Unique grave of Roman-era warlord found in Czech Republic

September 11th, 2019

The richly furnished grave of a man from the early 2nd century A.D. has been unearthed in the town of Uherský Brod, in the southeastern Czech Republic. It is the richest Roman-era grave ever found in Moravia.

The burial was discovered by accident during sewer works, unfortunately as a result of it having been damaged by heavy machinery. A sharp-eyed worker spotted a bronze object amidst the soil in the bucket of his excavator and reported it to the archeological department of the Moravian-Silesian Museum in Uherské Hradiště. Construction work was halted as archaeologists examined the piece and the disturbed soil where it had been dredged up by the digger. The artifact was identified as a bronze pan, and a matching bronze ladle was found in the soil.

A full salvage excavation ensued. The team unearthed the source of the bronze set: the grave of a wealthy man, almost certainly a warlord. There were bronze spurs at his feet and four bronze buckles fastened his robe (long-since decayed). The larger bronze buckle from his belt was found at his waist, as were a bronze knife with a decorated handle and a bone brooch.

The area of the grave that had been damaged by the mechanical digger also contained grave goods. In the area above the deceased’s head was a broken ceramic vessel. The bronze pot and ladle were stored inside of it before their brusque removal.

These grave goods were not locally made. They were expensive imports from the Roman Empire, which suggests the man was someone of rank, wealth and importance. They are rich enough to indicate he may have been regionally important, a chieftain or warlord.

At the time of this burial, Moravia was occupied by the Germanic Quadi people who, according to Tacitus, had a monarchical system and were ruled by a kings from the ranks of their own nobility. The Quadi were subdued around 18 A.D. by the armies of Tiberius Caesar commanded by his nephew Germanicus. After that, their rulers were client kings of Rome.

The Marcomanni and Quadi have, up to our time, been ruled by kings of their own nation, descended from the noble stock of Maroboduus and Tudrus. They now submit even to foreigners; but the strength and power of the monarch depend on Roman influence. He is occasionally supported by our arms, more frequently by our money, and his authority is none the less.

The newly discovered grave attests to the spread of Roman cash and luxury goods even beyond the formal boundaries of the empire.

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Germanic prince probably died of Hep B

September 10th, 2019

It was a find of international importance: the richly furnished grave of a Germanic prince dating to the early Migration Period, ca. 380 A.D., discovered during construction at Poprad-Matejovce, northeastern Slovakia, in 2006. Its double-chamber structure made it unique in the archaeological record from this period, and it was dense with well-preserved organic materials — the logs of the outer chamber, the timber platform it rested upon, the wooden sarcophagus that formed the inner chamber, furnishings, textiles, leather accessories.

It was such a complex find and archaeologists had so little time to excavate that they had to take the whole thing out en bloc. Not in one single giant block of as German archaeologists would do with the Celtic Princess of the Danube in 2010, but in a Jenga-like network of 25 blocks. An astonishing ten tons of materials was removed to the State Archaeological Museum in Schleswig, northern Germany, for excavation. To prevent the fragile organic materials in the soil from decomposition or mold growth over the years it would take to excavate them, the blocks were frozen and kept at -20C.

Between 2008 and 2015, 15 of the blocks were excavated in laboratory conditions that kept the environment cool and moist. In 2010, the block that contained the floor of the inner chamber was excavated. Four boards five feet long were dug out of the thick clay that was peeled back layer by layer under a medical microscope using tweezers, scalpels and needles.They recovered pieces of wood furniture, leather, wool, linen, twill and gold threads. They also recovered about 80 well-preserved bones of the young man buried there.

The positions of the finds indicate they were scattered when the tomb was looted in antiquity. The robbers cut the upper beams of the chamber and broke into the inner sarcophagus. They took almost all of the precious metal artifacts, save for a gold pendant made of a solidus of the Emperor Valens (375 A.D.), a gold fitting and the silver rivets of a wood sofa. We know this happened at most a few years after the burial because the skeleton was still articulated when the grave was looted.

