Huge Roman Mosaic Depicting Scenes From the ‘Iliad’ Found Beneath U.K. Field

The artwork features scenes from the Iliad showing Achilles’s defeat of Hector

mosaic showing fire damage
The mosaic was scorched by fire, but its depiction of the Iliad remains clearly visible. University of Leicester Archaeological Services

Last year, during Covid-19 lockdown, Jim Irvine, the son of a farmer in Rutland, England, was walking on his family’s land when he saw something unusual.

“I noticed some pottery on the ground which didn’t look like any pottery I’d seen before,” Irvine tells BBC News. “We came down here with a spade and I dug a shallow trench and I was in exactly the right place.”

Teams from Historic England and the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) excavated the site and discovered the first Roman mosaic depicting scenes from the Iliad ever found in the United Kingdom. The 36- by 23-foot mosaic formed the floor of a room probably used as the dining or entertaining area of a large villa dated to the third or fourth century C.E.

“This is certainly the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the U.K. in the last century,” says ULAS Project Manager John Thomas in a statement. “It gives us fresh perspectives on the attitudes of people at the time, their links to classical literature, and it also tells us an enormous amount about the individual who commissioned this piece.”

Encountering Achilles - the story of the Rutland mosaic

The mosaic consists of three panels depicting the mythological Greek hero Achilles defeating the Trojan warrior Hector, reports Maev Kennedy for the Art Newspaper. The panels were damaged by fire and later building projects at the site, but the colorful scenes are still clearly visible. The mosaic would have been commissioned by a wealthy person with knowledge of the classics, says Thomas in the statement. 

Britain was under control of the Roman Empire from 43 to 410 C.E. Historians and archaeologists are still studying how the imperial invaders influenced local culture during that period, writes Charlotte Higgins for the Guardian

The Iliad and the Odyssey are both attributed to the poet Homer. Little is known about Homer, but he most likely lived between 900 and 700 B.C.E. His two epic poems remained a key part of Greek and Roman education and culture for more than a millennium.

man cleaning mosaic
The excavation's project manager calls the find the "most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the U.K. in the last century." University of Leicester Archaeological Services

In the first of the mosaic’s three panels, Hector and Achilles engage in battle. In the second, Achilles drags Hector’s corpse behind his chariot. In the third, the Trojans prepare to pay Hector’s weight in gold in return for his body. Per the Guardian, this last scene isn’t part of the Iliad. Instead, it may be based on a play penned by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C.E.

Along with the villa that housed the mosaic, a geophysical survey of the farmland yielded evidence of barns, circular structures and a building that may have been a bath house, reports Jennifer Ouellette for Ars Technica. Archaeologists also found human remains mixed with rubble dated to the very late Roman or early medieval period. This most likely means the villa complex was abandoned, with the land later used as a burial site.

“The fact that we have the wider context of the surrounding complex is also hugely significant, because previous excavations on Roman villas have only been able to capture partial pictures of settlement like these, but this appears to be a very well-preserved example of a villa in its entirety,” says Thomas in the statement.

Mosaic bottom panel
The mosaic depicts Achilles defeating Hector. University of Leicester Archaeological Services

Irvine says that his father, Brian Naylor, and his family have been farming the land for 50 or 60 years. Irvine has spent most of his spare time over the past year learning about the historic discovery hidden beneath the family’s land.

“Between my normal job and this, it’s kept me very busy and has been a fascinating journey,” he says in the statement. “The last year has been a total thrill to have been involved with, and to work with the archaeologists and students at the site, and I can only imagine what will be unearthed next.”

The floor has been reburied to preserve it, and the land’s owners are working with Historic England to convert the area to grassland and pasture to avoid damaging the ruins with ploughing. The British government has granted the site monument status to help protect it from illegal metal detectorists. Archaeologists plan to further excavate the site next year; they also hope to create an offsite display for the historic finds. The discovery will be featured on the BBC series “Digging for Britain” next year.

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