A Roman villa complex containing a rare mosaic has been discovered beneath a farmer’s field in Leicestershire, UK.
The mosaic is the first example in the UK displaying scenes from Homer’s The Iliad, and one of only a handful from across Europe. It is considered one of the most remarkable and significant Roman mosaics ever found in Britain.
Investigations recorded the mosaic’s remains and revealed that it lies within an elaborate villa complex, encompassing a host of other structures and buildings.
The complex is likely to have been occupied by a wealthy individual from the late Roman period.
Historic England had been working on a dig with University of Leicester’s archaeology department (ULAS) when the treasure was found.
From today, the findings will be protected by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of Historic England.
“This is certainly the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the UK in the last Century,” says John Thomas, Deputy Director of ULAS and project manager on the excavations.
How was the mosaic discovered?
Initial discovery of the mosaic was made during the UK’s first COVID lockdown by Jim Irvine, son of landowner Brian Naylor, who contacted the archaeological team at Leicestershire County Council.
The remains of the mosaic measure 11 metres by almost 7 metres and depict part of the story of the Greek hero Achilles.
Given the exceptional nature of this discovery, Historic England was able to secure funding for urgent archaeological investigations of the site by ULAS in August 2020.
Further excavation examined more of the site over a year later, in September 2021.
“A ramble through the fields with the family turned into an incredible discovery,” Irvine explains.
“Finding some unusual pottery amongst the wheat piqued my interest and prompted some further investigative work. Later, looking at the satellite imagery I spotted a very clear crop mark, as if someone had drawn on my computer screen with a piece of chalk!
“This really was the ‘oh wow’ moment, and the beginning of the story.”
Evidence recovered from the site will be analysed by ULAS at their University of Leicester base, and by specialists from Historic England and across the UK, including David Neal, the foremost expert on mosaic research in the country.
What do we know about the discovery so far?
Mosaics were used in a variety of private and public buildings across the Roman Empire, and often featured famous figures from history and mythology.
The team believe this piece forms the floor of what’s thought to be a large dining or entertaining area that existed between the 3rd and 4th century AD.
However, the Rutland mosaic is unique in the UK in that it features Achilles and his battle with Hector at the conclusion of the Trojan War and is one of only a handful of examples from across Europe.
Using this information, they have concluded the building belonged to a well-read, wealthy individual with the capital to commission a piece rooted in literature at such a scale.
The villa is also surrounded by a range of other buildings and features revealed by a geophysical survey and archaeological evaluation, including what appear to be aisled barns, circular structures and a possible bath house, all within a series of boundary ditches.
Fire damage and breaks in the mosaic suggest that the site was later re-used and re-purposed.
Other evidence uncovered includes the discovery of human remains within the rubble covering the mosaic. These burials are thought to have been interred after the building was no longer occupied.
While their precise age is currently unknown, they are later than the mosaic but placed in a relationship to the villa building, suggesting a very late Roman or Early-Medieval date for the repurposing of this structure.
Their discovery gives an insight into how the site may have been used during this relatively poorly understood early post-Roman period of history.
“To have uncovered such a rare mosaic of this size, as well as a surrounding villa, is remarkable,” says Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England.
“Discoveries like this are so important in helping us piece together our shared history. By protecting this site we are able to continue learning from it, and look forward to what future excavations may teach us about the people who lived there over 1,500 years ago.”
Future generations will be able to enjoy this feat of craftsmanship
The UK government’s protection as a scheduled monument recognises the exceptional national importance of this site. It ensures these remains are legally protected and helps combat unauthorised works or unlawful activities such as illegal metal detecting.
The site has been thoroughly examined and recorded as part of the recent investigations and has now been backfilled to protect it for future generations.
The villa complex was found within an arable field where the shallow archaeological remains had been disturbed by ploughing and other activities.
Historic England is working with the landowner to support the reversion of these fields to sustainable grassland and pasture use.
These types of agri-environment schemes are an essential part of how we can protect both the historic and natural environments and have contributed around £13 million per year towards the conservation and maintenance of our rural heritage.
They help to preserve sites like the Rutland mosaic so that people can continue to enjoy and learn about our fascinating history.
Further excavations could take place soon
In collaboration with the University of Leicester and other stakeholders, Historic England is planning further excavations on the site for 2022.
Discussions are ongoing with Rutland County Council to explore the opportunity for an off-site display and interpretation of the villa complex and its finds. This is due to the site existing on private land rendering it inaccessible to the public.
The form and scope of this work will be informed by the proposed future excavations and will be the subject of a future National Lottery Heritage Fund bid.
The discovery of the Rutland villa and filming as the mosaic is uncovered for the first time in over 1,500 years will be featured as part of Digging for Britain when it returns to BBC Two and iPlayer in early 2022.
Host, Professor Alice Roberts, said: “What I love about Digging for Britain is that, when we set out to film the series, we have no idea what discoveries might come to light,” enthuses host Professor Alice Roberts.
“This year, the revelations have been nothing short of spectacular, and each find brings us closer to understanding the lives of people who once lived in Britain.
“Archaeology brings you into intimate contact with the physical reality of the past.”