Whatever riches they deprived of us, they gifted us with everything else, an immense archaeological treasure that was only preserved because of the water that flooded the grave after they broke into it leaving the tomb in almost anaerobic condition for about 1,600 years. If it weren’t for the looters making off with the gold, we wouldn’t have the double-chamber tomb, large parts of a wood sofa and table turned on a lathe, a unique Roman board game, pottery, a wicker basket containing a food offering, a bronze bucket, more than 92 pieces of leather plus a full leather quiver and a variety of textiles including more than 150 fragments of multicolored slit tapestry textiles.

Meanwhile, every kind of analysis you can think of has been done on the contents of the grave — radiocarbon dating, isotope analysis, dendrochronological, DNA — and the latest results obtained from the skeletal remains indicate the man had Hepatitis B and likely died of the liver infection caused by the virus. He was between 25 and 30 years old.

The contents of the inner chamber have been stabilized and are at the Archaeological Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. The outer chamber is in the process of being dried with a new PEG-based method that was customized for this tomb. The aim is to have the tomb on permanent display at Podtatranská Museum in Poprad where it was discovered, but that has been repeatedly postponed. The latest proposed date for the installation in next year some time.

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WW1 US Navy submarine wreck explored

September 9th, 2019

Underwater archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have recorded and created a 3D model of the wreck of the USS H-1 Seawolf submarine, a torpedo boat used by the US Navy during World War I to patrol the northeast Atlantic coast. It wasn’t sunk on the Atlantic coast, however, nor in US waters, nor even during the war, for that matter.

Originally named Seawolf — the first US Navy ship to be named after the formidably betoothed fish — the submarine was built by the Union Iron Works in San Francisco in 1911, the diesel engines by Electric Boat in New London, Connecticut. She was renamed the less exciting H-1 in November of that year and launched in 1913. H-1 was the lead ship of the H-class submarines and patrolled the West Coast until a few months after the United States entered World War I in April 1917. That October, she was deployed to New London and patrolled the Atlantic coast around Long Island Sound until the war’s end. She was ordered back to her home base in San Pedro, California, in January 1920.

After crossing the Panama Canal, the H-1 went ran aground on a shoal off the coast of Santa Margarita Island in Mexico’s Baja California on March 12th, 1920. The 25 members of crew were able to evacuate but four of them, including its commanding officer Lieutenant Commander James R. Webb, died in the attempt to swim to shore. (See the list of survivors and some photos of the submarine aground before it sank here.)

The Navy tried to raise the submarine. She was pulled off the rocks briefly, only to sink 50 feet down to the seabed. On April 12th, H-1 was officially stricken from the Naval Vessel Register. The exact location of the wreck was also unknown until 2016 when a local photographer reported the presence of a historic submarine wreck west of Santa Margarita Island. Apparently it had been surreptitiously rediscovered by fishermen a few years earlier and looted for its bronze.

Since the report, INAH archaeologists have explored the wreck in two diving seasons, one in 2017 and a second in 2018. The first exploration photographed the site and took measurements.

“From stern to bow, the boat measures 44.30 meters; from aft, at 31.8 meters, the structure collapses and the area of ​​controls is observed, and later that of torpedoes; The turret part is also collapsed. The state of the hull is bad and where it has been lost there are multiple holes that reveal the submarine’s skeleton. The stern section is full of sand, ” explained [Roberto Junco, head of INAH’s Underwater Archaeology branch].

The second expedition deployed photogrammetry, the first time the technology has been used in Mexico, to document the entire vessel in painstaking detail. The thousands of high-resolution photographs taken have been stitched together to make a 3D model of the wreck. Researchers will be able to study the wreck using the model and monitor its conservation status.

“With this software we can analyze very small elements. This model has enormous utility, because over time we can continue monitoring the deterioration of the boat, with great accuracy, either by currents or natural degradation of the material with which it was built. This way we will follow up that will allow you to assess your status every two or three years, and we will be able to identify possible areas of ‘ant’ [small parts] looting, ” he added.

At this time, Junco revealed, the H-1 investigation is in the historical part, to reconstruct the role of these artifacts in the First World War. What will follow in the explorations will be to identify which parts are intact, in terms of instruments and decorative elements that provide more information on technological equipment and cultural data.

