Mosaic noun (MIXTURE) ... a combination of many different parts forming one thing
Just after midnight on the morning of Thursday 25 November I breathed a sigh of relief, a secret I had kept for over a year was finally out.
Last year, during the first Covid lockdown, I joined University of Leicester Archaeology Services (ULAS) to help record a newly discovered mosaic near to where I live in Rutland. The team included Jennifer Browning and John Thomas from ULAS, the discoverer Jim Irvine, former County Archaeologist Peter Liddle, and David Neal, a leading expert on Roman mosaics. Due to the sensitivity of the discovery, our work was kept top-secret.
The team was hands on in all areas from pen to trowel. Conventional tools aside, we used plastic plant labels, soft brushes and wore thick woollen socks rather than boots to avoid disturbing the fragile remains. Immediately above the mosaic was a thin layer of fine gravel that gave us a warning to lay aside our trowels and begin meticulous and delicate cleaning.<
Following on from the area Jim had first uncovered, the first human figure was quickly revealed, and others followed. As work progressed there was a constant commentary from us: “I have a spear” -everyone got up and came over to look. “I have a wheel”, “What is this?” (It was a pistrix or sea creature) - incredible!
After this initial investigation it was clear that more would be needed to understand the mosaic and its wider archaeological context. As this began to take shape real life mirrored the mosaic. It was an education to see the different parts (including people from Historic England, Worcestershire Archaeology, University of Leicester, SUMO Survey, Leicestershire County Council and Rutland County Council), coming together to learn more about the site, and how it could be managed in the future. >
Several surveys were carried out to gather more information. A COSMIC (Conservation of Scheduled Monuments in Cultivation) test pit survey aimed to assess the effects of ploughing on the archaeology, which turned out to be extremely shallow. Further revelations were provided by SUMO who carried out magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys to astonishing effect. Their work showed the scale and complexity of the villa complex in amazing detail - I was looking at it on my phone at the time and thought I was seeing things there were so many features - it was like a Magic Eye image, if you stared at it long enough another building would appear!
We returned in September 2021 with a team of archaeology students from University of Leicester to complete work on the mosaic and look at other buildings revealed by the geophys. Now there were 3 big trenches, a larger team and a steady flow of official visitors. To top it all we were also being filmed for a future episode of Digging for Britain!
I always felt that I lived too long in the middle of the countryside, but this was such a positive experience where rural resourcefulness was second to none, and there was no shortage of help from local people. The hidden benefit of being part of a rural heritage network and fitting into the bigger picture made me feel mentally so much better. This was enhanced by the transparency of the ULAS team, making sure those who worked and volunteered had a sense of place and ownership of the project, alongside respecting the work that had to be done. This method of engagement has left a legacy, there was no “us and them”, and the locals are now very proud and protective of the site, which is a homage to the network of people involved.
I have my own personal mosaic where combinations of different parts came together to develop my archaeological experience. Being alongside people who supported me over the years; Peter Liddle who advised me on my GCSE 15 years ago, John Thomas’s support with my Masters 5 years ago, Jen Browning’s teaching of different fieldskills and the support network of the local community built up over time living in this local area.
It is not just a story of the Hector and Achilles. it is the different mosaics of the past and present which makes this site so special.
Debbie Frearson, 1 December 2021