Archaeologists working in a farmer’s field in Rutland, in England’s East Midlands, have uncovered a Roman villa complex with a detailed 11m by almost 7m mosaic depicting scenes from the Trojan War.
The discovery of the villa was first made by the landowner’s son, Jim Irvine, during a lockdown walk in 2020, then archaeological investigations were carried out at the site in 2020 and 2021 by a team from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), in partnership with Historic England and Rutland County Council. Further excavations are planned for 2022.
The excavation has unearthed a large mosaic in what is thought to be the dining room or entertaining area of the villa, which was occupied between the 3rd and 4th century AD. Despite the fire marks and the breaks in the mosaic, which point to the villa’s reuse, the mosaic’s subject – a rare one in Britain – can be discerned. Of the three that are visible, the bottom panel shows the Trojan prince Hector and the Greek warrior Achilles battling in chariots. Above is Achilles dragging the defeated Hector’s dead body, while Priam, King of Troy, wearing a Phrygian cap (an attribute of the Trojans), looks on from the right. At the top, Hector’s body is weighed out in the gold that would be given to Achilles to arrange his return to Priam for burial. This last detail, the weighing of the body on scales, comes not from Homer’s Iliad, the popular epic on the Trojan War, but from a later version of the story that appears in a lost play by the 5th-century BC tragedian Aeschylus, Phrygians, or The Ransom of Hector.
John Thomas, deputy director of ULAS, said, ‘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.’
Excavations at the site of the Norman St Mary’s Old Church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, as part of the HS2 railway project, have uncovered details about a different Roman building. A team from Fusion JV and L-P Archaeology were investigating what were thought to be the foundations of an Anglo-Saxon tower at the medieval site when they found three stylistically Roman stone busts portraying a man, a woman, and a child, along with cremation urns and one large hexagonal glass jug, suggesting that this was the home of a Roman mausoleum.
The square building of the mausoleum was probably demolished by the Normans when they built the church, the archaeologists say, but first it may have been reused in the Anglo-Saxon period, as pieces of pottery and a coin from this time were also found. Further research is exploring this timeline.
The Roman mausoleum was probably not the first burial place here, either. The mound it sat on seems to be a natural one, but covered with more soil to make it bigger, possibly for use as a Bronze Age burial site.
Other recent Roman discoveries come from Richborough in Kent, where English Heritage and Historic England archaeologists have been excavating the amphitheatre of the Roman town and fort. Details about its construction have been revealed, such as the use of local chalk and turf as building materials that suggests the amphitheatre may have been built in the 1st century AD, early during Roman rule. The role of a cavity in the arena wall first found in a Victorian excavation in 1849 was also identified: this was a carcer or cell, where people and animals were held before they entered the arena in front of up to 5,000 spectators. On the arena wall, archaeologists found pieces of plaster with traces of paint, so far a unique discovery in Britain’s amphitheatres.
Small finds from a domestic area outside the amphitheatre include coins, personal items like pins and tweezers, and pottery fragments, which show Richborough was occupied until the end of the 4th century. The almost complete skeleton of a cat that seems to have been deliberately buried was also uncovered.
The site is currently closed, but is scheduled to open with a refurbished museum in summer 2022.