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Remains of the Roman mosaic discovered at Olney, England. Source: Oxford Archaeology

Roman Mosaic Discovered At Proposed Aldi Supermarket

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Archaeologists in England have announced the remains of an ancient Roman villa and bath house buried beneath what will become a new supermarket.

The rare mosaic brickwork was discovered in Warrington Road in Olney, Buckinghamshire, near the town of Milton Keynes. The dig was conducted by Oxford Archaeology, who carried out the work for developer Angle Property at a site being prepared for the construction of a new Aldi supermarket.

And so special is this ancient artwork that the discovery team not only described as "intricate," but they said it’s "archaeological remains of high significance."

Unlayering of Ancient Olney

Olney is a town located in Buckinghamshire, England, and it boasts a rich history dating back to the Roman occupation of Britain. The town played an important role in the wool trade during the Middle Ages and is perhaps best known for its connection to the 18th century poet and hymn writer, ‘William Cowper,‘ who wrote "The Task" and the hymn "God Moves in a Mysterious Way."

Previous excavations carried out around the town have unearthed Roman settlements and medieval buildings, but one of the most famous discoveries made in Olney was the remains of a Roman villa, which was unearthed in the early 20th century. Dated to around AD 150, the villa was home to a wealthy Roman family who basked in a lush bath house and underfloor heating system. Many medieval timber-framed buildings still standing today including St Peter and St Paul's churches, dating back to the 14th century.

As is often the case, what remains of the mosaic at Olney is in great condition. (Oxford Archaeology)

As is often the case, what remains of the mosaic at Olney is in great condition. (Oxford Archaeology)

What Lies Beneath

According to Historic England the dig was commissioned due to the site's proximity to the aforementioned Roman site at Olney. Made up of red, white and blue tiles the team of archaeologists said the mosaic featured “vibrant colors and intricate decorative patterns."

John Boothroyd, senior project manager at Oxford Archaeology, said that due to the site location they anticipated some notable Roman remains, but the discovery of this fantastic mosaic “far exceeded those expectations.” Furthermore, the team believes many more parts of the ancient artwork remain hidden under Warrington Road, but because of their location they won’t be excavated.

Lost Roman Arts In England

Roman mosaics were a popular form of decorative art across the ancient Roman empire. They were used to decorate floors, walls, and ceilings of public buildings, private homes, and places of worship.

They were made by piecing together small, colored stones, glass, or ceramic tiles, known as tesserae, into intricate designs and patterns. Often depicting scenes from mythology and historical events, Roman mosaics were highly valued for their beauty, durability, and the skill required to create them.

Anthony Williamson, executive director of Angle, said the find had "taken us all by surprise." And he added that to be able to preserve remains of this “quality and importance” is a brilliant outcome, promising that it "will be fully recorded" and information about it published in the near future. Oxford Archaeology said following consultations with Historic England and Milton Keynes Council the mosaic was covered up and preserved in situ. This means construction of the new Aldi supermarket can proceed without causing damage to the rare ancient artwork.

Mosaics Across Britannia

It is not easy to put an exact number on the Roman mosaics discovered in England, as any discovered in the 19th century have now been lost. However, many can be seen in museums, churches, and at exhibits at archaeological sites.

Some of the most famous examples can be found at the Roman villas of Fishbourne and Chedworth, at the Roman Baths in Bath, the Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent, and the Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex.

The biggest Roman mosaic in England, however, was discovered in 1960 at the 3rd century Roman villa of Durnovaria (modern-day Dorchester), in the county of Dorset. This mosaic measures approximately 11 meters square and is composed of over 4 million tesserae featuring intricate geometric patterns and images of sea creatures, birds, and other animals. Today, the mosaic is on display at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, where visitors can marvel at its size and beauty.

Top image: Remains of the Roman mosaic discovered at Olney, England. Source: Oxford Archaeology

By Ashley Cowie



It should be obvious by now that mosaic floors in private residences (for those of some means) and public buildings and spaces of many ancient civilizations were a common method of durably decorating floors, and were even incorporated in walls and ceilings, a tradition which persisted even into the 20th century until the expense of doing such work became prohibitive.

Depending on the skill of the craftsmen and the resources of the contractor, they can be impressive or just utilitarian, but are not rare. Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily has 35,000 square feet of beautiful mosaic floors, and we don’t even know who owned or built the villa, though the documentation of the Roman Empire is extensive through preserved documents and inscriptions - an ancient form of documentation  of names, dates, places, and events, memorialized in an alphabet we can still read today (if we can read Latin, or easily translate it) rather than cryptic hieroglyphs which only a specialist can understand.


Pete Wagner's picture

Oh, I think I got it now!  Roman = Pre-Ice Age.  Otherwise, it doesn’t add up.  Takes a long, long time, where NOBODY is around to stop it, glaciers or no glaciers, to bury ornate works of man under sediment layers.  Keep digging, there’s MUCH MORE TO FIND, and call Roman.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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