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Huge jet belt buckle found in Bronze Age grave

September 8th, 2019

A belt buckle that would make a rodeo winner feel inadequate has been unearthed from a Bronze Age grave in the Tuva Republic of the Russian Federation. The plaque is seven inches long and 3.5 inches wide and made of jet inlaid with turquoise, carnelian and mother of pearl in a dot pattern. On one side of the buckle are two round perforations used to tie it to the belt; the other side has a single oval perforation that was likely used to fasten the belt. The belt was decorated with Chinese wuzhu coins which indicate it is up to 2,137 years old.

It was discovered in a 2016 excavation of the Ala-Tey 1 cemetery, located at the foot of the Ala-Tey mountain and, thanks to the the Sayan-Shushenskoe Dam, 55 feet under water at the bottom of a 240 square-mile reservoir. Excavation is only possible a few weeks a year in May and June when melt-water is run off and the whole reservoir becomes a desolate expanse of sand. As luck would have it, archaeologists only discovered the subterranean cemetery because of these unique conditions. The top layer of sand covering the graves was washed off by the water, exposing stone slabs and cyst graves that otherwise would have been completely invisible in the landscape.

The area was a crossroads of trade and migration for centuries, and graves and cemeteries from a number of different Bronze Age peoples have been unearthed there. One of them, the nomadic Xiongnu people, built a regional empire in the 3rd-2nd century B.C. strong enough to pose a significant threat to Han China.

Ala-Tey 1 was discovered in 2014 in an archaeological survey of the site during that 3-4 week window when the reservoir is empty. Excavations found that it was Xiongnu cemetery, unique in that it appeared to be undamaged and unlooted. It was also compact, the graves grouped more closely together than the other Xiongnu burial ground in the area (Terezin, on the eroded shores of the reservoir) making it possible to systematically explore it even the very brief yearly gap between the run-off and refilling of the reservoir.

Since excavations of Ala-Tey 1 began, more than 100 burials have been unearthed. Because its lack of visible elements over the graves and the featureless sandy surface kept the cemetery safe from ancient looters, the remains found there are crucial to our understanding of Xiongnu funerary practices and social structure. The only surviving historical accounts of the Xiongnu people come from Chinese chroniclers, and at best they were looking from the outside in, so archaeological remains are invaluable in confirming or denying the known accounts.

One notable distinction, seen in the 2016 find as well, is the difference in grave goods. None of the male graves unearthed so far include elaborate adornments like the large buckles and highly decorative appliques, only utilitarian objects (pottery, iron knives) and very rarely weapons (only one of the 90 graves had arrowheads}. Female burials are richer, often featuring precious jewelry, Chinese mirrors, and the highly characteristic belts with large jet or bronze buckles. The central plaque when made of jet is often festooned with semiprecious stones as in the jet plaque from grave AT1/29, or engraved with zoomorphic images or geometric designs. The bronze buckles have complex openwork designs, for example two horses in combat, four snakes whose curves look like a geometric pattern, purely geometric latticework, two bulls with lowered heads, two camels looking at each other, etc.

The belts, made of leather or textiles, have not survived, but in addition to the central plaques, edge decorations of bronze, stone, shells, beads, bronze bells and bronze Chinese coins ran all the way around them. These belts must have been very heavy and musical in movement. They’ve always been found around the waist of the woman, and there’s evidence of wear on the jet plaques, so it seems the belts weren’t just grave goods, but were actually worn in life. It’s probable they were ceremonial pieces saved for special occasions like weddings and buried with their owners as their most precious adornment. It could be indicative of an elevated position in society held by Xiongnu women, or it could simply be a reflection of women having far more elaborate ceremonial attire than the men.

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Spectacular finds made on Gribshunden

September 7th, 2019

This season’s excavation of the Gribshunden, the the flagship of King Hans of Denmark which caught fire and sank while anchored off the coast of Ronneby in southeastern Sweden in 1495, has recovered some spectacular finds. An international team of researchers has been exploring the ship and recovering artifacts from it for three weeks.

