Excavating the Rutland Roman Villa

Speaker: Peter Smith

21 February 2023

As expected, this talk attracted a large audience.  They were not disappointed!  Peter Smith, the Society’s secretary, brought to the evening, not only his knowledge of Roman history and legend, but also his personal experience of working as a volunteer, on the excavation of the Roman Villa in the summer of 2022.

Many of the audience might have forgotten much of what they learned about the Siege of Troy. and the intrigues which led up to it.  So, in the first part of his talk, Peter reminded us of Eris, the goddess of discord who, in a peevish moment, set up a beauty contest among three contestants.  This resulted in the judge, Paris, a young prince of the city of Troy, selecting Aphrodite.  All three contestants had set out to tempt Paris but Aphrodite had offered him the best gift of all - ‘the love of any woman he desired’.

Peter reminded his audience that the most beautiful woman in the world was Helen, so Paris travelled to Sparta in Greece, took Helen away from her husband, the King, and returned to Troy!  As a result, the Greeks launched a massive fleet of ships to retrieve her.  Thus began the 10-year Siege of Troy.

Hector, the son of King Priam, was the Trojan hero.  Achilles was the Greek hero.  Achilles (apart from his heel!) was invincible and, finally, he killed Hector.  Priam, wanting to give his son a hero’s funeral, offered a ransom for his body, as was the normal custom.   But Achilles refused to accept it and drove round and round the city walls, dragging the increasingly maimed body of Hector behind his chariot.  After the gods intervened, the corpse was handed back to King Priam in return for an ‘enormous treasure’. The days were numbered for the City of Troy and the siege was finally ended by a trick involving a wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers!!  One survivor was Aeneas, who, with a few followers, wandered the Mediterranean for many years.  It is claimed that his descendants later founded Rome.

By the 4th Century AD, that small settlement of Rome had grown into a massive prosperous empire.  Part of that empire was Britannia, which had been under Roman rule for almost 300 years.  This is where the Villa in Rutland enters the story.  The Romans had built a great road, an important road, between London and the north.  Just off the road was built a beautiful villa, probably by a wealthy Roman or a rich, British, nobleman and the owner decided to decorate the huge floor of his dining room with a beautiful mosaic.  This would impress his visitors and friends.  The Siege of Troy had taken place 1600 years earlier but the battle between Achilles and Hector was obviously still well known.

Peter moved on and reminded us that in the year 2020, another 1600 years later, “The Villa has now disappeared, and the land where it once stood is part of an arable farm in the small county of Rutland”. Covid has swept through the world, and many people’s places of employment are closed.  Jim Irvine, the son of a farmer moves back to his family farm to help his father, and, whilst wandering the fields, finds pieces of pottery.  On the internet, he finds aerial views of the farm and notices what appear to be the outlines of buildings.  After Jim and his dad dig a hole, they find part of a mosaic!  Fortunately, Jim’s interest in archaeology prompts him to seek expert help at this point and, after advice from the County’s Senior Archaeologist, Historic England commission an excavation led by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

After identifying the subject matter of the Mosaic as the battle between Achilles and Hector, the dig team then covered it to protect it over the winter.  Alongside this, towards the end of 2020, a couple of geophysical surveys of the area were carried out.  These revealed amazing results in terms of possible walls, columns, and posts underground.  Another survey revealed a circuit of ditches and walls and buildings in a central area.  This caused great excitement, as finding such a well-preserved villa was very rare.

In 2021, the excavation continued when students from the University worked there on a field study and the site was identified as having been in use late in the Roman occupation at a date between the third and fourth centuries A.D.  It appeared to have been in a large room with an apse at the north end.  On very informative photographs and plans, Peter identified columns and posts which might have supported a vaulted roof.  There was also evidence of underfloor heating from the hypocaust system, and a highly decorated mosaic was found in the main area.  Sadly, there were signs of damage to the mosaic from later burning by occupants who used the room for other purposes.  It appears that the mosaic was rectangular and divided into four panels.  Three panels depicted the Hector/ Achilles battle whilst the fourth one was undecorated.

Peter interpreted the panels and showed photographs of each one in detail.  One panel shows the battle on chariots between Achilles and Hector.  Achilles is naked; Hector is wearing a tunic.  The horses pulling the chariot are surprisingly detailed.

Panel Two is extensively damaged but it shows Achilles driving his chariot and pulling Hector’s body behind it, around the walls of Troy.  A dejected figure to the side of this scene shows King Priam, Hector‘s father, pleading for the return of his son’s body.

The final panel is very badly burnt on one side, but it shows Achilles triumphantly surrounded by the armour he has taken from Hector.  King Priam stands to one side with a figure carrying a huge pair of scales.  In one pan is Hector’s body; the other pan is empty, waiting for Priam to fill it with Hector’s body weight in gold.  There are other versions of this legend but the Villa owner obviously had his own ideas!

In British terms the standard of the mosaic is high and it was recorded as being the “most important mosaic to be discovered in Britain in the last 100 years”.  The find made international news after a press release in 25th November 2021.  Up until then it had been guarded and kept secret to preserve it from ‘visitors’ and others.  It also featured on television in “Digging for Britain”.

When a call went out for volunteers in 2022, Peter Smith responded and, over a one-week period in August, joined professional and volunteer archaeologists at the site near Ketton in Rutland.  His ‘homework’ beforehand included familiarising himself with 11 substantial documents and a lengthy ‘Recording Manual’, advising on what to look for, how to record one’s finds and, very importantly, where any object was found, using site coordinates.  Personal photography was discouraged but we were shown some excellent, official photographs of the site, of the site’s layout, the “well” area on which Peter had worked, and, of course, the wonderful mosaics. The finds were impressive with pottery, artefacts, roof tiles, cooking vessels, animal bones, oyster shells(!), jewellery, (probably) a well, the walls of innumerable other buildings, and even a Roman stylus for writing in wax tablets.  All the finds were carefully tabulated, preserved and are now being examined.

Our speaker’s enthusiasm and deep knowledge were apparent throughout his talk.  He described how the site and the excavation were managed and stressed the great support and camaraderie within the team.  He summed up his colleagues as a diverse group, some talkative, some quite reserved.  He had joined in interesting personal and archaeological debates and urged his audience to take up such an opportunity if it ever came their way.  He had been present at a moment in history and, for one hour, we, as the audience, felt part of it as well!!  Thank you, Peter.