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Amateur U.K. Archaeologists Stumble on a Roman Masterpiece

The surprise discovery came at the conclusion of a project that was spread over three years and a hectic two weeks — necessitated by limited financing and availability.

Among the first to spot it was Joy Appleton, who leads the Boxford History Project and who was a driving force behind the excavation.

“I was stunned into silence,” Ms. Appleton recalled of her first sight of the small red tiles, each the size of her fingernail. “Which is unusual.”

The expert on site, Matt Nichol, was equally surprised. “I will never forget that moment,” said Mr. Nichol, a professional archaeologist who was supervising the dig.

“It was down to the volunteers, it really was. I get quite emotional about it; it was something to see their drive,” added Mr. Nichol, project officer for Cotswold Archaeology, a company whose normal work includes helping real estate developers preserve archaeological finds.

Experts say the mosaic at what is now called Boxford villa depicts Bellerophon, a hero of Greek mythology who was sent to kill the chimera, a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion, the torso of a goat and the tail of a serpent. Hercules is also thought to be featured, fighting a centaur, and so is Cupid.

According to Anthony Beeson, a specialist in classical art and member of the board of the Association for Roman Archaeology, the discovery is important for several reasons.

“It is so unusual because it has all sorts of quirks which you don’t expect, and it has subjects on it that are completely alien to mosaics in this country,” he said.

Some figures breach geometric borders and there seems to be a trompe l’oeil effect. Mr. Beeson added that he could not think “of another Roman mosaic in this country that is as creative as this one.” There are inscriptions, too, though only about one-third of the mosaic was excavated and the full text was not uncovered.

The execution is uneven, Mr. Beeson said, suggesting that the “mosaicist has had ideas above his technical ability,” producing what he called a “very sophisticated design done in a slightly naïve manner.”

Boxford villa had been marked — inaccurately, as it turned out — on an old map. (It later turned out that the site was disturbed in the 19th century, when the installation of a land drainage pipe damaged part of the mosaic.)


Experts said the mosaicist showed imaginative story telling. They believe the mosaic depicts Bellerophon, Hercules and Cupid.

Richard Miller

With much to be revealed, there is still a lot to learn about life at Boxford villa, though its owner must have been affluent and cultured, and clearly wanted to show off a broad knowledge of mythology to guests.

Mr. Beeson says he believes that it is “really vital that we at least see what the other part of the mosaic is like; it’s too important not to investigate.”

For Ms. Appleton, the discovery has filled in part of a missing link in the history of Boxford, a village of around 300 inhabitants. Evidence of Stone, Bronze and Iron Age life had been discovered, and there is a Saxon window in the local church that dates to the period before the Norman invasion of 1066.

Given the geographical location, and the quality of the agricultural land, Ms. Appleton was confident that this was also the site of a Roman settlement, a conviction reinforced by the discovery of several artifacts from that period.

So Ms. Appleton and her group pressed ahead. Survey work began in 2012, and there were discoveries at two nearby sites during digs in 2015 and 2016.

Without expert archaeological knowledge, the Boxford History Project secured help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a national charity funded by lottery receipts, to pay for professional supervision during a project made up of short excavations conducted on three sites in three consecutive years.

By chance, Mr. Nichol, who supervised the dig, does not live far away, an irony that is not lost on an archaeologist who has traveled to the Western Sahara, Macedonia and Serbia in search of antiquities, only to discover something so spectacular so close to home.

“I never believed it could have been in Boxford, 30 minutes drive from home,” he said.

What happens to the site into the future remains unclear because, once exposed to the atmosphere, a mosaic deteriorates quickly unless it is preserved.


The site of the excavation near Boxford, England. The mosaic was eventually covered up with dirt for preservation and safekeeping.

Boxford Parish Blog

Ms. Appleton and Mr. Nichol hope to uncover the rest of it next year, though that will depend on whether funding can be raised.

But even if they do, making it available for public view would be costly. Just lifting it and removing it from the site would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In fact, there was little choice about an immediate solution — which was to bury it in the earth that had protected it for so long because the farmer needed his land back to plant his wheat crop.

Even that step proved nerve-racking because there was no money to pay for security to prevent treasure hunters from damaging or destroying the mosaic.

The risks increased when, the day before the mosaic was covered over, the site was opened to friends and families of the volunteers who had worked there, increasing the number of people who knew the location.

So for the organizers, it was a relief, rather than a disappointment, when the earth was pushed back to conceal their discovery.

The night before that was done, Mr. Nichol decided to keep watch over the site from his S.U.V. with a supply of food, a sleeping bag and a bottle of red wine, all donated by volunteers.

The Roman owner of the villa would have invited guests to eat and drink on this spot, using the mosaic as a talking point, so a mildly bacchanalian vigil did not seem out of place.

“I was on my own in the field; it was incredible,” Mr. Nichol said. He described how, in the solitude, he felt drawn back across the centuries to experience a unique connection to the more-than-1,600-year-old archaeological site, and to the mythological images of its extraordinary, colorful mosaic.

“The wine did help,” he added.

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