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?
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.