How one of Britain’s finest mosaics emerged at Mud Hole Roman villa
In 2017, part of a 1,700-year-old mosaic richly decorated with scenes from Classical mythology was excavated during a community project at Boxford, Berkshire. Two years on, its entire surface has been revealed. Anthony Beeson explores the stories behind its sophisticated motifs.
Two years ago, I was called to examine a Roman mosaic that had been excavated at Mud Hole villa in the Berkshire village of Boxford, and to offer my advice (as a Greek and Roman art specialist) on its imagery. Although less than half of the mosaic had been exposed by the community project (organised by the Boxford History Project and the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group, with professional guidance led by Matt Nichol of Cotswold Archaeology), it was clearly a significant find – at the time of its discovery I described it as ‘without question the most exciting mosaic discovery made in Britain in the last 50 years’ (see CA 333).
The mosaic had emerged only in the final week of the project, allowing just a brief glimpse of its iconography before it had to be covered over once more, but its importance was unmistakable, and interest in the discovery was worldwide. The section that had been excavated gave us a tantalising glimpse of the finest mosaic depiction known in Britain of the hero Bellerophon killing the monster Chimaera, Hercules slaying a centaur, and a scene set in a king’s court, as well as two walking giants or ‘telamones’ (sculpted male figures used architecturally as decorative columns). As well as the sophistication of their execution, many of these elements are very unusual: the walking telamones are only known from one other mosaic (a floor found at Tusculum in 1741, now to be found in the Greek Cross Room at the Vatican); and the Hercules episode was otherwise unknown in Britain.
The artistry of the mosaic’s design was as ambitious as it was impressive; the mosaicist had attempted to give the pavement a trompe l’oeil effect, while subjects also overlapped or broke out of their borders in a way not encountered before on British mosaics. And on top of all this, we could also see two (damaged) inscriptions incorporated into the imagery: another rare feature for Britain. But what did it all mean?
At the time, I surmised that the whole pavement might be devoted to the story of Bellerophon, and that the ‘Court Panel’, as I then called it, might show King Iobates presenting his daughter Philonoe to be married to the hero after succeeding in his quests. It was quite obvious that the excavation had found something remarkable, and enthusiasm to uncover whatever remained of the rest of the pavement was immense in the local community. At the same time, it was uncertain whether anything would remain of the other half of the pavement – there had been some areas of loss in the panels, and it looked as though iconoclasts had been at work on several of the heads as only the centaur and an attendant still retained their complete faces. However, in August 2019 fundraising allowed excavation to start again once the field had been harvested.
The initial finds were not promising; it had been hoped that the modest villa’s central rooms would also yield mosaics, but this was not the case (unfortunately, sufficient funds could not be raised to excavate the bath-suite, so whether that part of the complex sported decorative floors is still unknown). Yet an eager army of local volunteers was marshalled, and put on a rota to take part in the excavation. It was a true community-binding project and, given the discoveries that emerged as the project progressed, one that participants will always remember.
Towards the end of the first week, the distinctive tesserae forming the coarse furniture border surrounding the mosaic were brought to light once more, and an exploratory scraping and sponging disclosed the intact face of the telamon in the north corner to great excitement. As the overburden was slowly removed, leaving a thin lens of soil over the rest of the mosaic, it could be seen to everyone’s delight that perhaps 80% of the floor was still there, awaiting discovery. As the investigation continued, the final week was full of wonder for everyone involved, as an exceptional work of 4th-century Romano-British art was gradually uncovered.
THE TRIUMPH OF PELOPS
It soon became obvious that ‘The Court Panel’ (which faced west, whereas the Bellerophon scene was south-facing), was just a small part of a large L-shaped composition that featured at least one chariot and multiple horses. Even with the images still covered in a thin layer of soil, obscuring their colours, there appeared to be two figures in the chariot, one with long wind-swept hair. Might this be an abduction scene? In fact, as the mosaic was sponged clean, it became apparent that the wind-swept hair was in fact a rather inept depiction of a striped Phrygian cap, and that the ‘heroine’ (who was certainly no beauty) was in fact a man dressed in a short tunic and standing in a Roman racing chariot.
