A community project near Boxford in Berkshire has uncovered the remains of a late Roman villa containing what has been hailed as ‘the most exciting mosaic discovery made in Britain in the last 50 years’.
The HLF-funded project ‘Revealing Boxford’s Ancient Heritage’ is a collaboration between the Boxford History Project, Berkshire Archaeology Research Group, and Cotswold Archaeology, which has been investigating a number of Roman sites around the village over the last three years.
The latest of these to be excavated was a relatively small Roman villa. Measuring c.22m in length by 10m in width, it follows a classic corridor design, with rooms leading off a main passageway. Terraced into the hillside, the building’s remains had been protected over the centuries, and in places its walls survived to 60-70cm high.
This level of preservation held another secret too: although the villa – accompanied by a stone barn 17m in length and 6.5m across – might have appeared unprepossessing at first glance, further investigation revealed that one of its rooms boasted an ornate floor that belied its modest proportions.
Stylistically dated to the 4th century, the mosaic is decorated with colourful motifs depicting scenes from Greek mythology, including the hero Bellerophon fighting the Chimera; Cupid holding a wreath; and Hercules fighting a centaur. As well as describing it as the most exciting mosaic to have been discovered in Britain in the last half century, mosaic expert Anthony Beeson argues that it ‘must take premier place among those Romano-British works of art that have come down to modern Britons.’
Duncan Coe, the project lead for Cotswold Archaeology, added: ‘This is a truly exciting find: the range of imagery on the mosaic is unique, we’re told, though its execution is crude – it could be that the floor was commissioned by a person with lots of money and a clear understanding of Greek iconography, but who perhaps did not have access to a sufficiently skilled craftsman in Britain.’
The use of Classical imagery tells us about the villa owner’s aspirations, said Neil Holbrook, Chief Executive of Cotswold Archaeology and Roman specialist.
‘The mosaic is a truly important find. Not only is it a fantastic new piece of Roman art from Britain, but it also tells us about the lifestyle and social pretensions of the owner of the villa at Boxford,’ he said. ‘That person wanted to project an image of themselves as a cultivated person of taste – someone familiar with Classical mythology and high Roman culture, despite the fact that their villa was of relatively modest size and in a remote part of the Roman Empire. While this person was probably of British origin, they wanted to be regarded by their friends, neighbours, and subservients as a proper Roman.’
To-date, about half of the mosaic is thought to have been revealed. The project team hopes to raise sufficient funds to be able to uncover and record the rest of the surface in the future.
This article was published in CA 332.