Previously, we have talked about quite a few fascinating mosaic discoveries in the past months, ranging from the long-lost Gallo-Roman city of Ucetia to the ancient Libyan trading town of Ptolemais. Now while both of these sites boast impressive mosaic specimens that mainly tend to take the geometric route, archaeologists at Britain have discovered a 1,600-year old mosaic at Boxford, England, that flaunts its figures. Simply put, the rarity of the find (dating from a period between 360-380 AD) stems from its depiction of mythological figures and a complementing inscription.
Assessing the incredible discovery, researchers from Berkshire Archaeology Research Group (of the Roman Boxford Project) have concluded that mosaic was the part of a relatively medium-sized Roman villa of 100-ft width. In spite of the constrained area, the artwork comprises various episodes from Greek mythology, including one that depicts a king named Iobates receiving the famed Bellerophon into his court. Another segment portrays the famous mythic narrative where the hero Bellerophon slays the Chimera, a fire-breathing hybrid monster that was part-lion, part-goat, and part-serpent.
From the historical perspective, mythology can be perceived as compelling literary manifestations of psychological, cultural, or societal truths. To that end, the Chimera might have represented that onset of winter, while its death at the hands of Bellerophon possibly signified the cyclic change of seasons. And since we are talking about mythical Greek heroes, the mosaic also depicts the renowned Hercules battling against a centaur after stealing wine from the latter’s group.
Interestingly enough, the uniqueness of this Romano-British mosaic in question also emerges from the ‘idiosyncratic’ positioning of the figures. For example, one of the portrayals of a figurative entity, possibly representing a season or Cupid, extends beyond the drawn borders of geometric circular frames. Similarly, a depicted Pegasus also ‘trots’ beyond the main rectangular border of the mosaic. Anthony Beeson, a specialist of Roman art and architecture from the Association for Roman Archaeology, who also took part in the project, said (to LiveScience) –
Quite frankly, when I first saw it, I thought it was a hoax because it was so unlike anything that has ever turned up in this country. You never find that in British mosaics, and you very, very rarely find it in any mosaic. It’s done by somebody who doesn’t want to stick to the rules, which, I think, is its charm.
Lastly as for the villa itself, despite its modest size, the residence was upgraded over time, including a bath suite with a small cold water plunge pool, that must have required substantial investment from the owner. As Neil Holbrook from Cotswold Archaeology, who also collaborated on the project, summarized the possible societal context of both the mosaic artwork and its patron –
The mosaic is a truly important find. Not only is it a fantastic new piece of Roman art from Britain, but it also tells us about the lifestyle and social pretensions of the owner of the villa at Boxford. That person wanted to project an image of themselves as a cultivated person of taste – someone familiar with classical mythology and high Roman culture, despite the fact that their villa was of relatively modest size in a remote part of the Roman empire. While this person was most probably of British origin, they wanted to be regarded by their friends, neighbors and subservient as a proper Roman.