Going into lockdown during the pandemic provided an unexpected boon to a farmer in Rutland, England: he stumbled upon the remains of an old Roman mosaic and surrounding villa complex, dating back to between 300 and 400 CE. Archaeologists are hailing the find as one of the most significant mosaics yet found in Great Britain, and the entire site has been declared a protected area. It will be featured next year on the British documentary TV series Digging for Britain.
This isn’t the first interesting archaeological find from the Roman occupation of Britain. For instance, back in 2018, we reported that archaeologists flying over a prehistoric settlement in southern Wales had spotted the ghostly outline of a Roman villa on the ground inside a known older prehistoric settlement’s boundaries. And in 2020, a 2000-year-old stylus (the equivalent of a cheap souvenir, complete with a suitably corny inscription) turned up in a collection of some 1,400 artifacts that had been excavated from a site on the banks of the River Walbrook, a tributary of the Thames that now flows beneath the city’s streets.
As Kiona Smith wrote at the time:
In 70 CE, London would have been a rough-looking frontier community of low wooden buildings, in sharp contrast to the brick and marble of Rome. But London was already a bustling hub of commerce and trade thanks to the River Thames and its tributaries, including the Walbrook. Ships travelled up and down the river, loading and unloading their cargoes at warehouses along its banks. Merchants conducted a steady flow of trade in those low wooden buildings. The city also had several Roman-style baths, an amenity that turned up even at forts along the very edge of Rome’s border with modern Scotland. People travelled constantly from North Africa and across Europe along the Roman road system, and then by ship to London, bringing ideas and beliefs with them.
So it’s not all that surprising that Jim Irvine, the farmer behind this latest discovery, found some pieces of unusual pottery on an afternoon ramble through the fields. He decided it warranted further investigation and called in the professional archaeologists. “Full tribute must be paid to Jim and his family for their prompt and responsible actions,” said Richard Clark, county archaeologist for Leicestershire and Rutland, in a statement.
Satellite imagery showed a very clear crop mark. (Stone walls or foundations buried beneath a modern landscape tend to absorb more heat than the soil around them. The heat that those buried stones radiate can bake the soil above to a lighter color, so the outlines of ancient buildings and fences show up on the parched surface of modern lawns and fields.) And careful excavation of the site eventually uncovered the mosaic.
The mosaic measures 36 feet by 23 feet (11 meters by 7 meters) and depicts scenes from the story of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad—notably, the Greek hero’s battle with Hector at the end of the Trojan War. The flooring likely was the centerpiece of a large dining or entertaining area in the villa structure, and a geophysical survey also found evidence of barns, circular structures, and possibly a bath house in the surrounding area.
There is some fire damage and breaks in the mosaic, and the University of Leicester team excavating the site also found human remains mixed in with the rubble. These appear to be from the very late Roman or early Medieval period, suggesting that the building was later abandoned and repurposed as a burial site. Because it is on private land, the site is not accessible to the public. The Irvine family is working with Historic England to convert the land to grassland and pasture use, in order to better preserve the site. There will be further excavation next year.
“This is certainly the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the UK in the last century,” said John Thomas, deputy director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services and project manager on the excavations. “It gives us fresh perspectives on the attitudes of people at the time, their links to classical literature, and it also tells us an enormous amount about the individual who commissioned this piece. This is someone with a knowledge of the classics, who had the money to commission a piece of such detail, and it’s the very first depiction of these stories that we’ve ever found in Britain.”
As for Irvine, it has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “This archaeological discovery has filled most of my spare time over the last year,” he said. “It has been a fascinating journey. The last year has been a total thrill to have been involved with, and to work with the archaeologists and students at the site, and I can only imagine what will be unearthed next.”
Listing image by Historic England