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Mosaics tell of Somerset prosperity in Roman times

By This is Dorset  |  Posted: October 14, 2009

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They were the perfect way to demonstrate wealth and culture in Roman Britain, and a new book on Roman mosaics says a little town in Somerset was probably home to some of the art's best craftsmen.

To impress your guests, what could be better than installing a mosaic pavement full of cultural (and sensual) delights in the bath block?

The owner of the villa at Low Ham, near Langport, did just that. He called in craftsmen to recreate the legend of the love between Dido, Queen of Carthage and Aeneas of Troy, as told by Virgil, in five lively panels on the floor of the cold room.

As guests moved from the heated rooms to the plunge bath they could enjoy the sight of Aeneas setting sail from Troy, hunting with, and embracing the scantily-clad queen, while Dido's mother, Venus, also showed off her own ample charms.

The mosaic, discovered in 1938 when a farmer dug a pit to bury a sheep, is one of the most important narrative mosaics in Britain.

At East Coker, near Yeovil, several figurative mosaics were found in the 18th and 19th centuries. One, a scene of two men carrying a hunted hind on a pole, is unique in Britain.

The sharp eyes of George Caton, digger driver, led to the revelation of another fine mosaic, at Lopen, near Crewkerne, in 2001. The Osborne family had called him in to construct an access road and car park at Mill House Farm, but little did they know that beneath the grass lay a villa with one of the largest mosaic floors yet found in Britain.

In fact, the west of England has more high-status villas than any part of the country, with 80 in Somerset, of which more than 40 are in the wider Ilchester area.

In Roman Mosaics in Somerset, edited by Somerset county archaeologist Bob Croft, we learn that some scholars suggest there were urban-based schools of mosaic craftsmen associated with Cirencester and Dorchester and that Ilchester in south Somerset was very likely an important centre for mosaic production, or for the craftsmen who laid the mosaics.

The craftsmen who made the figurative Low Ham and East Coker mosaics may have been based in Dorchester, but most of this "Durnovaria Group" of mosaics, which take their name from the Roman name for Dorchester, are nearer to Ilchester, strengthening the case for the town supplying expertise.

Another type of mosaic, featuring four pairs of interlaced squares, found at Ilchester Mead, Hurcot and Lufton, is given the name Lindinis Group, the Roman name for Ilchester. A third group, the Saltire Group, with designs in the shape of a saltire cross, is also associated with Ilchester. The huge Lopen mosaic, others at Halstock and in Ilchester itself include the design.

Mr Croft explains that a mosaic very similar was found in London, in the 19th century, raising the possibility that then, as now, bespoke Somerset craftsmen were in demand in the capital. Mr Croft writes: "Excavations in Ilchester have revealed mosaics in various locations (notably in the area of Limington Road, close to the Fosse Way) and Ilchester has produced evidence of over 32 mosaics, most of them poorly recorded. There is little doubt that Ilchester has great potential for the discovery of more mosaics in Roman town houses."

The discovery of a mosaic at the Roman villa at Dinnington led to a research project being set up between the county council and Winchester University as a training and community excavation – and Channel 4 funded an archaeological research programme with Dinnington as the anchor site for Time Team's The Big Roman Dig. Within hours a new mosaic came to light. No Somerset mosaics are visible on site, but the best two examples, Low Ham and East Coker, will be displayed in the new museum of Somerset at Taunton Castle in spring 2011.

Roman Mosaics in Somerset is published by Somerset County Council Heritage Service at £3.50.

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