‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ Roman mosaic unearthed in London

Archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) uncovered the mosaic during excavations ahead of construction of The Liberty of Southwark.

Excavations in Southwark have revealed the largest area of Roman mosaic discovered in London for more than 50 years.

MOLA archaeologists at work on the mosaic unearthed in Southwark. IMAGE: © MOLA/Andy Chopping.

Archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) uncovered the mosaic during excavations ahead of construction of The Liberty of Southwark, which is part of a regeneration scheme for the wider area.

Antonietta Lerz, MOLA Site Supervisor, called it a once-in-a-lifetime find’.

The mosaic comprises two panels of coloured tiles set within a red tessellated floor.

The largest panel (pictured above), dated to c. AD 175-225, depicts colourful flowers framed within a ‘guilloche’, a motif featuring bands of intertwining strands. Lotus flowers, geometric designs, and Solomon’s knots (a pattern of two interlaced loops) are also shown.

According to David Neal, a leading expert in Roman mosaic and former archaeologist with English Heritage, the unique style is in keeping with that of the ‘Acanthus group’ – a team of local London mosaicists.

MOLA archeologist at work on the smaller decorative panel of the Southwark mosaic. IMAGE: ©MOLA/Andy Chopping.

The smaller panel depicts a simpler design, with stylised flowers, two Solomon’s knots, and geometric motifs in black, white, and red.

An almost exact parallel has been uncovered in Trier, Germany, suggesting they were both the works of travelling artisans.

The mosaic was situated in a large room, currently interpreted as a dining room or triclinium. Fragments of colourful wall plaster found at the site hint at its lavish decoration.

Beneath it, archaeologists also identified traces of an earlier mosaic, indicating the room had been refurbished over the years.

Ongoing excavations have revealed it to be part of a large Roman complex built around AD 120-160, and comprising a central courtyard surrounded by multiple rooms and corridors.

With its size, opulence, and convenient location on the outskirts of Roman Londinium, the complex has been interpreted as an upmarket ‘motel’, or mansio.

Early Roman decorated wall plaster found during the excavations. IMAGE: © MOLA / AndyChopping.

Adjacent to the complex, MOLA made further discoveries of coins, jewellery, and painted walls and terrazzo-style flooring, testifying to the presence of another Roman building, possibly a wealthy private residence.

Both complexes appear to have fallen out of use in the 4th century AD.

A team of conservators will record and assess the mosaics before they are transported off-site for more detailed post-excavation analysis.

Future plans for the public display of the mosaics are being decided in consultation with Southwark Council.

Look out for more information on this discovery in the next issue of Current Archaeology (CA 386).