This began out as a bit of basic home improvement, which ended up with the finding of one of the biggest Roman Villas ever to be found in the UK. While laying an electricity cable beneath the grounds of his home, near the village of Tisbury, in Wiltshire, Luke Irwin found the remains of what appeared to be an ornate Roman Mosaic.
It was sheer luck for British rug designer, Luke Irwin, when he asked the electricians working in his backyard to lay cable wires underground and not overhead. The digging led to the discovery of an ancient palatial Roman villa. Just like Irwin, even archaeologists were astonished by this discovery.
Yet it was even more shocking that there was an excavation by archeologists from Historic Great Britain and the Salisbury Museum. They found the mosaic was part of the floor of a much larger Roman property, similar in size and structure to the great Roman villa at Chedworth.
But in a move that will surprise many, the remains – some of the most important to be found in decades – have now been re-buried, as Historic England cannot afford to fully excavate and preserve such an extensive site.
Dr David Roberts, the archaeologist for Historic England, said: “This site has not been touched since its collapse 1400 years ago and, as such, is of enormous importance. Without question, this is a hugely valuable site in terms of research, with incredible potential.
“The discovery of such an elaborate and extraordinarily well-preserved villa, undamaged by agriculture for over 1500 years, is unparalleled in recent years.
Overall, the excellent preservation, large scale and complexity of this site present a unique opportunity to understand Roman and post-Roman Britain.”
Excavations at the site revealed a large Roman property, similar in size and structure to Chedworth
He added: “Unfortunately, it would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to fully excavate and the preserve the site, which cannot be done with the current pressures.
“We would very much like to go back and carry out more digs to further our understanding of the site. But it’s a question of raising the money and taking our time, because as with all archaeological work there is the risk of destroying the very thing you seek to uncover.”
Mr Irwin, a Dublin-born designer who makes hand-made silk, wool and cashmere rugs, made the fortunate find last summer while laying electricity cables beneath a stretch of ground to the rear of his property, so that his children could play table tennis under lighting in an old barn.
An artist’s impression of how the site would have looked
His builders had barely begun to dig a trench for the cables when they hit something solid, just 18 inches below the surface. On closer inspection it appeared to be a section of a Roman mosaic in remarkably good condition. Intrigued, Mr Irwin called in experts from the Wiltshire Archaeology Service, Historic England (formerly English Heritage) and nearby Salisbury Museum.
Further exploratory excavation of the site – now known as the Deverill Villa after the name of Mr Irwin’s 17th-century house – revealed surviving sections of walls, one and a half metres in height, confirming that the mosaic formed part of a grand villa, thought to have been three storeys in height, its grounds extending over 100 metres in width and length.
It is thought the villa, which had around 20 to 25 rooms on the ground floor alone, was built sometime between 175 AD and 220 AD, and was repeatedly re-modelled right up until the mid – 4th century. The remains at Deverill are similar to those found at Chedworth, in Gloucestershire, suggesting that the building belonged to a family of significant wealth and importance.
A Roman coin found at the site
Chedworth was built as a dwelling around three sides of a courtyard, with a fine mosaic floor, as well as two separate bathing suites – one for damp-heat and one for dry-heat. The villa was discovered in 1864, and it was excavated and put on display soon afterwards. It was acquired by the National Trust in 1924.
The discovery at Mr Irwin’s home also revealed a number of fascinating objects from the Roman period. Among the artefacts discovered during the excavations were a perfectly preserved Roman well, underfloor heating pipes and the stone coffin of a Roman child. Another was the stone coffin of a Roman child, which had long been used by the inhabitants of the adjoining house as a flower pot, most recently for geraniums.
Also found were discarded oyster shells, which would have had to be transported over 45 miles from the coast– further evidence of the villa would have been the home of a wealthy and important family. Archaeologists believe that during the post-Roman period timber structures were erected within the ruins of the once-ornate villa.
One of the discarded oyster shells
They say further research of what was found at Deverill would throw light on what remains one of the least understood periods of British history – between fall of the Roman Empire and the completion of Saxon domination in the 7th century.
Simon Sebag Montefiore, one of Britain’s leading historians said: “This remarkable Roman villa, with its baths and mosaics uncovered by chance, is a large, important and very exciting discovery that reveals so much about the luxurious lifestyle of a rich Romano British family at the height of the empire.
“It is an amazing thought that so much has survived almost two millennia.” Mr Irwin was inspired by his discovery to create a series of rugs based around the theme of the Roman mosaic he unearthed. His collection will be put on display at his showroom in central London.
A child’s coffin found at the site
He said: “When I held some of the tessaras, the mosaic tiles that were found, in the palm of my hand, the history of the place felt tangible, like an electric shock. The brilliance of their colours was just extraordinary, especially as they have been buried for so long.
“To think that someone lived on this site 1,500 years ago is almost overwhelming. You look out at an empty field from your front door, and yet centuries ago one of the biggest homes in all of Britain at the time was standing there.”
But while the artefacts have been removed and are now in the care of Salisbury Museum, the remains of the villa and its mosaics have been re-buried and grassed over to protect them from the elements. To expose and preserve the mosaics and fragments of walls would be prohibitively expensive and beyond the budget of Salisbury Museum. Even if it was financially possible, Mr Irwin does not want his garden turned into an open-air museum.