Encounters with Achilles: The Discovery of the Rutland Roman Villa

The Covid 19 Lockdown in 2020 forced many people to stay close to home for their recreational activities and also to find new interests to pursue.  For Jim Irvine a walk with his family on his father’s farmland was the start of a journey that led to the astounding discovery of an extensive Roman villa complex and one of the most significant mosaics ever found in Britain. John Thomas, Deputy Director of ULAS, reflects on the discovery…

On the walk, Jim’s interest was piqued by a scatter of Roman pottery, and subsequent research showed a cropmark of a building in the field.  After a small investigation of the cropmark revealed part of a mosaic floor Jim contacted the Historic Environment team at Leicestershire County Council to report his discovery, the significance of which was clear to see.  A site visit by Lead Planning Archaeologist Richard Clark and former County Archaeologist Peter Liddle confirmed the significance: the mosaic was well-preserved and featured figures, horses and chariots – this was something highly unusual.

Faces peering from the past – seeing the light of day for the first time in over 1,500 years! Image: ULAS.

Soon after, ULAS were asked to assist in the recording of the small trench that had been excavated.  The importance of the discovery had also been reported to Historic England who provided funding for the initial work, which began with a careful clean of the exposed mosaic and inspection of the overlying soil and rubble layers.  It was a spine-tingling experience as the first figures were revealed, and we quite literally came face to face with the past. As more of the floor was uncovered it became clear that the scenes represented part of a story, and all of the clues on display pointed to chapters from the end of Homer’s epic Trojan War tale, The Iliad, featuring a duel between the Greek hero Achilles and Prince Hector of Troy – scenes that have never been seen before on a British mosaic.

This heightened significance prompted additional funding from Historic England so that further evaluation work and geophysical survey could be undertaken across the field.  The survey, consisting of magnetometry and ground penetrating radar (GPR), produced some stunning results.  It was clear that the villa complex extended far beyond the building containing the mosaic and comprised a range of different buildings all contained within an angular multi-ditched enclosure.

An aerial view of the archaeological site with the mosaic on the left and another villa building to the right. Image: Historic England

The villa complex was remarkably well-preserved, but further trenching and a test pit survey to assess the long-term effects of agriculture showed that much of the archaeology lay at a very shallow depth and was at high risk of damage from future ploughing.  All of these factors, coupled with the significance of the site, led Historic England to begin the process of protecting it as a Scheduled Monument, and the landowners will stop cultivating the field and revert it to grassland in the future.

After the initial phase of work had been completed, we were really keen to share the discovery with the wider world, but this could not be done until the Scheduling had taken place.  It also occurred to us that, exciting though the story undoubtedly was, it would be odd to go public without having seen the most recognisable character of the story, Achilles, who had up to then remained covered.

Another consequence of the lockdown period had been that fieldwork for archaeology students at the School of Archaeology and Ancient History (SAAH) was impossible, so a backlog had developed – the stars had aligned to ensure that the rest of the mosaic could be revealed!  Early in 2021 ULAS and SAAH developed a plan to return to the site to complete work on the mosaic, which by then had been recognised as a unique example of ancient art worthy of study by a range of disciplines, and an archaeological discovery that would capture public imagination.

Almost a year after the initial work a team led by ULAS and SAAH staff began excavation of three areas including a return to the mosaic room, and examination of other buildings in different areas of the site.  The team was joined by a cohort of 2nd-year students who were to get their first taste of an internationally significant project – this was to be a fieldschool to remember!

Machining (and filming) of the excavation. Image: ULAS.
Prof. Alice Roberts helps to uncover figures in the mosaic. Image: ULAS
SAAH students getting close to ancient history as they carefully clean the mosaic before it is recorded. Image: ULAS

The team worked incredibly hard to achieve the project aims in often difficult conditions – the weather was very hot for much of the time, and we were also working in the glare of the television camera.  The significance of the discovery had not been lost on the Digging for Britain team, who had joined us to film a feature for the next series to be aired early in 2022.

Despite the difficulties the work was a resounding success – we learnt more about other areas of the villa complex, gathered dating evidence for the settlement, which seems to reflect a later Roman (3rd to 4th century) date, and uncovered the rest of the mosaic.

The full extent of the mosaic, thought to be the floor of a triclinium, or dining/entertaining area. Image: ULAS

As suspected the mosaic tells the tale of Hector and Achilles and their battle at the end of the Trojan War.  The story is told over three panels in a comic strip style; firstly showing the duel between the characters on horse-drawn chariots, then the victorious Achilles dragging Hectors body behind his chariot while Hectors father King Priam of Troy pleads for his sons return, and finally the eventual exchange of the body for Hector’s weight In gold.

The first panel, showing the duel between Hector and Achilles. Image: ULAS
The middle panel, showing the victorious Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot while Hector’s father King Priam of Troy pleads for his son’s return. Image: ULAS
The final panel, showing the eventual exchange of the body for Hector’s weight In gold. Image: ULAS

In the following film our SAAH colleague Dr Jane Masseglia describes the imagery of the mosaic and its significance:

The mosaic is highly detailed, and specific features show that it is the work of highly skilled mosaicists.  The range of colours used, the attention to fine detail and the way that some figures transgress the guilloche boundaries suggest that this presumably high status floor may have been sourced from an illuminated manuscript that was in the possession of the villa owner.  It also raises the possibility that this person had an understanding of the classics and wanted to share that knowledge with their friends and guests.

Important information was also gathered from the layers overlying the mosaic.  After the room had gone out of its original use, a series of fires was lit on the floor resulting in burning and damage to the mosaic.  Above this were several rubble layers; the end result of the building gradually collapsing or being deliberately demolished.  In the top of the rubble were two human skeletons, quite deliberately buried within the bounds of the room, perhaps suggesting it was still apparent above ground.  We await dating of these burials and the rubble in which they lay, but this all offers great potential to learn more about what happened at sites like this after they had lost their original significance. 

SAAH students getting close to ancient history as they carefully clean the mosaic before it is recorded. Image: ULAS

This has been a fascinating journey from the initial discovery through the subsequent fieldwork and the wealth of understanding of this fantastic site that it has brought.  We were really pleased to be able to involve the original discoverer of the site, Jim Irvine, and his family in every step of the project.  If it hadn’t been for his enthusiasm and the responsible way that he reported the discovery, none of this would have been possible.

Prof Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University, is shown the floor by mosaic expert Dr David Neal. Image: ULAS.
Project partners from Historic England visit the excavations. Image: ULAS

We’ve had a fantastic time, have learnt lots and made new friends along the way, but this is not the end of the story.  Next year, ULAS, SAAH and Historic England will join forces for further excavation at this incredible site, so watch this space for further news.

The 2021 dig team – staff and 2nd-year students from ULAS and SAAH. Image: ULAS

Read the press release in full here.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Dr Janet Fairweather says:

    As someone who once assisted Professor Kirk with the preparation of his commentary on the Iliad, I appreciate the importance of this new archaeological discovery in Rutland. I am currently editing the English of a University of Lund dissertation about mosaics in Pompeii and so have been able to convey the news of the Rutland discovery to some of your archaeological colleagues in Sweden.

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