Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have unearthed the largest Roman mosaic to be found in the city in more than half a century. The discovery was made around a month ago on the building site for a new development in Southwark, just in view of the iconic Shard.
“When the first flashes of colour started to emerge through the soil everyone on site was very excited,” recalled site supervisor Antonietta Lerz.
Dating from the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD of the Roman Empire, the total mosaic spans an impressive eight metres. It was meticulously made from tiny tiles coloured in white, black, yellow, and red. The red tessellated floor is punctuated with several panels that feature flowers, geometric patterns and intertwined strands of twisted rope.
Roman mosaic expert David Neal has attributed the largest panel to the Acanthus group, a team of mosaicists with a highly distinct style. The smaller panel was likely made by a mosaicist active in Trier, southwest Germany, which suggests that these craftsmen travelled internationally for work.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime find in London,” declared Lerz.
Specialists now believe the site was once home to a large mansio, just outside the boundaries of the capital of Roman Britain, known as Londinium. Roman officials and couriers travelling into the city stayed at this roadside resting place to lounge, feast, and drink wine. The room housing the intricate mosaic was most likely the triclinium or dining room, where reclining couches would have been positioned around the decorative floor.
Fragments of lavishly painted walls have also been discovered at what is believed to be a neighbouring private residence, alongside coins, jewellery, and decorated bone hairpins. “The buildings on this site were of very high status,” explained Lerz. “The people living here were living the good life.”
This might not be the only major discovery made here, as MOLA suspect there could be another, even older, mosaic hidden underneath the current one. Conservation work will begin once the mosaics have been removed from the site, making way for a complex of modern offices, homes and shops as part of The Liberty of Southwark project.
London’s rich history is often uncovered during building works; in 2020, one hundred Late Medieval treasures were found preserved in the muck of a cesspit underneath The Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House.