A 1,600-year-old Roman mosaic was discovered in England by archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) The mosaic is composed of miniscule cubes of stone and brick, known as tessarae. The artists who made the mosaic used the tessarae to create a geometric border known as a “Swastika meander,” as well as hexafoil floral patterns and representations of foliage.
The mosaic floor dates from the late 3rd or early 4th century A.D. The Romans began withdrawing their forces in 383 A.D. and by the early 5th century had largely turned over the British isles to local warlords. It is from this period that the legend of King Arthur has been dated.
The mosaic was discovered next to a parking lot in the city of Leicester by the same team that found the remains of King Richard III in the city. The ULAS team excavated the site during the winter of 2016-2017, and have since revealed details of how the mosaic was lifted and conserved. The fragile mosaic 6.6 feet by 9.8 feet.
ULAS Project Officer Mathew Morris explained, “Lifting it was a huge challenge which was only successfully achieved because of the efforts of the entire team working closely together.” Morris added, “The mosaic is made-up of thousands of tiny tesserae. These all had to be lifted and kept in the correct sequence to preserve the pattern on the mosaic.” The conservators of the mosaic glued a rough material known as Hessian fabric to hold it together. The mortar base of the tesserae was then cut to allow thin boards to slide underneath. “The mosaic was then carefully lifted in sections and taken to the studio of our conservator, Theo Sturge, who had the challenge of conserving and re-assembling it,” said Morris.
The mosaic is been returned to Leicester and being prepared for display. Morris said of the conservators’ work, “The finished mosaic looks fantastic, Theo has done an amazing job putting it back together.”
“You can see the direction the Roman workers were laying the stones in, you can see at one point one of the lines started to bend off and so they’ve had to turn one line into three to create a straight edge again,” said Morris. “It’s these little human touches and errors that you can see in it that are important because they give you those glimpses into how it was made, who made it and their attitude to work, that gives you that real insight into the people of Roman Leicester.”
The ULAS team also found remains of a Roman house. Pieces of mosaic were found in three rooms of the ruined residence. In a delicate condition, the mosaic chosen for conservation had been buried for more than 1,500 years. Over the centuries, the mortar grouting had vanished and it was soil that held the tessarae together.
Morris said of preserving the mosaic:
"Lifting it was a huge challenge which was only successfully achieved because of the efforts of the entire team working closely together. The mosaic is made-up of thousands of tiny tesserae. These all had to be lifted and kept in the correct sequence to preserve the pattern on the mosaic. This was done by gluing hessian to the mosaic’s surface to hold it together, then the mortar base into which the tesserae were set was cut away so that thin boards could be slid underneath the mosaic. The mosaic was then carefully lifted in sections and taken to the studio of our conservator, Theo Sturge, who had the challenge of conserving and reassembling it.”
The Leicester mosaic does not display the level of craftsmanship of the famed Blackfriars mosaic that was discovered in Leicester in the 1800s. Morris said:
“The mosaic is not of the same high quality as the famous Blackfriars mosaic, which was found in Leicester in the 19th century and is one of the finest mosaics in Britain. Instead, it is likely to be typical of the type of floor more widely affordable to many of the Roman town’s population.”
However, the ULAS team has revealed in it a window into the distant Roman past of England.
In recent years, other signs of the Roman presence in what then known as Britannia have been found. In 2017, amateurs discovered near the town of Boxford, in southern England, an elaborate mosaic that depicts Hercules and Cupid. Near Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, Roman swords and other significant artifacts, were found near the site of the Vindolanda fort. In Scotland, a hoard of ancient silver was found, as well as rare Roman coin. Also in 2017 at Vindolanda, archaeologists found 25 wooden ink tablets that are about the size of modern postcards. They exhibit the earliest known use of ink writing in England.