Rare mosaic owned by ‘Roman Stephen Fry’ discovered in farmer’s field

A mosaic owned by a “Roman Stephen Fry” has been unearthed in a farmer’s field, in one of the most exciting discoveries in the UK in the last century.

The find, located within a 1,700-year-old villa complex in Rutland, is the first mosaic in the UK which depicts scenes from Homer’s Iliad.

Experts have said that the owner of the villa was likely a high-status figure with broad intellectual interests, like “Stephen Fry”.

The 77sq m mosaic would have been a way to flaunt the owner’s erudition to dinner guests, they said.

The "rare and remarkable" mosaic has since been protected by the Government on the advice of Historic England.

What the mosaic depicts

Nick Carter, inspector of ancient monuments for Historic England, said: “It is clearly the home of someone who has an interest in classical literature, who has his own personal interests and tastes and wants to share them.

“It’s someone with a lot of interests. A Roman Stephen Fry maybe.”

Roman high society held Greek philosophy, literature and language in high regard. The placement of the mosaic in the 3rd or 4th century villa complex is significant, according to Mr Carter.

“It was placed on the floor of the room used for dining and entertaining," he said. "It’s definitely a way to show off at dinner parties, or like us doing up our homes when we can.

“It shows off his status – he was high-status, wealthy, intellectual. This was an educated person.”

Dr David Neal making notes on his illustration during the excavation of the mosaic

Credit: Steven Baker/Historic England Archive

Professor Ken Dark, author and Roman expert, believes that the ostentatious four-panel mosaic indicates “an awareness of Greek literature” and was likely “intended to impress guests with how highly educated the owner was”.

He added: “It is displaying erudition, like quoting one of the classics of English literature at a dinner party.”

It is believed the mosaic was 'intended to impress guests with how highly educated the owner was'

Credit: Steven Baker/Historic England Archive

The reference to a Greek epic by the ancient equivalent of rural British gentry, based on what would likely have been an agricultural centre, also supports the view that Roman and early Medieval Britain was not a “cultural backwater”.

The find was made in the field of Brian Naylor, a Rutland landowner, by his son Jim Irvine, who contacted heritage authorities in 2020 after finding shards of pottery on a family walk.

Excavations by a University of Leicester team revealed significant finds, including two mysterious sets of human remains likely placed at the site after the Roman period.

While further work is needed to properly examine and date the site, the uniqueness of the literary mosaic has led John Thomas, the dig leader of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, to hail the artwork as “the most exciting Roman mosaic discovery in the UK in the last century”.

The mosaic, which is the the first discovered in the UK to depict a scene from Homer's Iliad

Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, said: “To have uncovered such a rare mosaic of this size, as well as a surrounding villa, is remarkable.

"Discoveries like this are so important in helping us piece together our shared history. By protecting this site we are able to continue learning from it, and look forward to what future excavations may teach us about the people who lived there over 1,500 years ago."

Visitors will not be allowed at the site, however, as the mosaic crafted from pieces of ceramic and coloured stone will remain buried for the foreseeable future, to protect the artwork from the elements pending further excavation.

On Wednesday, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport officially marked the villa as a Scheduled Monument on the advice of Historic England. The public body is now working with Rutland County Council on how best to display other finds unearthed at the site.

While the site remains closed to the public indefinitely, the moment of the mosaic’s discovery will be broadcast next year on the BBC’s Digging for Britain, hosted by Prof Alice Roberts. 

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