Archaeologists in London’s Southwark neighborhood recently uncovered a spectacular ancient Roman mosaic.
Located within a mile of the Shard skyscraper, the Globe Theatre and the London Bridge, the mosaic is the largest of its kind found in the English capital in the past 50 years, reports Harriet Sherwood for the Guardian.
The artwork likely dates to the late second or early third century C.E. It consists of two intricately detailed panels, the larger of which measures almost ten feet long.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime find in London,” says site supervisor Antonietta Lerz in an emailed statement from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), which is conducting the excavation ahead of a planned redevelopment project.
“It has been a privilege to work on such a large site where the Roman archaeology is largely undisturbed by later activity,” Lerz adds. “[W]hen the first flashes of color started to emerge through the soil everyone on site was very excited.”
Red, white and black stones make up the tessellated floor. Its pattern features large lotus flowers, colorful blooms and intricate twists of closed loops known as “Solomon’s knots.”
In the statement, archaeologist and Roman mosaic expert David Neal notes that these designs are characteristic of the Acanthus group—local mosaicists who developed a unique artistic style in Roman London, then known as Londinium. The smaller of the two mosaic panels resembles one unearthed in Trier, Germany, possibly indicating that members of the group took their talents abroad.
Judging by its size and complexity, experts posit that the mosaic once decorated the floor of a triclinium, or formal Roman dining room. The room may have been part of a Roman mansio, a type of motel or waystation that catered to elite travelers by providing accommodation and lodging.
High-ranking Roman officials and other wealthy travelers probably rested at the site on their way in and out of Londinium. Founded around 50 C.E., the city became the largest in Roman Britannia and boasted a population of some 45,000 at its height around 120 C.E., according to MOLA’s website.
As Emma Bubola writes for the New York Times, scholars sometimes describe Roman-era Southwark as “a patch of swampy land lined with low-end brothels, taverns and gambling joints.”
But these intricate mosaics would have been expensive—and their presence indicates that Romans visiting the area may have enjoyed a posher social scene than previously imagined, Neal tells the Times.
“Often British mosaics can get a little crude,” he says. “[But] these are brilliantly done.”
The mosaic’s panels “speak to us about the character of the area and the people who lived there,” says Lerz to the Washington Post’s Annabelle Timsit. “It was a diverse area, but this discovery shows there were also fine buildings and homes where the prosperous in society lived.”
Other finds made at the site include bits of plaster wall painted with pale blue floral designs, suggesting a sumptuously decorated space. Researchers also uncovered an elegant unguentarium, or bottle for scented oils, and a bone hair pin that a high-status Roman woman would have worn in her hair.
“These finds are associated with high-status women who were following the latest fashions and the latest hairstyles,” Lerz tells the Guardian. “The buildings on this site were of very high status. The people living here were living the good life.”