10 Amazing Facts About the Boxford Mosaic
Our new book, The Boxford Mosaic - A Unique Survivor From the Roman Age, tells the full story behind the most spectacular Roman mosaic ever found in Britain. Here we pick out just 10 amazing things you'll discover inside.
1. The mosaic lay undisturbed for 1600 years
The Boxford Mosaic dates from approximately 350AD. Despite very nearly having been rediscovered in 1870 (more on that below), the mosaic essentially remained undisturbed for around 1600 years. The Roman Empire fell, the Dark and Medieval Ages came and went, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invaders arrived, Tudors and Stuarts ruled, civil war raged, Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians reigned, modern Britain emerged. And all the while, the mosaic remained buried in a humble Berkshire field.
2. It’s one of only three mosaics of its type in the entire world
The myths depicted in the artwork (see #6 below for more on that) make the Boxford Mosaic particularly unusual. The only others like it are in Noheda (Spain) and Damascus (Syria).
3. The Victorians found it first (kind of)
There’s a pipe cutting through one corner of the mosaic. This Victorian land drain was installed in 1870 – whoever did so was clearly unaware of (or unimpressed by) what they had stumbled upon. Documentation from the time reveals no mention of a mosaic, despite the fact that a portion of it would have been removed or destroyed in order to facilitate the laying of the pipe.
4. Local historians & volunteers powered the project
It all started back in 2008, when local resident Joy Appleton set up the Boxford History Project (BHP), with the modest aim of writing a history of the parish. Research for the book threw up a mystery, however – the team could track Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Saxons in the parish, but almost nothing about the Romans.
Following up on some promising clues, archaeological investigations began at three sites in the area. Then, in 2017, they made the startling mosaic discovery.
After revealing a tantalising portion of it, they had to cover it back up! It took most of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 for the BHP to raise enough funds to enable the project to uncover the whole mosaic.
Applications far outstripped the number of volunteers required. One application was from an amateur archaeologist from Ohio, US, with expertise in the pre-history of the American Midwest whose lifelong dream was to excavate a Roman site.
5. It's a masterpiece of Greek mythology
The mosaic’s central panel features some classic stories from ancient Greek mythology, including that of Pelops’ quest to marry the Princess Hippodamia; and Bellerophon, mounted on the flying horse Pegasus, in the act of slaying the monstrous fire-breathing Chimaera. (The story and iconography of Bellerophon defeating Chimaera gradually developed into that of St George and the Dragon).
Elsewhere, Hercules slays a centaur and in each of the four corners stand mighty telamones. Telamones were based on the figure of the mythological giant Atlas, who held up the sky, and their appearance in mosaics is incredibly rare. The purpose of including them in such a way (foreshortened to give the appearance of standing upright) was to give the pavement a three-dimensional effect.
Anthony Beeson, leading UK iconographer and expert on Roman art, oversaw the Boxford Mosaic excavation. Here he is with the full story:
6. Note how the figures break through the mosaic's borders - that's unusual
One of the most notable and apparent eccentricities of the mosaic is the fact that figures are not contained by their borders, but overlap or break out of them.
This overlapping is similar to that sometimes encountered in sculptural friezes and in late Roman manuscript. It may well be that the mosaicists at Boxford were actually following a modern fashion found in other artistic media but not yet recognised in British mosaics.
7. It was made using stone from the West Country
It’s often assumed that mosaicists used locally sourced materials for their commissions, but this was not the case at Boxford. The tesserae (tiles) used in the floor have been identified as dark blue-grey and buff-grey dolostone from Kimmeridge Bay or from an adjacent outcrop along the Dorset coast. The brownstone tesserae originate from The Forest of Dean and the white tesserae are thought to come from the Dorset or Hampshire Downs.
Did the mosaicists themselves come from Dorset and bring the materials with them, or was there a manufacturing supplier of ready-made mosaic tesserae sticks, based at one of the quarries in the Kimmeridge area? We can only speculate!
8. We know the name of the owner of the villa
The central caption reads: ‘Caepio vivas c[um Fo]r[tu]nata coniuge’, which translates as, ‘Long life to you, Caepio, with your wife Fortunata’. This gives us the name of the villa-owner, Caepio. The inscription suggests that the mosaic may even have been a wedding present. A rather grand one at that!
9. A scene fit for horse country
Caepio was clearly a man ahead of his time. The aristocratic horse theme in the Boxford Mosaic is strong, with six being portrayed on the floor. This is particularly pertinent given that the modern-day Vale of Lambourn has been dubbed the Valley of the Racehorse. Some of the excavators have speculated that the site might even have been a stud or a hunting lodge.
10. Now you see it, now you don't
The mosaic was uncovered for a brief period and unveiled to the public at the end of August 2019. It was then covered over so the land could be farmed again. It’s too large to relocate to a museum and, anyway, the locals rather like it where it is.
Want to know more? Click here to order your copy of the book today
- Alex Batho