Last September, I had the pleasure of sharing on the blog the wonderful story of the return of a long-lost treasure to the local museum of my home county of Rutland in the UK’s East Midlands. Little did I think that less than six months later, I would again be writing about England’s smallest county, this time with a story of national, if not international archaeological and historical significance.
Our story begins with a local farmer and his family setting out on a leisurely evening ramble around some nearby fields. Confronted by a swarm of bees, a serendipitous diversion led the group away from their planned route through a neighbouring wheat field. As they made their way across the field, the farmer spotted some pottery fragments which he thought looked a little unusual. When further investigations revealed more pottery and subsequent satellite imagery seemed to show some interesting crop marks, the farmer called upon the local archaeological team from Leicester University. Working in co-operation with the local council and advisors from Historic England, the team dug through 30-40cm of rubble to uncover what has been described as “certainly the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the UK in the last Century” (John Thomas, Deputy Director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services who is managing the excavations). The find is one of only a handful of examples of mosaics of this kind in Europe.
The mosaic is impressive in size, measuring 11m by 7m and is thought to have formed the floor of a dining or entertaining area of a wider villa complex which would have been occupied in the late Roman period, between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. Its design is intricate and detailed, depicting dramatic scenes from Homer’s Iliad, exemplifying the enthusiasm for classical Greek literature and culture in Roman Britain. Intriguingly, the scenes immortalised in the mosaic’s tesserae depart somewhat from Homer’s version of events, leading experts to speculate on the source for the artwork, some suggesting it could have been copied from an illuminated manuscript.
In recognition of the exceptional national importance of the site, Historic England moved swiftly to designate it as a scheduled monument, thus providing legal protection against potential future harm. The regime for scheduling is set out in the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. Once scheduled, any works on a site will require consent from the Secretary of State.
The site of the Rutland mosaic had formerly been used as arable farmland, so was subject to regular ploughing, but will now be converted to grassland and pasture to prevent further disturbance. Additional excavations of the wider site are scheduled for 2022 and it is hoped that displays and interpretation will be created locally to share the discovery and the fascinating story it tells.
The farmer whose swift action prompted the excavation was praised for his quick thinking. This enabled the rapid legal protection of the site which will be important to ensure its preservation and safeguarding for future generations.
Similar action by another local team has recently resulted in yet another amazing discovery in Rutland, a matter of miles from the mosaic site – this time of a 180 million year old ichthyosaur fossil, reported last month to have been uncovered in a nature reserve on the shores of nearby Rutland Water. As with the mosaic, the discovery is of huge importance, representing the largest and most complete fossil of its kind found in the UK, according to experts. It seems that my diminutive home county is certainly living up to its motto, Multum in Parvo (much in little) these days! What next, one wonders? They do say that things come in threes…!
Image: Mat Fascione / Welcome to the county of Rutland via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0