Archeologists have unearthed the largest area of Roman mosaic to be discovered in London in 50 years — just a three-minute walk from The Shard.
Museum of London Archeology (MOLA) found the incredibly well-preserved decorative mosaic — which they believe was once part of a Roman dining room floor — while excavating the site of new housing/retail development, The Liberty of Southwark near London Bridge.
The mosaic is made up of two panels handcrafted from small coloured tiles, set within a red tessellated floor. The larger panel features colourful lotus flowers and a pattern known as 'Solomon’s knot', made of two interlaced loops — which are surrounded by bands of intertwining strands, known as a 'guilloche'. It's been attributed to a team of mosaicists, 'the Acanthus group'.
"Everyone on site was very excited!"
The smaller panel is simpler in style, but features more Solomon's knots, two stylised flowers and geometric motifs in red, white and black. A very similar mosaic was unearthed in Trier, Germany — and it's highly likely they were made by the same craftspeople.
Excavators first unearthed the smaller panel in June, and were ecstatic to come across the larger one not long after. MOLA Site Supervisor, Antonietta Lerz, said: "When the first flashes of colour started to emerge through the soil everyone on site was very excited!"
The sheer size of this erstwhile dining room (it would have been eight metres long) has led the team to believe that it was used by upper-class members of Roman society (only high-ranking officers and their guests would have used this space, it's thought). The dining room itself, says MOLA, could have been part of a Roman 'mansio' — a posh inn-type building, offering accommodation, stabling and refreshment.
Fragments of the room's vibrant wall plaster were also found during the dig.
We were fortunate enough to be invited to witness the dig site, and it's astonishing to behold as the 21st-century Shard towers over these ancient tiles from what were the outskirts of Londinium.
A "once-in-a-lifetime" discovery
The larger panel has been dated to the late 2nd/early 3rd century AD, but evidence has also been found of an even older mosaic beneath it; this would have been replaced when the latest Roman styles shifted.
However, according to a MOLA spokesperson, archeologists can only find impressions of this original mosaic in the soil, no actual tiles.
During the dig, archaeologists also unearthed the site of another large Roman building, featuring traces of lavishly-painted walls, mosaics, coins, jewellery and decorated bone hairpins — pointing to wealthy inhabitants.
Antonietta Lerz describes the discovery of the mosaic panels as a "once-in-a-lifetime" discovery, and is keen for them to be seen by as many people as possible: "Long term, we would hope to have these on public display and we are in consultation with Southwark Council to find an appropriate building to put them in, where they can be enjoyed by everyone," Lerz said.