The key to interpreting this scene lay with the figure that I had surmised would turn out to be the ‘abductor’. When cleaned, he was found to be standing outside of the chariot and, in his hand, was a pale P-shaped object. It was a linchpin – the piece that secures a chariot’s wheels. This immediately brought to mind the story of Pelops and his bid to win the Princess Hippodamia in a chariot race, and the wax linchpin that caused his opponent’s death and he to win the race.
The myth of Pelops, son of Tantalus, is one of the oldest in Greek mythology. Pelops had a distressing childhood, having been murdered by his father, who cut him up and cooked him in a stew which the gods fortunately refused to eat. For this unpaternal act, Tantalus was punished in the underworld with eternal hunger and thirst that could never be satisfied – from which we get the word ‘tantalise’. Alas, a distracted Demeter did eat Pelops’ shoulder, so when Zeus had him reassembled she contributed a magic ivory replica – something that seems to have only enhanced his aesthetic appeal; he was deemed so desirable that Poseidon whisked him off to be his lover and cup bearer. Later, inheriting his father’s kingdom in Lydia, Pelops was chased out by the king of Troy – who was searching for his beautiful son Ganymedes (whom Zeus had also abducted for the same purposes) – and eventually came to Pisa, near Olympia, where King Oenomaus’ beautiful daughter, Hippodamia, was ready to be wed.
Unfortunately, Oenomaus was not so keen on arranging her nuptials, as he had been told that his son-in-law would be the death of him, and so he challenged all would-be suitors to race him – with one rather severe condition: if they lost, they would die. He also made sure to handicap them by insisting that the princess ride with them. Up to 18 died and their heads were nailed up in the palace, but this did not dissuade Pelops from making his own attempt. To improve his chances, though, Pelops enlisted the aid of Poseidon, who gave him a golden chariot with winged horses, and also bribed Myrtilus, Oenomaus’ charioteer, with offers of half of his kingdom and the bridal night with Hippodamia in exchange for swapping the metal linchpins in the king’s chariot with wax ones. Myrtilus agreed, and during the race Oenomaus’ chariot disintegrated, with fatal results. Pelops inherited all, but reneged on his promises to Myrtilus, throwing the treacherous charioteer over a cliff. His curse would haunt the descendants of Pelops for generations – though there was one positive outcome to this episode: the funerary games that Pelops held for Oenomaus became the mythical origins of the later Olympics.
Once we had identified the Pelops legend as the main subject of the mosaic, the meaning of its other motifs soon became clear. The court scene in fact depicted Oenomaus on his throne in god-like pose, presenting his daughter to the viewer. On the right, a palace guard points either towards the king, directing the viewer to his magnificence, or beyond again to the princess. Unfortunately, both Oenomaus and Hippodamia have suffered damage, but are reasonably easy to restore on paper through the clues that remain in the tessellation. Standing beside these regal figures, the little guard to the right of the king cuts a much humbler figure – but this (much better preserved) individual is of great importance, being the only image of an armed man shown with a shield and in contemporary dress to survive from 4th-century Britain. Above this group is a damaged inscription, which has been tentatively restored by Dr Roger Tomlin as reading OENOMAVS REGNI (‘The kingdom of Oenomaus’).
Below the court scene, the action bleeds into an image with the king in a quadriga (a chariot drawn by four horses). He is wrongly given a Phrygian cap, but lacks any other aspect of ‘eastern’ dress. By his side, Myrtilus holds the linchpin which, to be pedantic, is the type I believe to be known as ‘Manning 2b’ – a darker line below it may represent its shadow or the metal pin that he has removed at Pelops’ request. Meanwhile, the four horses pulling the chariot are splendidly handled with marvellous manes made of long thin tesserae. They line up like a chorus row with raised front legs – although damaged, they are again easily restored on paper.
At the end of the course and striding across the winning line towards the king’s chariot is the figure of Pelops shown in a racing helmet and adopting an action that suggests a victor, shedding a garment with an elaborate netted lining in red, buff, and blue to obtain heroic nudity. Above his head, an inscription gives the (misspelled) name ‘PELOBS’, an immensely satisfying find cementing my interpretation of the scene. It is a wonderfully dynamic composition, but the real marvel of the chariot race theme is that it only appears on two other mosaics found in the whole of the Roman Empire. One, now in the National Museum of Damascus, was found at Shaba, Syria, whilst the other is in the fabulous late Roman palace at Noheda in Spain, and appears to be based on the same lost original as Boxford’s. Another particularly significant aspect of this part of the mosaic is a long inscription (itself a rarity on British mosaics), which has been tentatively translated as wishing long life to the villa’s owners, Caepio and his wife Fortunata. As Roger Tomlin surmises, might our mosaic have been a wedding present from the bride’s parents?