It is the oldest warship ever found in Nordic waters and as one of the best-preserved ships from the late 15th century, it can provide important information about the design of some its famous contemporaries like the carracks of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

“We have managed to identify several new keys to the ship’s construction and we are getting closer to solving the riddle of how these kinds of ships were actually built. It increases our knowledge of an important period of transition in the world, the time of the great explorers,” says Johan Rönnby, professor in marine archaeology at Södertörn University.

The ship was said to be carrying King John’s “fatabur,” a sort of portable treasury that held his most expensive clothes and possessions. Some of the objects recovered from the wreck this summer could qualify as part of the king’s best gear: a coat of mail with a maker’s mark on one ring, a pewter plate and a elegant drinking tankard with a crown-like engraving.

Other artifacts that have been found on board are one of the oldest handguns ever found on a ship, coins, sturgeon bones and barrels, including of Danish beer from 1495.

The objects have yet to be analyzed, and more details are expected to emerge from the analysis, that will include both DNA technology and 3-D visualization. And the researchers believe there is more to be found:

“We hope to be able to return for more investigations next year—there are so many secrets down there,” concludes Brendan Foley.

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Monumental Veronese undergoes conservation

September 6th, 2019

A new conservation of “The Feast of Saint Gregory the Great,” a monumental painting by old master Paolo Veronese that was literally chopped up into bits, is to begin this month. The painting is 14’7″ x 28’10” and covers 420 square feet in area. Cut into 32 pieces by Austrian troops during the 1848 First Italian War of Independence, it has been restored three times in the past, but the last time was in 1973 and it is in urgent need of intervention.

One of a series of massive canvases Veronese created depicting a dinner scene, it still hangs in the space for which it was commissioned in 1572: the refectory of the monastery of the Madonna of Monte Berico in Vicenza. It depicts Pope Gregory I (r. 590-604)  dining with the poor, indigent and, on his right side, Jesus Christ. Giving alms and feeding the people of Rome (many of them destitute refugees of Lombard invasions) was the primary focus of Gregory’s papacy. Legend has it that he refused to eat until every poor person in Rome had eaten, and when that goal was achieved he would invite 12 of the indigent to join him for a dinner at his family dinner table. He was from a patrician family and reached the heights of a civic career in Rome before becoming a Benedictine monk, so I’m sure it was a fine table, but not quite as large as in Veronese’s vision, or as glamorously located.

Restorers from the regional superintendence will first take down the painting in order to thoroughly analyze it with a particular focus on reconstructing Veronese’s materials and painting process. A 2017 examine found a thick coating of discoloured varnish and dirt marring the surface of the painting. Before that can be address, the conservation team will create a roadmap using non-invasive analytical techniques.

X-ray fluorescence and gas chromatography will further help conservators understand the chemical composition of the pigments, binding agent and “mestica” (primer), used by the artist.

A key challenge will be distinguishing between Veronese’s hand and the work of the painting’s past restorers: Antonio Florian in 1817, Andrea Tagliapietra in 1858 (financed by the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, by way of compensation for his troops’ vandalism) and Antonio Lazzarin in 1973. “My aim is to pinpoint who did what, to decide whether to remove it or leave it be,” [lead conservator Valentina] Piovan says.

The guiding philosophy, however, will be for a “minimum of intervention”, she says. Nineteenth-century repairs made with oil-based pigments are not only difficult to reverse with modern water-based solvents, but can now be considered “a coherent part of the work” in their own right.

The delicate final phase of the project will involve retouching in such a way as to “imitate the granular texture of the painting”, Piovan says. “If it’s [too] smooth, you will see all the lines of the cuts in the light.”

Conservators will work on the canvas in situ for two years. So as not to disappoint the three million annual visitors to the monastery, the refectory will remain open to the public The conservation is scheduled to end in 2021.

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Hoard of Roman hacksilver found in Shropshire

September 5th, 2019

A hoard of Roman-era hacksilver — coins and other silver objects cut to pieces for use in trade — has been unearthed near Wem in Shropshire. It is the sixth hoard of Roman hacksilver ever found in Britain.  The Wem Hoard was discovered by three metal detectorists at a rally last year. The first few coins were found on the surface. Then the metal detector alerted to something deeper under the ground and the finders began to dig. They came up with “handfuls of silver.”

