Stunning mosaic found in Roman Villa near Boxford

The project.

Since 2015 Cotswold Archaeology has been involved in a three year community archaeology project “Revealing Boxford’s Ancient Heritage”. A joint project involving the BHP (Boxford History Project), the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group and CA, the project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and involved investigating three closely linked Roman sites near to the village of Boxford in West Berkshire.

Supported by our archaeologists, the local community groups and volunteers explored the function, status, chronology, extent and relationship of the three sites, which represented a significant focus of high-status Roman occupation in the Lambourn Valley. During the first year of the project such investigations uncovered a large villa and bath house, with a farmstead following in the second year. Following on from a successful two years, the final year of the project did not disappoint!

Roman Boxford Dig 2017.

Roman plunge pool
Roman plunge pool

This year kicked off to a great start, with finds recorded on the first day comprising a child’s bracelet and coins. Led by CA’s Matt Nichol, with the help of Agata, Alice, Keighley and Joe, the volunteers worked quickly to uncover the remains of the main villa, a probable barn, a gateway into the courtyard and other associated features. Finds also include Roman pottery and tile (one of which is complete and has an animal paw print), animal bone and much more. Although the villa was of modest size and of a common design, with a series of rooms adjoining a corridor running the full length of its front, it had evidently been subject to significant investment and upgrades over time. These included the addition of a bath suite with a small cold water plunge pool located in the corridor at the villa’s northern end. The most  spectacular addition, however, was a mosaic placed in a room at the southern end of the building.

Volunteers hard at work on the potential site of a Roman barn.
Volunteers hard at work on the potential site of a Roman barn.

The mosaic.

Our star find of the project was discovered during the initial stripping of the site, and measured over 6m in length. The mosaic comprised a highly decorated central panel surrounded by a plain border. Despite only one side of the mosaic being revealed within the trench, it is clear that the figurative mosaic is packed with mythical characters and beasts based on Greek legends.

Mosaic experts have visited the site and were explicit in their excitement and delight.  Anthony Beeson, one of the experts, said that:

 “This is without question the most exciting mosaic discovery made in Britain in the last fifty years and must take a premier place amongst those Romano-British works of art that have come down to modern Britons.”

Our own Roman expert, Neil Holbrook noted that:

“The mosaic is a truly important find. Not only is it a fantastic new piece of Roman art from Britain, but it also tells us about the lifestyle and social pretensions of the owner of the villa at Boxford. That person wanted to project an image of themselves as a cultivated person of taste – someone familiar with classical mythology and high Roman culture, despite the fact that their villa was of relatively modest size in a remote part of the Roman empire. While this person was most probably of British origin, they wanted to be regarded by their friends, neighbours and subservients as a proper Roman.”

Matt Nichol working on the mosaic
Matt Nichol working on the mosaic
Volunteers cleaning the mosaic
Volunteers cleaning the mosaic

Iconography.

For those interested in the iconography, Anthony Beeson suggests that the sideways scene may be interpreted as Bellerophon, a hero of Greek mythology, at the court of either Iobates or Proteus.

Bellerophon was sent to kill the chimera, a fire breathing monster with the head of a lion, the torso of a goat and a serpent’s tail.

The chimera illustrated on the mosaic at Boxford is one of only two known from Britain which turns back to attack in the traditional manner. The others all flee.

Other figures on the mosaic possibly include Hercules fighting a centaur, Cupid holding a wreath, and depictions of telamons in the corners, who appear to hold up the central panel.

Other examples of Romano-British Bellerophon mosaics are known from Frampton and Hinton St Mary in Dorset, Lullingstone in Kent and Croughton, near Brackley in Northamptonshire.

Left to Right: Potentially Hercules fighting the Centaur & Cupid with a wreath in his left hand
Left to Right: Potentially Hercules fighting the Centaur & Cupid with a wreath in his left hand

What now?

A site tour during the open day (Saturday 25th August)
A site tour during the open day (Saturday 25th August)

The Open Day last Saturday was attended by over 250 people who were able to view finds from the excavation, as well as the villa and mosaic. While the site has now been backfilled, it is hoped that future investigations will allow us to further our understanding of some of the features discovered, including the bath suite, and will reveal the mosaic in its entirety.

We have thoroughly enjoyed being involved in this project, and agree with the Chairman of the Boxford History Project who said: “Thanks to everyone who has contributed in any way to this amazing success. What a fantastic way to end this three-year project!

Steve Clark from the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group also commented “We’re very grateful for all the support provided by Neil Holbrook and Duncan Coe over the course of project and for the professionalism and patience of CA’s field staff in guiding us through the excavations. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have been led by somebody like Matt who has gone the extra mile to get the most out of our limited time on site each year”.

Our own Duncan Coe, who has been involved with the Boxford project for the last 6 years, stated that “this is one of the best examples of a project where a local community, local volunteer archaeologists and professional archaeologists have worked together to produce some truly inspiring results. We hope that the local community take away a greater understanding of the world around them and the time depth within the place they call home”.

For more information about the mosaic and dig go to:
The mosaic after cleaning, note the Victorian land drain in the corner, and the manner in which the building has been terraced into the slope
The mosaic after cleaning, note the Victorian land drain in the corner, and the manner in which the building has been terraced into the slope