BELLEROPHON AND CHIMAERA
All of the subjects on the floor have subtle mythological connections and are obviously carefully chosen. Another panel depicts Bellerophon, the hero of a different mythological narrative, but one who is connected to Pelops by the fact that both Bellerophon and his winged steed Pegasus were the sons of Poseidon, whose amorous associations with Pelops have already been discussed. (Pegasus was conceived through the union of Poseidon with the beautiful Medusa in Athena’s temple – the latter goddess was so incensed by the desecration of her sacred space that Medusa was turned into a frightful creature whose glance turned all living things to stone. When Perseus, on his own quest, cut off her head, Pegasus and his humanoid brother Chrysaor leapt out of the severed neck fully formed.)
Bellerophon of Corinth went to stay with King Proetus to be pardoned for a murder – but unfortunately for him, Proetus’ wife, Queen Anteia, desired him and, when rejected, told Proetus that he had tried to seduce her. Forbidden by the rules of hospitality from killing a guest, the furious king sent Bellerophon to Anteia’s father, King Iobates in Lycia, with a letter to ask him to kill the youth. However, Iobates was too tardy in opening this missive, and found himself bound by the same customs that had hindered Proetus. Unable to carry out his son-in-law’s murderous request, Iobates instead sent Bellerophon on a suicide mission to slay the monster that was ravaging his kingdom.
Chimaera had the body of a lion, but from her back grew a goat’s head and her tail was a serpent. All three heads shot flames from their mouths. This was a daunting foe, but Bellerophon defeated her with the aid of Pegasus, by thrusting a spear topped with lead into one of Chimaera’s three mouths, searing her vitals. The image of Bellerophon on Pegasus killing Chimaera was very popular in Britannia, and it was gradually transformed into that of St George and the dragon. It denoted the triumph of good over evil and could also be a flattering association with the master of the house. Further aspects of the design are explained by the fact that, traditionally, Pegasus represented the sun and Chimaera winter. Bellerophon as the active power of the sun attacked winter and started the seasons rolling – hence the appearance of the four seasons on many Bellerophon mosaics.
Five British mosaic depictions of the Bellerophon myth are known, and the Boxford example is the most painterly of the set, with the finest and most vibrant depiction of his steed. Pegasus is portrayed in ochre-coloured tesserae, with blue detailing and red straps and bridle. Again he sports a beautifully fashioned mane, as well as two flipper-like wings tipped with flight feathers. The horse is portrayed as literally engaged in a flying gallop, with his front and rear legs protruding from the surrounding guilloche frames (crossing an inscription behind), and on the front legs we can even see the underside of the hoofs, enhancing the three-dimensional effect.
Bellerophon has unfortunately lost his head, but his body is better preserved – he wears a fashionable tunic with orbiculi (round ornamental motifs) at the shoulder and thigh, and a clavus (a decorative stripe; these could be long or short and ran down by the neck band of a tunic) by the neck opening. He is shown spearing Chimaera in her goat’s mouth; the monster herself has also been damaged, but she is clearly based on the design used for a better-preserved lion in the western border (discussed in the ‘Border Country’ section) and so can be easily restored. In flight, she turns to attack her tormentors with fiery breath – this is another brilliantly vibrant creature, putting to shame others depicted on British mosaics. Above the figure of her slayer is a damaged inscription that gives his name as BELLEREFONS – a spelling that I only know used on a 4th-century mosaic at Malaga, Spain.
Moving from the main panels, even the surrounding borders of the mosaic are full of incident and subjects not found elsewhere in Britain. The four corners feature telamones stepping out of almond-shaped frames called mandorlas with guilloche borders (a decorative motif that looks like braided ribbons), rather as Christ does in later manuscript illuminations. As has been mentioned above, their presence here is remarkable, as is the mosaicists’ attempt to produce a trompe l’oeil effect by foreshortening the figures. Originally, each side held a centrally placed guilloche-bordered roundel, from which an amorino (cupid) bursts, carrying a triumphal wreath in one hand – the amorino shown below the chariot race holds a linchpin as well. What is particularly interesting about the amorini, though, is that they bear a great resemblance to those found on the Byzantine Veroli casket (a late 10th-century box overlaid with bone and ivory plaques bearing mythological scenes, held by the Victoria and Albert Museum), where one holds a triumphal crown over the head of Bellerophon.
