London’s largest area of Roman mosaic for over 50 years

IMAGE: © MOLA/Andy Chopping.

The largest section of Roman mosaic to be found in London for over half a century has been uncovered in Southwark. The floor panels, which have colourful floral and geometric designs, were unearthed by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) during pre-construction work in an area set to become The Liberty of Southwark, a mixed-use community hub being jointly developed by U+I and Transport for London.

MOLA Site Supervisor Antonietta Lerz told CA that traces of mosaic at the site were first spotted by her colleague Dave Saxby, who has been co-running the investigations. Excavations by the MOLA team then revealed a striking pair of multi-coloured panels (a 3D model is available via Sketchfab: The larger of the two (above), thought to date to the late 2nd to early 3rd century AD, is made up of dark blue/black, white, red, yellow, and grey tesserae arranged to form large flowers framed by intertwining strands, a motif called guilloche. Further artistic elements include lotus flowers and a Solomon’s knot pattern with two interlaced loops. Mosaics expert Dr David Neal, formerly an archaeologist with English Heritage, has attributed the design to the ‘Acanthus group’, a collective of London mosaicists who developed their own unique local style. The smaller panel, however, which depicts two Solomon’s knots, two flowers, and geometric motifs in red, white, and black, has a near-parallel in Trier, Germany, which suggests that travelling Roman artisans may have been responsible for both this smaller panel and its Continental counterpart.

It is thought that the panels may have adorned an early Roman dining room. ‘There were a few fragments of dark, ochre-red wall plaster from a partition wall, and some of it was decorated with (probably vertical) fine white lines with green in between,’ Antonietta said. There are also traces of an earlier mosaic beneath the larger of the two panels, which indicates that the room was refurbished over the years.

This space, moreover, seems to have been part of a much larger building complex. ‘In the 1980s, there was an excavation on the north part of the site which uncovered a series of smaller rooms with hypocausts for underfloor heating. These seem to be connected to our room,’ Antonietta said.

As to the purpose of the building, which was located near a river crossing with easy access to Roman Londinium, the team has suggested that it may have functioned as a mansio. This could have offered accommodation, stables, and dining facilities to visiting dignitaries. Equally, it could be the private residence of a wealthy individual, Antonietta said, adding: ‘It’s work in progress. Excavations on the west side might give us more of an indication of who was using this building.’

The team has also found evidence of another luxury Roman building nearby – a private residence with painted walls and terrazzo-style and mosaic floors. ‘There’s a lot going on in this area; it’s very densely populated,’ Antonietta said. ‘Land would have been at a premium in the city, but it looks like it was the same here.’