The discovery was reported to the local finds liaison officer of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. A follow-up excavation last week unearthed additional silver pieces. Peter Reavill, finds liaison officer for Shropshire and Herefordshire, testified at this week’s treasure inquest that all the objects were part of the same hoard.

“That hoard is the largest hacksilver Roman hoard we have from the West Midlands. It contains both hacked-up vessels and brooches and buckles, but it also includes a number of Roman coins from the very end of the Roman Empire.

“Analysis which has been done at the British Museum suggests that it goes in the ground in the fifth century – 460 to 500AD.

“We know at that time that the monetary system in Britain has completely collapsed and we are based on a sort of bullion – the weight of the silver in the coins and the objects.

“That’s been hacked up and put into very small pieces so that it can be paid out to people like mercenaries to protect you, but also to traders.

Not surprisingly, the coins are in terrible condition. Most of them are so thoroughly clipped, worn and cut that it’s not possible to determine which type they are, never mind which mint issued them. Of the ones that can be identified, about half of them date to the reign of co-rulers Arcadius and Honorius (395-402 A.D.). Pieces of silver vessels, plates and buckles were also found in the hoard, as was an intact silver brooch which may have been used to pin together a cloth or bag that held the goods before it rotted away.

All but one of the coins, 66 of the 67 found, are siliquae, small, thin silver coins produced starting in the 4th century. They were flimsy and cranked out quickly in large numbers, making them prone to cracking and striking errors. They were also easy to clip because of how thin they were. Clipping — trimming the silver off the edges leaving only the imperial portrait on the obverse largely intact — was a common practice in late Roman Britain although siliquae from elsewhere in the empire are rarely clipped. They were clipped face-up to preserve the portrait while the borders, mintmarks, inscriptions and reverse designs were damaged or destroyed. Historians believe clipped siliquae were the first hard currency used by Saxons.

The one coin that is not a siliqua is a denarius from the 1st century A.D. It is heavily worn but unclipped, so it appears to have been pressed into action as bullion after 400 years or so in circulation. It’s extremely rare to find a single denarius in a hoard of siliquae. There is only one other marginally comparable example (the Patching Hoard) but it had a more varied composition overall.

The Wem Hoard siliquae are so end-stage clipped that even the imperial portraits are encroached upon, and the ones that were clipped were just cut up into halves and quarters. The coins illustrate the trend at that time and place for increasingly small pieces of hacksilver functioning as currency. Wem is far enough inland that it probably hadn’t seen new imports of coinage for years before Roman occupation ceased. By the time this hoard was buried, the area had almost entirely transitioned to a bullion economy.

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First evidence of Battle of Worcester found

September 4th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered the first material remains of the Battle of Worcester, the final battle in the English Civil War, in Powick. The 98 artifacts were discovered in a dig at the site of construction work for the Worcester Southern Link Road. Objects unearthed include belt buckles, horse fittings, weapons parts, musket and pistol balls.

On September 3rd, 1651, the Parliamentarian army of 28,000 defeated King Charles II’s Royalist army of 16,000 troops, most of them Scottish. It was a hard-fought battle despite the Royalist side being vastly outnumbered. Overseeing the action from high perches in church towers, Oliver Cromwell in Powick Parish Church, Charles II in Worcester cathedral, the opponents commanded their armies in person. After fierce fighting and shifts in advantage, the Royalists were beaten into retreat and Charles had to flee the city before Worcester fell to the Parliamentarians. Approximately 3,000 men died in the battle. Ten thousand were taken prisoner. Charles escaped to France where he lived for eight years until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

That hostilities had been engaged at Powick on the outskirts of Worcester wasn’t unknown. Accounts record heavy fighting at Powick Old Bridge in the battle (one of the first battles in the Civil War was also fought there in 1642), and the tower of the Powick Parish Church still bears the scars of musket fire from the clash. Even so, physical artifacts had yet to be recovered.

The reason, as archaeologists discovered, is the site’s location on a flood plain. The objects had been washed down to the bottom of the Teme River valley and covered in thick layers of alluvial silt.

