with arcades supported on wooden pillars on either side, closed off to the north by a gallery decorated with a semi-circular apse at each end.
All the most prestigious parts of the Villa were accessed from this imposing gallery.
Directly behind the gallery was a large semicircular pool, the nymphaeum
(14.2 m wide and 1.2m deep with a radius of 9.5m), with its own walkway of columns.
The pool was lined entirely with marble.
The pink cement used to build it, made from crushed bricks, was waterproof.
A considerable amount of wood was required to support the weight of the roofing tiles, which created a danger of fire:
the nymphaeum would also supply water to fight fires if necessary.
Further back was a large room, 9.60m square, with apses at each of the four corners and probably a domed roof.
This was the reception room which, like the two rectangular rooms on either side, would be used for the Villa’s ceremonial functions.
The residential part of the Villa was disposed around a central courtyard 23.5m square, surrounded by a peristyle or colonnade, from which the entire Villa could be accessed.
To the west lay the servants’ work rooms and quarters, as well as a water tank and a store for live oysters.
The apartments of the owner and his family were to the west.
The villa was built with local materials: boulders from the bed of the Garonne, ashlars of limestone, and blocks of marble.
The marble (used for pilasters, panelling and floors) came mostly from the Saint-Béat quarry and created a unity of style while contrasting with the coloured areas provided by the paintings and mosaics.
Water was supplied by stored rainwater and also came from hot springs at what is now the village of Labarthe-Rivière.
The trace of a small aqueduct is still visible, coming over the plain from the south and crossing the courtyard as far as the nymphaeum.
Some of the Villa’s rooms were heated by a system of hypocausts, a form of under-floor heating frequently used in Gaul from the 1st Century on.
At least three small rooms clearly had small hypocausts of two rows of stacked bricks.
But a larger room, 9.65m wide and 13.95m long, had a large hypocaust with conduits that radiated out from at least two fires (and possibly three).
In the walls at the back of the room, flues drew out the colder air.
The large hypocaust system of the Valentine Villa is one of the finest examples of this heating system in the southern part of Roman Gaul.
A hypocaust (from two Greek words meaning heating from below) provides under-floor heating. There were many in Gaul at the time.
The Valentine hypocaust is the largest to have been uncovered in Southern France.
Hot air from the three fireplaces installed outside the room (the smallest seems to have been abandoned fairly rapidly) circulated in the conduits that radiated out beneath the paving stones.
Flues set in the wall at the back of the room allowed the air to be drawn out.
Such systems could maintain temperatures of 20 to 25°C.
For further information:
FOUET (G.). La grande villa gallo-romaine de Valentine (Haute-Garonne) en 1970.
96è Congrés national des Sociétés savantes, Toulouse, 1971.
FOUET (G.). La villa gallo-romaine de Valentine (Haute-Garonne). aperçus préliminaires.
Revue de Comminges, 1978, pp.145-157.