Rediscovering a Roman mosaic at Folkestone

The Canterbury Archaeological Trust team have been working to rediscover and document the mosaic, which had not been seen since it was covered over in the 1950s.

This past September, archaeologists from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT), led by Keith Parfitt, re-excavated a mosaic found in the large winged-corridor Roman villa on the outskirts of Folkestone, Kent.

The site, on a clifftop that overlooks East Wear Bay, was first discovered and excavated in 1924, with evidence of not just one, but two Roman villas – one built right on top of the other – the first dating to the late 1st century AD and the second to the mid-2nd century. At the time, the later villa was deemed to be the residence of the Admiral of the Roman Fleet, based on tiles stamped ‘CLBR’ – the mark of the Classis Britannia. Because of this, the site garnered much interest, and the Council had a building erected over the mosaic to protect it from the weather. During the Second World War, however, this cover was destroyed as the area became an active military zone. Having fallen into ruin once again, the site was completely back-filled in 1957.

IMAGE: Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT)

The site remained buried for more than 50 years, until 2010 when a team of CAT archaeologists were able to raise funds to re-evaluate it in light of the fact that it is quickly falling into the bay below (see CA 262). It was at this time that it was discovered that the villas had been built on top of an expansive Iron Age site – possibly a trading port – dating from 150 BC through to the time of the Roman conquest.

Since then, the CAT team have been periodically returning to the site in order to record as much as possible before it is forever lost to the sea, and most recently they have been working to rediscover and document the mosaic, which had not been seen since it was covered over in the 1950s. Their hopes were not especially high, assuming that much of the mosaic had probably been lost given its more recent history – but, to the team’s surprise, while much had indeed been lost, more survived than they were expecting. Several features of the central 10ft-square decorated panel were still in place, as well as broad areas laid with red tesserae along three sides of the central panel, where the seating would once have been placed (above). It offers an expansive vista over the bay (the French coast is visible on clear days), making it easy to appreciate the wonderful views that diners would have experienced there, especially on clear, warm summer evenings.

With the work now finished, the mosaic has been backfilled once again while consideration is given to its future and whether it should be lifted.