The border’s subjects are spaced between bushes as if in a landscape. In the east, Hercules kills a centaur, probably during the incident at the cave of Pholus, but other occasions are possible, including some versions of his slaying of Nessus. A cantharus wine cup stands nearby, at first suggesting a garden urn or an allusion to Bacchus, but it is actually a subtle reference to the figure directly beyond it, the enthroned Oenomaus, as his name means ‘Man of Wine’. The north border is cut by a Victorian land drain, though fortunately this interpolation only nicks the figure work, and in fact it allows an interesting glimpse into the mosaic’s foundations.
The most exciting figure in this part of the border, though, is an archer identified as Pelops’ son, Alcathous of Elis, who killed the Cithaeronian Lion and inherited a kingdom. Its importance lies in the fact that he is shown firing an arrow behind the back of the corner telamon to hit a fleeing lion in the western border, again attempting to reinforce a trompe l’oeil effect. This combination of incident between borders is unique and something one might expect from a manuscript illumination. The lion itself is a splendid beast with a red tongue and sharp teeth, while blood spurts forth from the arrow sticking in his throat. One suspects that the mosaicist had never seen one in life, but nevertheless he was a favourite with his excavators – and, as mentioned above, he was also the model for the image of Chimaera.
The final subject on the border features a rather substandard horse and a finely executed man with a rope or bridle. I believe that the horse is Arion, another son of Poseidon (this time by Demeter, who had tried to avoid his attentions by changing herself into a mare – undeterred, Poseidon responded by transforming into a stallion), who could both talk and fly. The man is probably Adrastus, who tamed him; this figure’s limbs include what may be the smallest tesserae that have been found on a British mosaic (as small as 2mm square), remarkably delicate work – and yet the depiction of Arion falls well short of the standard of the other horses shown on the floor. I wonder if this more naive image was perhaps the work of an apprentice.
THE MEANING OF A MOSAIC
As a whole, the Boxford mosaic is arguably the most important example of late Roman art to have been discovered in Britain, a find that immediately captured the public’s imagination. The project’s open day in August was a spectacular success, attracting over 3,000 visitors and raising over £4,000 in donations, and its iconography continues to attract widespread academic interest. Its importance lies not in the technical or artistic abilities of the mosaicists who made it, though, but in the remarkable and sophisticated choice of subjects depicted, the innovative approach of the mosaicists, and their attempts to produce a trompe l’oeil design.
The choice of images, all of them seemingly subtly connected to Pelops, Bellerophon, or Poseidon, are of great interest and originality in art, and must surely have been chosen with care by their patron. The aristocratic horse theme is particularly strong, with six being portrayed on the floor – this provides another link with Poseidon, who is credited with creating the first horses and inventing horse racing. Given these equine interests, the feeling amongst the mosaic’s excavators was that perhaps this modest villa with its exceptionally grand reception room, great barn or stable, and monumental entrance gateway, was some kind of hunting lodge or stud.
Notwithstanding the naivety of some of the depictions, in many ways the mosaic recalls manuscript illumination, especially in the treatment of its borders. It is an attractive thought that its patron might have requested the stories from a favourite codex in his possession, and that the designer based elements of it on this. We know that the story of Pelops was covered by Sophocles, Euripides, Accius, and others, and works such as Hyginus’ Fabullae would have provided a treasury of additional and connecting stories. The fact that the Pelops story was chosen at all, when only two other representations of the chariot race are known, must raise questions as to its original visual source and the patron. To have the probable names of the owners of the property is a wonderful bonus, and one hopes that Caepio and his wife Fortunata derived as much enjoyment from their new floor as did those many archaeologists and volunteers who have brought it to light once more almost 1,700 years later.
The author has written a detailed, highly illustrated, account of the mosaic and its iconography that includes reconstructions of some of the damaged areas of the mosaic, as well as sections by Joy Appleton on the Boxford History Project and Matt Nichol on the villa excavation. The book can be ordered via www.countrysidebooks.co.uk.