Archaeologists discover one of Roman Britain's earliest surviving frescos beneath City of London street

By Sophie Beckwith | 03 February 2016

Roman builders left fragile fresco remains deep beneath street level in London, say archaeologists

A coloured piece of Roman wall painting
One of 16 sections of the decorative fresco from 1st century Roman Britain © MOLA
An ornate Roman wall painting buried at the start of a huge city construction project nearly 2,000 years ago has been discovered by Museum of London Archaeology experts near the city’s historic Leadenhall Market.

The decorative fresco, buried in AD 100 by Roman builders flattening land to make way for London’s main civic centre, the second Forum Basilica, was found at 21 Lime Street. Small fragments of Roman wall plaster have previously been found in London, but complete collapsed wall paintings are extremely rare.

Pieced together fragments of a Roman fresco
The Roman fresco pieced together to show the decorative scheme© MOLA
The fresco’s fragile remains – still standing at 2.5 metres wide and more than 1.5 metres in height – were discovered face down six metres below street level. Archaeologists identified the find by the distinctive keyed daub on to which the plaster was attached, lifting it in 16 individual sections, still encased in its protective soil.

An archaeologist working with tools on a piece of Roman fresco
Archaeological conservator Luisa Duarte delicately working on one of the sections of the Roman wall painting© MOLA
“This was a really challenging but rewarding conservation project,” said Liz Goodman, the Senior Conservator who oversaw intricate micro-excavations to expose the millimetre-thin painted surface under the damp soil.

Archaeologist working with tools on a large piece of soil within which are parts of a Roman fresco
Micro-excavating sections of the 1st century fresco© MOLA
“We were up against the clock working on this huge and fragile fresco but it was a joy to uncover the decorative plaster that hadn’t been seen for nearly 2,000 years.”

Archaeologists excavating a wall
Excavating a wall belonging to the London's second Roman Forum, which cut through the late 1st century fresco© MOLA
Red panels bordered with cream lines surround a main decorative scheme on the frescos. The central section, on a background of green and black panels, shows deer nibbling trees, birds, fruit and a vine woven around a candelabrum.

Archaeologist removing soil from a covered fresco
The rare fresco was found still encased in its protective soil © MOLA
It was hand-painted by a skilled artist in natural earth pigments, except for one area of red on the twisting vine stem which is picked out in cinnabar - an expensive pigment that was mined in Spain.

An archaeological dig showing exposed Roman tiles
Tiles sat below the mortar floor© MOLA
The ornate piece would have decorated a reception room in the residence of an affluent Roman citizen. The discovery gives experts a picture of how the homes of some of these residents were styled and reveals their fashions and tastes.

Archaeologist measuring an exposed tile during an excavation
Recording a Roman tile that may be part of the building once adorned with the decorative fresco© MOLA
A minor error in the design shows a mistake made by the craftsman who painted the fresco, suggesting more than one person was painting the wall, possibly to a pre-prepared template. The mistake could only have been corrected by repainting the whole middle panel.

Archaeologist excavating Roman remains
Removing the upturned Roman wall plaster in sections© MOLA
Specialists studying the fresco and records from the dig hope to form a picture of what London looked like circa AD 100 and reveal more about its huge importance to the Roman Empire.


Three places to uncover more about the Romans

Bignor Roman Villa, West Sussex
This villa is the stunning remains of a Roman home and farm with world-class mosaic floors in a spectacular Downland setting.

National Roman Legion Museum, Wales
Here you will learn what made the Romans a formidable force. You'll see how they lived, slept and ate, how they marched and practised for battle.

Ribchester Roman Museum, Lancashire
Roman Ribchester is brought to life by dramatic displays which contain a life size cavalryman, Roman legionary and exciting interactive exhibits.
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