Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Archaeologists 2, Footballers 0 Volume 55 Number 6, November/December 2002
by Jarrett A, Lobell


This 1,700-year-old Roman mosaic, discovered beneath an athletic field, is one of the largest and best-preserved in Britain. (Michael Costen/University Of Bristol) [LARGER IMAGE]

When teachers at St. Laurence's School in Bradford-on-Avon, southern England, noticed how the school's football field became scored with yellow lines of dried grass during the summer, little did they know that an extraordinary archaeological site lay just a foot below the surface. Excavations revealed that the lines corresponded with the walls of two fourth-century A.D. Roman villas that have since been hailed as one of the most important archaeological finds in Britain since the 1960s, when a lavish Roman villa at Fishbourne was discovered.

The two 40-room villas are connected by a long hallway paved with a 16-by-30 foot mosaic featuring a vase flanked by dolphins. The high-quality mosaic is remarkably preserved because of the collapse of the original building and ceramic roof tiles on top of it, which protected the decoration for more than 1,500 years. Excavation director Mark Corney of Bristol University thinks that the mosaic, one of the largest and best-preserved ever found in Britain, was made in the top workshop of the day, based in the nearby town of Cirencester. Corney also thinks that the two villas were part of a large estate that included formal gardens with ornamental pools and flower beds, a family cemetery, and outlying buildings which appear on aerial photographs but have yet to be excavated.

Particularly intriguing are the remains of a teenage boy buried with his head removed (after death) and placed by his feet. Corney says that this kind of burial was "typical for the late Roman period, although the reasons behind it are far from clear. The current interpretation is that it was for people who had particular powers in life, [and since] the Romans believed that the head was the seat of the soul, they had to chop it off to ensure that those with these special powers didn't come back to haunt those still living."

Ian Bolden, the school bursar, says that "children at the school often grazed themselves on Roman brickwork or pottery sticking out of the ground while they were playing football." The perilous pitch is now closed to eager footballers, while government officials, the school, and the local council discuss how the site can be opened to the public.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America