Many will have seen coverage in the Newbury Weekly News of the excavation of an exceptional Roman mosaic just outside Boxford, in the Lower Lambourn Valley, described by experts as the most important mosaic find in the last 50 years in Britain. As one of the excavation team, I can give more information about it, and why it is causing so much interest in archaeological and historical circles.
Around Boxford there is a complex of three Roman sites within a mile of the village: a large residential villa to the south; a farmstead to the north-west, and now a third site of great mystery. The great excitement here was the mosaic, although the site has far more of interest than that.
Why is the mosaic exceptional?
It was examined by Anthony Beeson and Steve Cosh, two of the country’s leading experts. Although good, it is not of a rare technical quality, but it is the freedom of artistic and narrative expression that is extraordinary. Roman culture was formal and conservative, reflected by the commercial mosaic craftsmen.
Here we have a narrative medley of classical characters and stories; and notice how the feet of the people cross the borders, creating an artistic effect of the characters emerging from the frame. This was transgressive art! There is, unusually, a written text, as yet not decoded from the fragment we can see, perhaps emphasising the narrative purpose.
The main story is in the central square, of which we have just enough for the experts to decode the subject. It tells, in several panels, the Greek legend of Bellerophon, riding on the winged horse Pegasus, slaying the Chimera, a monster with the body of a lion and three heads: a lion, a goat and a snake, breathing fire. This myth was later adapted by early Christians to become the story of St. George slaying the Dragon. This motif is known in only a few other British Roman mosaics, and they all have Christian associations, as the story was seen to represent Good slaying Evil.
Around the borders, we see various classical elements including Hercules with a club killing a Centaur, a beast with the upper body of a man and the lower body of a horse.
The mosaic is assessed to be very late, perhaps around 380AD, approaching the twilight decades of the Roman presence in Britain. Note that several of the figures have been literally defaced; the leading suspects for this may be early Christians who found the mosaic too pagan. Perhaps the original owner was partially Christian but had descendants who were more pious.
We had no idea it was there, although the Victorians put a field drain through the corner. They realized that they were cutting through a villa, but fortunately did not see the mosaic. Our trenches were put in based on a geophysical survey, which showed just the general layout, and by chance we exposed about 40% of the mosaic room. As you can see, there is some general damage, possibly from people digging out roof and wall building materials, now mostly missing (maybe medieval recycling?) and someone has built a fire in the middle of the room on top of the mosaic, probably in the period of decline and poverty in the 5th century, during the collapse of Roman civilization. Whilst cleaning down to the mosaic, it appeared in one area that there was a thin hard floor of trampled dirt on top of the mosaic, below the hill-wash clay which eventually filled the room, suggesting people eking out a subsistence living whilst the building still stood. Elsewhere on the mosaic, there were fragments of charcoal, suggesting burning and collapsing ceiling timbers whilst the floor was still clean. The story of the decline of the Roman Empire was never straightforward!
The site is weird in so many ways. This is a good thing …
It seems too modest in size for the quality and cost of the mosaic. It is only a mile from the main Boxford villa, which seems too close if they were independent centres for large rural estates. It has produced a small assemblage of dropped coins, starting in 340AD; this is very late for the start of a villa. There are two buildings, both with comparable heavy two-foot-thick flint walls, directly facing each other across a small valley. This seems odd for a prestige villa, which should stand alone with uninterrupted views. With that mosaic, we would expect a larger building, facing the views, alone in a large estate, with a long history through the rich middle centuries of Roman Britain. If that role is taken by the orthodox villa just south of Boxford, what is this?
It is of course far too early to speculate … but no matter, let’s go there … is this complex as much religious as residential: was it a Christian cult centre? Was the main villa in decline and its owners falling into poverty by the later 4th century, with this building as its brief successor? Was it built for a self-made man who had travelled elsewhere in the Empire, seen more exciting art and heard many stories of both old and new beliefs, and built a small but rich rural home, reflecting his cultural and religious sophistication, when he retired? The site raises far more questions than it gives answers.
The hope is to return next year when the crops are next harvested, with new funding, to complete the work. This was the culmination, for now, of a multi-year project (in which I participated as a third-spear-carrier bit player) funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The program was managed by Joy Appleton and the Boxford History Project, the archaeology was directed by Lindsey Bedford and Steve Clark of the Berkshire Archaeological Research Group, and the excavations supervised, to ensure the amateur volunteers did it properly, by a small team from Cotswold Archaeology led by Matt Nichol.
For more information please visit boxford.org.uk
Bob Brewer 06/09/2017
(All errors of fact, interpretation and speculation are entirely those of this author).
Top drone photo credit: Richard Miller, Berkshire Archaeological Research Group