Rug designer Luke Irwin and Historic England Archaeologist Dr David Roberts on the incredible discovery of what could be one of the country's largest Roman villas near a house in Wiltshire
Luke Irwin: “This is the most beautiful sort of unspoilt river valley and it’s sort of hidden away. On the hill which overlooks where we live there was a vast temple. Six miles away there was another vast temple.
© Jon Wilkes
We are a mile from a Roman road. You can see undulations in the landscape and the general guess would be that this is a medieval building thing going on – until you find a mosaic.
A year ago we had the builders into the house to put a shower in. Near our front door is a barn. While the builders were there I asked them to put electricity in the barn. They dig a trench and they’re going across when all of a sudden there’s a cry: ‘oh my god, we found something.’
What has been revealed is this mosaic floor. It’s patterned like a basket weave. We cleaned it back and I called Wiltshire County Council’s archaeological department. We sent them a photo and they were there within 24 hours."
© Jon Wilkes
Dr David Roberts: “Luke had been putting lighting in an outbuilding and the builders had chanced upon a mosaic. He dutifully rang up the county archaeologist. They were duly gobsmacked when they got there.
They thought it was wonderful, an absolute million-to-one chance. Just finding a mosaic by chance simply doesn’t happen anymore. To just have a member of the public turn up and say ‘I’ve found this mosaic’ and for it to be such a high-quality, wonderful, top notch 4th century piece of workmanship is really rare.
You could just tell by the setting of the property that there were going to be Roman remains here. It is this beautiful river valley, south-facing slope, in an area where, although it’s not had very much research done on it, we know there’s very intense Roman activity because of all the metal-detected finds from that valley. So it wasn’t really a great surprise that there should be something there.
© Jon Wilks
The surprise was the quality of the patterning on this mosaic. It’s fantastic, really top quality, equivalent to some of the greatest villas in Britain.
It’s very, very similar to the elaborate, showy pavement at Chedworth on the corridor, which is the kind of central piece of the rearranged villa. When you went into the field you could immediately see that the mosaic was under a gateway. Behind that gateway, stretching off into the background, were some really substantial earthworks from the geophysics we’ve later done. It turns out that these are essentially just the demolished or collapsed wings of the Roman villa.
You could see it as you went through the gate, kind of laid out like a plan: two huge parallel broad banks with one perpendicular. It’s very overt, it’s almost violent in the landscape, the way it is put in without any sympathy to what’s around it.”
© Jon Wilkes
Luke Irwin: “This long predates anything medieval. In mid-to-late April they did this exploratory excavation. They hit walls, they hit floors.
There was one fellow who was obviously strong as an ox. He was about five foot four and in no time at all he had disappeared deep down into this hole – the wall was getting higher and higher around him.
There were sheep bones, cattle bones and you could clearly see on the bones where the butcher’s knife had cut it or carved it. David Roberts came just to have another look at the site and there was this little stone trough.
© Jon Wilks
He kept coming back to this thing. I said ‘it was here when I bought the house – why are you so interested?’ He said ‘because that is a Roman child’s coffin.’
There was pottery dotted everywhere along with hundreds of oyster shells. But one of the most interesting trenches of the wall is what they call a robber trench. At the bottom they found a Neolithic flint axehead. Then there’s Bronze Age pottery, Iron Age pottery, Roman pottery.
You have 5,000 years of history in that depth. It’s ridiculous: 20 yards from your front door, when you design rugs – the mosaics of today – and you find a 2,000-year-old luxury floor design.
© Jon Wilks
I was overwhelmed by the realisation that someone’s lived on this site for 2,000 years. You look out at an empty field and yet 1,500 years ago there was the biggest house, possibly, in all of Britain.
The link to the Luke Irwin collection is my perpetual desire to be immersed in history. It’s the sense of wonder. It’s how time just drifts on.
When you hold a tessera [mosaic tile] in the palm of your hand this history feels tangible it’s like an electric shock.”
© Jon Wilkes
Dr David Roberts: “The frustrating thing, of course, is that the mosaic is right under a gate leading to the modern buildings. Those modern buildings could be on top of who knows how much more villa. This site has not been touched since its collapse 1,400 years ago and, as such, is of enormous importance.
Without question, this is a hugely valuable site in terms of research, with incredible potential. The discovery of such an elaborate and extraordinarily well-preserved villa, undamaged by agriculture for over 1,500 years, is unparalleled in recent years.
The excellent preservation, large scale and complexity of this site present a unique opportunity to understand Roman and post-Roman Britain.”
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Three places to find Roman archaeology in
Hull and East Riding Museum
The focal point of the museum’s Roman galleries is a recreation of the centre of the Roman settlement of Petuaria (Brough). Innovative displays of pottery, glass, oil lamps and brooches are mounted in shop windows around the town square, and visitors can also inspect a tax-collector’s office and mosaic-maker’s workshop.
Bignor Roman Villa, West Sussex
Bignor Roman Villa is the stunning remains of a Roman home and farm with world-class mosaic floors in a spectacular Downland setting. Learn why the Roman owners chose to develop such a magnificent settlement at Bignor in the 3rd Century AD and how they acquired wealth from its location.
All Saints' Church, Scunthorpe
The church is home to a heritage display that explores the town's fascinating history, including the discovery of the ruins of a large Roman villa complete with mosaic floors and other important finds that illustrate the area's long history of human settlement.