The 1,700-year-old mosaic — part of the ruins of the ancient Roman villa complex in Rutland, England — is the first example in the UK displaying scenes from Homer’s The Iliad, and one of only a handful from across Europe.
The ancient Roman villa complex was discovered beneath a farmer’s field by Jim Irvine, son of landowner Brian Naylor, in 2020.
“A ramble through the fields with the family turned into an incredible discovery,” Irvine said.
“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.”
The ancient complex is 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.
It is likely to have been occupied by a wealthy individual in the Late Roman period, between the 3rd and 4th century CE.
The remains of the mosaic measure 11 m by 7 m (36 by 23 feet) and depict part of the story of the Greek hero Achilles.
The artwork forms the floor of what’s thought to be a large dining or entertaining area.
Mosaics were used in a variety of private and public buildings across the Roman Empire, and often featured famous figures from history and mythology.
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.
“This is certainly the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the UK in the last century,” said Dr. John Thomas, deputy director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services and project manager on the excavations.
“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.”
“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.”
“The fact that we have the wider context of the surrounding complex is also hugely significant, because previous excavations on Roman villas have only been able to capture partial pictures of settlement like these, but this appears to be a very well-preserved example of a villa in its entirety.”
Fire damage and breaks in the Rutland 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, and 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,” said 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.”