Whilst rambling across his family farm during last year’s lockdown, Jim Irvine noticed something unusual on the ground. It looked like pottery, but none like he had ever seen before. Irvine quickly grabbed a shovel after looking at the satellite imagery and, to his amazement, there was a spectacular Roman mosaic and villa complex concealed beneath their field in Rutland.
It was an “oh wow moment”, said Irvine. “To see something that has been undisturbed for 1700 years or so has been amazing.”
University of Leicester’s Archaeological Services were given urgent funding by Historic England to commence excavation work at the site. Irvine’s discovery, which measures 11 metres by 7 metres, is only a small part of what is believed to be an elaborate villa surrounded by aisled barns, circular structures and possibly a bath house.
Historic England described the site as “one of the most remarkable and significant… ever found in Britain“.
The rare mosaic depicts several scenes from Homer’s Iliad, an ancient Greek epic poem about the quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles during the Trojan war. Hidden since the third or fourth century CE, it is now thought the mosaic formed the floor of a dining or entertaining space.
“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,” explained John Thomas, deputy director of the University of Leicester’s Archaeological Services. “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.”
Although mosaics were common in wealthy homes across the Roman Empire, very few that have survived show the battle between Achilles and Hector like the one in Rutland. Irvine hopes that the site might open to the public one day
For now, the mosaic has been covered back up and officially protected as a Scheduled Monument by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Excavation will continue at the site in 2022. Thomas concluded that it has been “the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the UK in the last century”.