Musket ball found buried in upper flood silts. Photo by Jonathan Barry.Derek Hurst, project archaeological consultant says: “For the first time we have been able to pinpoint the buried Civil War horizon within the flood silts built up across the flood plain – and the key to this has been special scientific investigation of the flood silts using optically stimulated luminescence.

The results from this have enabled us to focus our efforts quite precisely which has meant much time saving and so saving on costs, as well as getting a brilliant archaeological outcome.”

Richard Bradley, on-site lead archaeologist says: “It is fantastic to be able to finally locate and map physical remains of the battle and to relate this to the historical record. We are just outside the registered battlefield area but this is still a nationally significant site.

The construction work has given us the opportunity to investigate the floodplain across which thousands of infantry and cavalry engaged, and to get down to the level where artefacts were deposited. Many of the lead musket and pistol balls show evidence of firing or impact and these tangible signs of the conflict offer a poignant connection to the soldiers who fought and died here.”

The artifacts will now be studied and documented further, and their precise find sites will shed new light on the last battle of the Civil War. They’ve already proven that the battlefield was further to the south than previously realized. They can also help plot the movement of troops during the encounter. More pistol balls — used by the cavalry — were found in one spot, for example, whereas more musket balls — used by infantry — were unearthed in another.

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500-year-old mummy girl repatriated to Bolivia

September 3rd, 2019

The 500-year-old mummy of an Inca girl has been repatriated to Bolivia after 129 years in Michigan. This is the first time human remains have been returned to Bolivia which has in recent years made concerted efforts to reclaim its scattered cultural patrimony.

The girl, who was eight years old at the time of her death, is believed to have been a member of the Pacajes group of the Andean Aymara people. Radiocarbon dating found that she died in the second half of the 15th century, around 1470. At that time the Aymara were ruled by the Inca Empire before the arrival of the Spanish.

She was naturally mummified in the dry air of the Andes Mountains south of La Paz and remains today in an exceptional state of preservation. Her long reddish black braids are thick and entirely undisturbed even though her face is largely skeletonized. Her body was placed in a stone or adobe tower known as a chullpa, tombs built for the Aymara elite. She was wrapped in a cape made of camelid wool and small feathers were placed in her hand. In the chullpa with her were found leather sandals, a sling, a gourd full of small pebbles and a bag containing maize, fruit, beans and coca.

Not much is known about the discovery and export of the mummy and her funerary furnishings. They have been in the collection of the Michigan State University Museum since 1890 when the materials were donated by Fenton McCreery, son of the then-consul from the United States to Chile, William McCreery. The mummy was placed on public display in the museum in the 1950s and became one of its most popular exhibits, even featuring on a post card. It was removed in the 1970s when attitudes towards the exhibition of human remains began to change. She and the objects she was buried with spent the next 40 years in storage.

It was William Lovis, curator emeritus of anthropology, who started a campaign to return the mummy to her homeland. He figured since the museum wasn’t going to put the remains or artifacts on display ever again, nor were they planning on studying them any further, it would be better from a cultural heritage and scientific perspective if they were repatriated.

In October of 2018, Michigan State University’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to relinquish legal ownership to the state of Bolivia. The remains were first transported to the Bolivian embassy in Washington, D.C., where an official transfer ceremony was held on January 22nd.  In August, the mummy and artifacts arrived in La Paz. They are now being held in a refrigerated chamber at the National Archaeology Museum.

The mummy, who has been dubbed Ñusta, the Aymara word for “princess,” will remain in cold storage while researchers study her remains with a particular focus on the condition of the body. The objects she was buried with are being examined and any conservation needs attended to before going on display at the National Archaeology Museum in La Paz later this year.

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Full Boxford mosaic revealed

September 2nd, 2019

The extraordinary mosaic floor discovered in the remains of a 4th century Roman villa in Boxford, West Berkshire, two years ago has been revealed in all its glory.

The edge of the pavement was first discovered around 1870 when a land drain was installed that cut through the wall and the border of the mosaic. Documentation of the find was cursory at best, with vague references to the location of the site, known as Mud Hole for its propensity towards waterlogging (hence the need for a land drain) and does not record the existence of a mosaic. The Victorian excavation can’t have been a thorough one as the team has found no evidence of it since explorations of the site began in 2011.

