The Discovery of the Mosaic

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Lopen is usually a small dot on the map of Somerset in the South West of England, but in October 2001 it caught the imagination of the world when one of the largest and most important Romano-British mosaic pavements to be discovered was found there.

No one had guessed that in this small village of about 250 people, there had been a community of some importance long before Domesday book was completed in 1085-6 AD. One man with a mechanical digger and a sharp eye changed knowledge of the origins of our village pushing it back in time almost 1000 years, when this part of England was a province of the vast Roman Empire.

 Photo of George Caton on his digger

A new access road was needed to be put in to the back of Mill House and the previous farm from which the Osborne family ran their vegetable business. The field had been an orchard. Working with his digger late one evening, George Caton noticed small cubes of stone in the earth he was removing. He immediately recognised the significance of what he had seen and immediately stopped work. Next day in daylight, George and the family cleaned up a small area of the mosaic, confirming what they had thought; there it was, a large, elaborate and well preserved Roman mosaic pavement under the land that they had farmed for years.

The Osbornes contacted Bob Croft, Archaeologist at Somerset County Council and a local archaeologist from a nearby village to look at what had been found. The importance of the discovery was immediately evident and negotiations began at once to allow time for the exposure of the mosaic floor and its subsequent recording, and to raise the funds to do this. Time was short. Frosts and winter weather break up soil surfaces and mosaics; it was already late autumn and the Osborne family needed their new access road, so all of the work would have to be done in three weeks (they were happy to have it last longer).

Thanks to the support of David Miles, Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage who helped with financing the project prepared by Somerset County Council, and archaeological contractors Terrain Archaeology, a three week excavation was possible.

The priority was to expose, clean and record the mosaic pavement, and by careful cleaning of the surrounding area, to understand something of the building in which it lay. In three weeks of intensive work these objectives were achieved. It had been agreed that none of the remains would be damaged and more detailed excavation was not needed.

There was no clear reason to assume that there had been an important Romano British Settlement on that site. It is just under 1km south of the Fosse Way, an important Roman Highway running about 400 miles across the Roman province . It linked Exeter (Isca), Ilchester (Lindinus), Bath (Aquae Sulis), Cirencester (Corinium), Leicester (Ratae) and Lincoln (Lindum). Then linking with Ermine Street to York.

Until recently no other buildings were known in the area, though South Somerset soils are some of the most fertile in England and must always have attracted settlement. A Roman villa had been found at Crimbleford Knap, some 3kms to the north west where excavations were carried out in (19 Century) and some more recently in the early 1990s

                                    Map of Somerset showing Roman finds. Somerset Historic Environment Record

In those precious days of mercifully fine weather, experts and volunteers on hands and knees, with spades, trowels, buckets, wheel barrows, and brushes carefully ‘turned back’ the protective carpet of turf and soil and revealed foundations of walls and mosaic floors. There was no time for deeper or more extensive excavation.

The mill first recorded on the site in seventeenth century, and until boundary changes in 1982 was in the Parish of Hinton St. George, and on the Hinton Tithe map of 1841 shows he field as Hinton Mills. Since 1974 this is in the parish of Lopen.

A mill stream ran into the mill from the south. The remains of the Roman building lay between this and Lopen Brook, and probably
extended under the existing buildings. The older buildings of the mill have walls that contain worked Ham Hill stone and rubble that may have been reused from earlier buildings, probably even from the villa.

During the third week news of the find was released to the press. It was covered on television, in local newspapers, national newspapers (broadsheet and tabloid), in the American Time Magazine for kids and some national newspapers across the globe.  Crowds turned out to see the excavation works.


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