An incredibly well-preserved Roman mosaic that may have decorated a room in an important building has been discovered near London Bridge in Southwark.
Archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) have been working to study the site, a former Jubilee line extension construction site, ahead of a housing development moving in. They’ve been on site since last June, discovering small objects ranging from prehistoric to Victorian, but a few weeks ago, MOLA’s co-supervisor of the site, Dave Saxby, uncovered a small fragment of mosaic. Finding small fragments of mosaic is not that unusual, but after calling over the Site Supervisor, Antonietta Lerz, they started clearing more away, and over the days, excitement rose as more and more of an exceptionally rare survivor of Roman London was uncovered.
The largest area of Roman mosaic found in London for over 50 years, it’s already rewriting some of the initial thinking about the area.
The archaeologists are still working on the site, but they already knew that there were Roman buildings in the area following a 1980s excavation on a site next to this development, and have been able to start to piece together a map of the area.
They just didn’t expect to find anything as amazing as a nearly intact Roman mosaic.
MOLA Site Supervisor, Antonietta Lerz, says: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime find in London. It has been a privilege to work on such a large site where the Roman archaeology is largely undisturbed by later activity-when the first flashes of colour started to emerge through the soil everyone on site was very excited!”
There are two large sections, the main rectangle, which may have been used in a dining room, and a smaller square which may have sat in a recess in the room. At about 8 metres long, this room is particularly large for London, emphasising how important the occupants would have been.
The uncovered mosaic includes two highly-decorated panels made up of small, coloured tiles set within a red tessellated floor. The largest panel shows large, colourful flowers surrounded by bands of intertwining strands – a motif known as a guilloche. There are also lotus flowers and several different geometric elements, including a pattern known as Solomon’s knot, made of two interlaced loops.
Dr David Neal, a former archaeologist with English Heritage and leading expert in Roman mosaic, has attributed this design to the ‘Acanthus group’ – a team of mosaicists working in London who developed their own unique local style.
The smaller panel has a simpler design, with two Solomon’s knots, two stylized flowers and striking geometric motifs in red, white and black. This has an almost exact parallel has been found in Trier, Germany, and the same mosaicists were likely at work in both places.
This discovery in Southwark provides evidence for Roman artisans travelling to work in London.
The mosaics were set in a large room, currently thought that it may have been a dining room, which the Romans called a triclinium. It would have contained dining couches, where people would recline to eat. The walls of this room were brightly painted, and remarkably, some fragments of fragile wall plaster have survived and been recovered by the archaeologists.
While the largest mosaic panel can be dated to the late 2nd to early 3rd century AD, the room was clearly in use for a longer period of time. Astonishingly, traces of an earlier mosaic underneath the one currently visible have been identified. This shows the room was refurbished over the years, perhaps to make way for the latest trends.
The mosaic is surrounded by red tiles which were used in corridors around the room, and you may just about be able to make out the dip in the floor behind the left kneeling archaeologist in the photo below, where the inner wall would have been separating the room from the corridor.
The mosaics will be carefully recorded and assessed by a team of conservators. They will then be lifted and transported off-site, enabling more detailed conservation work to take place. They’ve already identified one area of the mosaic that looks to have been burnt at some time, possibly from an oil lamp being dropped onto the floor.
In the wider site where they are excavating the Roman rooms, what they think was here are two rows of buildings, possibly separated by a roadway. The 1980s discoveries may have been normal townhouses, but the building being uncovered at the moment may have been a Roman mansio – an upmarket ‘motel’ offering accommodation, stabling, and dining facilities for state couriers and officials travelling to and from London. The complete footprint of the building is still being uncovered, but current findings suggest this was a very large complex, with multiple rooms and corridors surrounding a central courtyard.
It was commonplace for such buildings to be based around the outside of Roman cities.
Other finds include a hypocaust, the famous Roman underfloor heating, hairpins, needles, bottles and broaches.
The survival of the Roman remains on this site is a fluke of history, as the area was left as fields until the 17th-century, and then the buildings that were erected tended to have shallow basements. Even so, a 17th-century wall can be seen next to the mosaic, and had it been just a metre to the west, most of the mosaic would have been shattered and lost to us.
Excavations on this site have been taking place as part of the wider regeneration of the area, set to be completed in 2024 with the opening of The Liberty of Southwark.
The Liberty of Southwark, a mixed-use scheme that is being jointly developed by regeneration specialist U+I (now owned by Landsec) and Transport for London (TfL). Once completed, the Liberty of Southwark will provide new homes, shops, retail and workspace.
The excavation also provided new training opportunities. MOLA, in partnership with Keltbray and TfL, delivered a two-week ‘Get Into Archaeology’ access programme for Londoners interested in learning more about construction and the work of professional archaeologists.
Future plans for the public display of the mosaics are currently being determined, although there is an aspiration for the mosaic to go on display somewhere locally, and maybe on the same site where it was discovered after the housing development is completed.
Until then, for next week or two, if you want to see the mosaic in situ, it can be seen from the trains heading west out of London Bridge towards Charing Cross. Look south out of the train just after the rail junction to Cannon Street.