It was a family walk through the fields during the lockdown last year that led to an ‘oh wow moment’: the discovery of a complex of Roman villas containing a rare mosaic depicting Homer’s Iliad, now considered one of the most remarkable and important finds of its kind in Britain.
The mosaic – the first example found in the UK displaying scenes from the Greek epic poem, and only one among a handful from across Europe – was found under a farmer’s field in Rutland. It is now protected by the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of Historic England.
The site was discovered by Jim Irvine, son of landowner Brian Naylor, during the 2020 lockdown, and has been investigated by archaeologists at the University of Leicester in partnership with Historic England and the council of Rutland County.
Their investigation revealed that the mosaic is found in an elaborate villa complex encompassing a host of other structures and buildings. It is likely that it was occupied by a wealthy individual from the end of the Roman period, between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.
“A walk through the fields with the family turned into an incredible discovery,” Irvine said. “Finding unusual pottery among the wheat piqued my interest and prompted further investigative work.
“Later, looking at the satellite imagery, I spotted a very sharp cut mark, as if someone had drawn on my computer screen with a piece of chalk. It really was the “oh wow” moment, and the beginning of the story. “
The remains of the mosaic measure 11m by almost 7m and form the floor of what is believed to be a large dining room or entertainment space. Although mosaics were used in a variety of private and public buildings throughout the Roman Empire, and often feature famous figures from history and mythology, there are only a handful of depictions of the Battle of Achilles with Hector at the end of the Trojan War.
The villa is surrounded by what appear to be barns with naves, circular structures and a possible bath house. Human remains were also found in the rubble covering the mosaic, which was likely buried after the building was no longer occupied.
John Thomas, deputy director of archaeological services at the University of Leicester and head of the excavation project, called it “the most exciting Roman mosaic find in the UK in the last century”.
“It gives us new perspectives on people’s attitudes at the time, their connection to classical literature,” he said. “This [the villa’s owner] is someone who knows the classics, who had the money to commission such a detail, and this is the very first description of these stories we have ever found in Britain.
Duncan Wilson, Managing Director of Historic England, added that discoveries like this were “so important in helping us piece together our shared history.”