Finding an 1,800-year-old Roman floor mosaic in the shadow of London’s most modern-looking skyscraper? Just another day’s work for the archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).
The area they were exploring – formerly a parking lot – is located in a well-known area of the city. The site is near both the legendary London Bridge and the tallest building in London: The Shard. The history of the city – always underfoot – was highlighted as the team unearthed the Roman mosaic floor. It’s beautifully preserved, said MOLA’s director of developer services, who also noted that finding large mosaic pieces like this is extremely rare.
At the time, London was known as Londinium – a crowded, bustling Roman settlement. The city flourished for 4 centuries – up until 410 AD or so. This spectacular mosaic was a key feature of the dining room in a “mansio” – the equivalent of a luxury motel for high-ranking officers and guests. It seems that no expense was spared in building these lush accommodations. Lavish decorations were found everywhere, including wall frescoes.
The floor mosaic would have been best enjoyed from the built-in couches of the establishment’s “triclinium”. As was the custom of the time, wealthy diners would have reclined as they were fed and attended to by servants. The ornate floor patterns would have provided an aesthetically pleasing background to the lucky guests of the mansio.
As such, the floor mosaic was filled with eye candy for relaxed Romans drinking their wine. They could get lost in the intricate patterns. As such, the largest floor panel has “large, colorful flowers surrounded by bands of intertwining strands” and patterns including a Solomon’s knot (a looped motif). The smaller one has two Solomon’s knots and stylized flowers that include lotuses, according to the MOLA press release.
The colors are still vivid and many sections are largely intact. This led to another illuminating discovery – the design is a near-twin of another Roman mosaic found in Trier, Germany. It’s such an exact parallel, the team believes the same artists worked on both. Interestingly, this suggests that mosaics were in such demand that traveling mosaic artists developed successful careers with their craft.
The distinctive style is representative of the “Acanthus Group” – believed to be a guild of mosaicists that developed the look. You’ll still see these classic motifs used in today’s mosaic wall art. Other important mosaic design features to note: The use of repeating patterns and tessellated shapes within the red floor areas, and the presence of large flowers surrounded by bands of intertwining strands – a motif known as a guilloche.
The archaeological survey began after this area of London was tapped for a regeneration project. The Liberty of Southwark will serve as a cultural center – only after the sites are explored by the MOLA team. Already, they’ve found evidence of a palatial residence nearby – it’s believed that this area of Londinium was filled with wealthy residents. Preliminary work has uncovered fragments of ornate wall frescoes – as well as items such as coins, jewelry and decorated bone hairpins. All indicate that the location was occupied by wealthy inhabitants who could splash out on expensive adornments for home and body.
This incredible ancient mosaic find will be removed from the site after the team’s work is completed. It’s expected to go on public display at some future point. (Meanwhile, you can explore it virtually here!
As the MOLA crew moves on to the location of the nearby residence, we might expect even more well-preserved mosaics and artifacts to emerge. This area of London has Roman streets and buildings buried up to 23 feet deep, and the potential for recovery is excellent.
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