How we found Britain's only known Roman mosaic of the Trojan War

Archaeology students and University of Leicester Archaeological Services staff carefully clean the fully exposed Trojan War mosaic. (Image credit: © ULAS, Author provided)

The discovery of a previously unknown Roman villa (opens in new tab) in rural Rutland during the 2020 lockdown was one of the archaeological stories of the year.

Villas are emblematic features of the Roman countryside, and many are known across Britain. But this new discovery (opens in new tab) is unique. It has what could be considered the most significant Roman mosaic discovery in the past century at its heart.

The mosaic was originally partly exposed by the landowners, who were investigating in the field after discovering pottery and tile fragments. A year later I led a team of archaeologists and students from the University of Leicester in fully exposing the mosaic floor.

This summer we returned as part of a joint excavation (opens in new tab) with Historic England.

The villa was protected as a scheduled monument by Historic England (opens in new tab) in 2021 (meaning it's preserved for future generations to study when new techniques are developed that may assist further research), so these were to be the last excavations at the villa for the foreseeable future. We had plenty of questions.

What did the team discover?

The mosaic forms the floor of a triclinium (dining room) at the northern end of what appears to be a main villa building from the third or fourth century A.D.

Here, residents would have wined and dined guests, providing luxurious entertainment while showing off their wealth, affinity with Roman lifestyles — and perhaps in this case — their understanding of classical Greek literature.

The excavation of the dining room (triclinium) on the left and an adjacent building seen from the air. (Image credit: © Historic England, Author provided)

The mosaic tells a grim tale of revenge from towards the end of the Trojan War, famously described in Homer's Iliad.

Over three panels it depicts the duel between the Greek hero Achilles and Prince Hector of Troy and the unsavory outcome of Achilles' victory.

The mosaic is an incredible find. It is the only representation of the Trojan War from Roman Britain, and tells the story in an unusual "comic strip" style.

The value of this new villa lies not only with the mosaic, however, but in its completeness and the fantastic preservation of the archaeology. A geophysical survey (opens in new tab) of the field revealed an entire complex of buildings.

New discoveries

One of the ancillary buildings appears to have initially been a timber barn but was converted to stone sometime in the third or fourth century A.D.

At this time, while the eastern end continued to be used for agricultural and small-scale industrial activity, the western end was converted for residential use. The remains of several partition walls and successive layers of floor suggest it was repeatedly renovated.

An aerial overview of the villa field showing all of the excavation areas examined in the summer of 2022, with the aisled building in the foreground. (Image credit: © Historic England, Author provided)

This reflects evidence from other excavated Roman villas (opens in new tab), and provides a good indication of the lifespan and continuing development of this type of building.

On the southern side, the team also found remains of a bath suite. A series of three rooms — hot (caldarium), medium (tepidarium), and cold (frigidarium) incorporated underfloor heating and a water tank which may have been used for collecting rainwater.

Further excavation also took place around the dining room that held the mosaic. Evidence was found for an earlier boundary ditch, provisionally dated to the second or third century A.D, built during an earlier iteration of the villa. The ditch lay beneath the mosaic and had caused slumping of the floor over time. Perhaps this led to the room eventually going out of use.

Investigation of the corridors on either side of the triclinium found a collapsed patterned mosaic on the western side and a preserved mosaic in the eastern corridor, which showed a complex kaleidoscope design.

Figures emerge from the past as a scene from the Trojan War mosaic is uncovered. (Image credit: © Historic England Author Provided)

The key discovery was that the dining room was a later addition to the building. Examination of the wall relationships indicated a major refurbishment in the third or fourth century to incorporate the triclinium and Trojan War mosaic.

Guests would have sat in the apse at the bottom of the photograph, while the villa owner narrated the mosaic's story. The scorching is from later use of the room. (Image credit: © Historic England, Author provided)

For now, it's unclear why this major work took place. It may be that the villa had reached sufficient wealth to afford such a luxury installation. Alternatively, the owners may have desired to reaffirm their connections to Roman culture and its classical background.

Whatever the reason, it seems that the grand mosaic only featured fleetingly in the life of the villa. A fireplace installed in one corner of the room and large areas of scorching across the mosaic indicate that the space was repurposed for more workaday activities, before the building finally fell into disrepair.

Now that the excavations are complete, the trenches have been back-filled and the field will return to pasture. Attention will now focus on the detail of the artifacts and environmental information gathered to try to piece the story of this fantastic archaeological site back together.

Archaeology students observe David Neal, an expert on mosaics, as he draws a scaled plan of the Trojan War mosaic. (Image credit: © Historic England, Author provided)

We know that Roman villas like this were at the centre of large farming estates. While the buildings may have now been put to rest, we hope to widen the search into the surrounding landscape to understand the bigger picture of what was happening in this part of the Roman countryside.

This will allow us to develop the links (opens in new tab) we have created with the local archaeological community so we can involve them in discovering further ties to their local heritage.

This article is republished from The Conversation (opens in new tab) under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article (opens in new tab)

John S Thomas
Deputy Director of Archaeological Services, University of Leicester

John is a Project Manager at ULAS. He has worked as a professional archaeologist since 1986 and has experience in a wide range of field and post excavation techniques. He has recently become Honorary Editor for the archaeological content of Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society.