Geophysical surveys and excavations of three potential Roman sites within a mile of Boxford progressively revealed the remains of a large villa, a detached bath house with hypocaust heating, a warm room and a cold plunge pool, and a barn at one of the sites, Hoar Hill. Pottery and coins found at the site dated the large villa and farm to the 3rd and 4th centuries, with significant modifications and expansions during its lifespan and some evidence of even earlier occupation. Fragments of painted wall plaster pointed to this having been a fashionable, expensively decorated domus, unusually so considering its rural setting in a backwater province of the empire.

The Mud Hole villa, on the other hand, was modest in size with a simple layout. Instead of a bathhouse, it has a small bath suite on the northwest end. It dates to around 380 A.D., a time when Roman control of Britain was rapidly waning, and given its dimensions, archaeologists had no reason to expect the kind of handsome furnishings they’d seen glimpses of in the Hoar Hill villa.

When a trench was dug on the southeast end of the structure, red tesserae were unearthed just beneath the ploughsoil level. The red tiles proved to be the exterior border of a far more complex mosaic floor. It had been preserved despite centuries of agricultural work on the property, because it was in a terraced position steps down from the main farm work and because the collapse of the building had covered the pavement in protective rubble.

The first section of the mosaic, a strip twenty feet long and 6.5 feet wide, was discovered in August of 2017 by a team of community volunteers and professional archaeologists overseen by Cotswold Archaeology. They worked from morning to night to uncover and clean the strip within the short time remaining (the entire dig season only lasts two weeks).

Mosaic experts were called in to examine the find. They identified scenes from Greek mythology that indicated the owner of the villa was keen to display his grasp of Roman culture. The section included a portion of the central panel depicting the hero Bellerophon on the winged horse Pegasus defeating the Chimera. The border featured another scene from mythology — Hercules fighting the centaur Nessus — plus a roundel with a figure holding a wreath, a kantharos drinking cup, floral elements and in each of the two exposed corners a telamon, muscular heroes named after the Argonaut and father of Ajax that often decorated weight-bearing structures in Greek and Roman architecture (known as atlantes after the titan Atlas in Greek). The telamons jutted out of their roundels, their strong arms holding up the corner of the central panel.

Less than half of the mosaic was unearthed in 2017. The mosaic was reburied for its own protection, as that was the last planned season of the Boxford excavation. The Boxford History Project set about raising funds for a full four week excavation that would reveal the remaining mosaic as well as the floor plan of the villa. Thanks to contributions from the public and sponsors, on August 19th, 2019, the team of volunteers and professional returned to Mud Hole. On the first day they found more of the red border. By the 27th, they had uncovered the whole thing, wall to wall. The floor was washed and ready to be shown to the public on August 31st. About 3,000 people came to the Open Day to see this unique work.

Anthony Beeson, the classical art expert who in 2017 had helped identify the Bellerophon motif and described the find as “without question the most exciting mosaic discovery made in Britain in the last fifty years,” gave visitors a guided tour of the full mosaic. It turns out that the Bellerophon scenes were only around the edge of the central panel. The main subject was the story of Pelops who won his bride by fixing a chariot race. The key to his trickery — a single lynch pin — was also the key to Beeson recognizing the mythological tale being depicted.

Explaining the story depicted in the mosaic, Mr Beeson said: “The pavement shows Bellerophon and Pegasus but the main action is the story of Pelops and his race to win the hand of the Princess Hippodamia.

“The king, Oenomaus, having been told that his future son-in-law would bring about his death, made all contestants race him in a chariot but handicapped them by putting the princess in the vehicle with them.

“The losers were decapitated and their heads displayed.

“Pelops persuaded a former lover Myrtilus and the King’s chariot master to substitute a wax lynch pin and the king was killed when the wheels flew off.

“Pelops thereby won but killed Myrtilus who cursed his lineage and brought about the curse of the Pelops. The king’s funerary games are said to be the origin of the Olympics.”

The mosaic has been reburied and there are no current plans for its display. It will not be raised. The fields around it will continue to be farmed, so it’s not likely that it can be exhibited in situ either, at least not full-time.

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