New dating evidence from Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire may have identified Britain’s first-known 5th-century mosaic, researchers have announced.
Founded in the 2nd century and reaching its zenith 200 years later, the Cotswold site is one of the country’s largest and best-preserved Roman villas. Over the years, excavations have uncovered the remains of 35 rooms, some adorned with elaborate mosaic floors (see CA 284).
It was traditionally thought that, following the economic crash that rocked the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century, towns and villas in Britain were largely abandoned and fell into decay. The findings from Chedworth suggest that not only did high-status occupation continue at the villa beyond this date, but that its owners were still investing in the decor.
The discovery came as part of the North Range Project, a six-year programme of excavation and research by National Trust archaeologists at Chedworth (CA 305). During this work, the team investigated Room 28, which is home to an intricate mosaic with a border formed from a series of circles in guilloche (a decorative motif that looks like braided ribbon – here the interweaving strands were picked out in red, blue, and white tesserae), filled with images of flowers and woven knots. They found that the room had been created by subdividing an earlier space – and, crucially, the foundation trench of this partition wall contained charcoal, animal bone, and a single sherd of pottery.
The charcoal and animal bone have now been radiocarbon dated, yielding dates of AD 424-544 (95.4% probability) and AD 337-432 (87% probability) respectively. This suggests that the wall, and therefore the mosaic that was installed in the new space, were created after AD 424. Analysis of the pottery fragment revealed it to be Late Roman Shelly Ware, which was produced after AD 360.
National Trust Archaeologist Martin Papworth (pictured above, working on the Room 28 mosaic) said, ‘in the 5th century it has generally been believed that most of the population turned to subsistence farming to sustain themselves and, after the break with Rome, Britannia’s administrative system broke down into a series of local fiefdoms. What is so exciting about the dating of this mosaic at Chedworth is that it is evidence for a more gradual decline. The creation of a new room and the laying of a new floor suggests wealth, and a mosaic industry, continuing 50 years later than had been expected.’
He added, ‘It is interesting to speculate why Chedworth villa’s owners were still living in this style well into the 5th century. It seems that in the West Country, the Romanised way of life was sustained for a while. Many large, richly decorated Roman villas have been found in the countryside around Cirencester, which is around 8 miles from Chedworth. By the end of the 4th century, Cirencester was the second largest Romano-British town after London and had become the capital of a separate province “Britannia Prima”. The wealth of these many lavish villas surrounding this provincial capital surpassed that of any group found across the rest of Britain. Perhaps this territory occupied a more protected area, sheltered from the hostile raids taking place from the north and along the western and eastern coasts.’
The mosaic has been reburied to protect it from the weather, but photographs and a 3D video flythrough can be seen at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworth. The site will reopen to the public on 13 February. We hope to bring you a fuller account of the research in a future issue of Current Archaeology – watch this space!
Text: C Hilts.