Fans of Time Team will be elated to hear that a pottery trail successfully led to the discovery of a villa that’s been hiding underneath a farmer’s field in Rutland, UK. Most remarkably of all, it includes what’s being hailed as “the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the UK in the last Century.”
What makes the discovery so exciting to the archaeological community is that the mosaic is the first found in the UK that depicts scenes from Homer’s The Iliad, mosaics that are a rare breed even across the whole of Europe. Having been found within the wider context of a villa adds extra academic value to the site, which has now been protected by Historic England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
“The fact that we have the wider context of the surrounding complex is hugely significant, because previous excavations on Roman villas have only been able to capture partial pictures of settlement like these, but this appears to be a very well-preserved example of a villa in its entirety,” said John Thomas, Deputy Director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) and project manager on the excavations, in a statement.
“It gives us fresh perspectives on the attitudes of people at the time, their links to classical literature, and it also tells us an enormous amount about the individual who commissioned this piece. 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.”
The story of its discovery is something of artifact enthusiasts’ dreams, as it was a chance find by the landowner’s son, Jim Irvine. While walking through the fields during the lockdown in 2020, Irvine says he came across an unusual piece of pottery among some wheat that piqued his interest. Curious as to its origin, he took to satellite imagery for further clues, and here came the Eureka Moment, as they revealed a clear crop mark.
Working with archaeologists from the University of Leicester and Historic England, the team were able to secure funding for urgent archaeological investigations and began work in the summer. Their hard work was rewarded with the remains of a Roman mosaic measuring 11 by 7 meters (36 by 23 feet) that tell of the Greek hero Achilles.
It’s thought to have been the setting for a dining or entertainment area, making up part of a large villa from the 3rd and 4th century AD. By late Roman Period standards, it’s likely the owner was wealthy and an appreciator of the arts as the rare mosaic would appear to reflect a penchant for classical literature.
“This archaeological discovery has filled most of my spare time over the last year,” said Irvine. “Between my normal job and this, it’s kept me very busy, and has been a fascinating journey. The last year has been a total thrill to have been involved with, and to work with the archaeologists and students at the site, and I can only imagine what will be unearthed next!”
The site is now legally protected and has been backfilled to protect it for future generations. If you’d like to find out more about the discovery of the Rutland Villa, it will star in a 2022 episode of BBC Two’s Digging for Britain.