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Stunning Mosaic Found in England Shows Some Lived in Luxury During ‘Dark Ages’

The fifth-century artwork suggests that the British Isles experienced a gradual, not sudden, decline following the Romans’ departure

The mosaic reflects a decline in craftsmanship but is still intricately made. (National Trust Images / Stephen Haywood)
smithsonianmag.com

The discovery of an intricately crafted Roman mosaic might not seem wholly surprising, but archaeologists say there’s something very unusual about the design seen at Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, England: It dates to the mid-fifth century A.D., decades after the end of Roman rule in Britain and in the midst of a period popularly dubbed the Dark Ages.

Historians have long thought that early Britons abandoned Roman villas and population centers following the breakdown of the imperial administrative system. But the new find suggests otherwise.

“It has generally been believed that most of the population turned to subsistence farming to sustain themselves,” says Martin Papworth, an archaeologist with the United Kingdom’s National Trust, in a statement. “… What is so exciting about the dating of this mosaic at Chedworth is that it is evidence for a more gradual decline. The creation of a new room and the laying of a new floor suggests wealth, and a mosaic industry continuing 50 years later than had been expected.”

Archaeologists discovered the mosaic in 2017 but only recently used radiocarbon dating of charcoal and bone sealed in a nearby foundation trench to determine its age. They found that the mosaic must have been created sometime after 424 A.D. Papworth says the result was so surprising that the National Trust conducted a second radiocarbon test, as well as a pottery analysis, to verify it.

The Guardian’s Steven Morris reports that the mosaic reflects a decline in quality compared with fourth-century work found at the same villa and elsewhere in Britain. This may indicate that craftspeople’s skills were eroding at the time. Papworth notes that Roman soldiers and civil servants were either departing Britain or no longer earning wages in cash, leading craft and service industries that depended on their patronage to fall apart.

Despite some mistakes, the mosaic is a complex work of art, boasting an outer border of circles filled with flowers and knots. Per the statement, the parts of the mosaic in the center of the room are worn down, but those on the edges remain relatively well preserved.

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The Chedworth Roman Villa is located in southwestern England. (National Trust / Hazel Barry-Scott)

The end of Roman rule in Britain began in the late fourth century, when Rome withdrew many of its troops from the region. Then, early in the fifth century, ancient Germanic people known as the Teutons conquered Gaul, cutting Britain off from the empire. Though Romans remained on the island, they lost much of their power and influence. The new find, however, suggests that this process occurred more gradually than previously thought.

Papworth says it’s impossible to know who lived in the villa but posits that they may have been influential dignitaries or rich elites. He says the new find could reflect a slower decline in the quality of life for the rich in England’s southwest, compared with the north and east, where residents faced violent raids.

As Sara Spary notes for CNN, few documents from the so-called Dark Ages survive, and archaeological evidence from the period is limited. The new find was part of a six-year program of digs and research at Chedworth.

“I am still reeling from the shock of this dating,” says Stephen Cosh, a Roman mosaics expert, in the statement. “It will be important to research further sites in the region to see whether we can demonstrate a similar refurbishment at other villas which continued to be occupied in the [fifth] century.”

The National Trust has reburied the mosaic to protect it from the weather. The organization is now seeking funding to create an augmented reality experience that makes the new find, along with other mosaics found in the area, more accessible to the public.

About Livia Gershon
Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

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