Roman Mosaic Depicting The Illiad Discovered in “Oh Wow Moment”
The accidental discovery of an extraordinary Roman mosaic in a Rutland field that has been described by experts as the “the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the UK in the last century,” reports The Guardian. Thrilling the finder and archaeologists alike, the mosaic depicts scenes from Homer’s The Iliad and is the first example of its kind found in the United Kingdom. In fact, it is extremely rare throughout Europe to find Roman mosaics representing scenes from the Greek epic poem.
The room containing the Roman mosaic was part of a large villa from the late Roman period. (Historic England)
Spectacular Roman Mosaic Discovered During Countryside Walk
On a casual walk in the countryside with family during the lockdown last year, Jim Irvine stumbled upon what he termed an “incredible discovery” in a field belonging to his father, Brian Naylor. “Finding some unusual pottery amongst the wheat piqued my interest and prompted some further investigative work,” explained Irvine. “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.”
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Irvine contacted the archaeological team at Leicestershire County Council and initial explorations were promising enough for Historic England to fund urgent excavation work by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services and later for the involvement of its School of Archaeology and Ancient History. The rare Roman mosaic and its surrounding villa complex that were unearthed as a result are now protected as a scheduled monument by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of Historic England.
View of the Rutland Roman mosaic from the air. (University of Leicester Archaeological Services)
The Roman Mosaic, the Villa and Its Owner
The mosaic, measuring 11 meters (36 ft) by around 7 meters (23 ft), forms the floor of what is believed to have been a large dining or entertaining area. Mosaics were common in public and private building throughout the Roman Empire and usually displayed mythological or historical figures and scenes. However, the Rutland mosaic depicting Achilles’ battle with Hector at the conclusion of the Trojan war is a unique find in the United Kingdom, and one of only a handful of examples across Europe.
It was found to lie within a large villa complex that housed a lot of other structures and buildings. The villa complex seems to have belonged to a prosperous individual from the late Roman period, somewhere between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. Aisled barns, circular structures and what is thought to be a bathhouse are some of the other structures discovered in the vast compound.
Human remains thought to date from a period after the villa complex had ceased to be occupied have also been discovered in the rubble covering the mosaic. Along with fire damage and breaks in the mosaic, they point to the complex having been reused and repurposed, perhaps in the very late Roman or early medieval period.
The bottom panel of the Roman mosaic discovered in Rutland depicts Achilles (left) and Hector (right) dueling. (University of Leicester Archaeological Services)
Roman Mosaic Belonged to Someone with Knowledge of the Classics
"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,” highlighted John Thomas, deputy director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services and project manager on the excavations, in an article published by the BBC.
“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," continued Thomas. Meanwhile, Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, added: "To have uncovered such a rare mosaic of this size, as well as a surrounding villa, is remarkable. Discoveries like this are so important in helping us piece together our shared history.”
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Jim Irvine has said that the field will no longer be used for farming so that it can be protected. While he hopes that one day the site will be accessible to visitors, as of now efforts are on to set up an off-site display of the remarkable Roman remains and information about the Roman mosaic discovery. In fact, the site is so big that only a tiny part has been excavated so far.
There are likely to be more discoveries in the digging seasons to come. “The thing that has been keeping me interested is what's the state of the next thing to come out of the site because it's all been amazing so far,” concluded Irvine. Further excavations are planned at the site in 2022 and Irvine is looking forward to them with a sense of anticipation.
Top image: Dr. David Neal making notes on his illustration during the excavation of the Roman mosaic with students from ULAS / University of Leicester. Source: Historic England