Bristol and Avon Archaeological Society

The Mosaic and Late Roman Villa at Hinton Saint Mary, Dorset.

On Wednesday February 14, 2024
Peter Guest

The finding of the famous Mosaic was dramatic.  The owner of the field wanted a post erected for a washing line, but the workmen hadn’t got very far down with his hole before he struck something solid. Looking at the bottom of the hole carefully, he could see colours.  The local museum curator was called, the soil was cleared away, and revealed was perhaps the most beautiful and important Roman mosaic in northern Europe.

The whole of the mosaic measured 8m x 5m and happily showed very little damage.  It was divided into two areas of unequal size with a wide opening between them.  The small area comprises a central roundel depicting Bellerophon fighting with the Chimaera and this was flanked by two panels of hunting scenes. Around the corners of the larger area were busts of four men, and around the edges between these, three hemispheres show hunting scenes and a fourth, a spreading tree.  In the centre is a roundel containing the head and shoulders of a man.  Two letters appear behind his head.  They look like X and P, but in fact are the Greek letters denoting our hard CH and R, a common Christian motif of the first letters of the name Christ.

So, is this figure intended to be Christ as many have suggested or even been convinced?  It is certainly possible and if so, it would be the first known representation of Jesus Christ in the Roman world.  But opponents of this idea say that the halo which is always present in other pictures of Christ is missing. Well, perhaps such a style had not yet reached this remote corner of the Empire.  Another idea is that the face might represent Constantine, the first emperor to accept Christianity, the cleft chin being common to both.  Or even that it might be an eminent local Christian, perhaps a bishop.

The mosaic was discovered and revealed in 1963.  Its fame spread and in 1964 the British Museum became involved and decided on some trial pits.  These were just very small excavations spread out over the rest of the site, which did not reveal a great deal and certainly not significant evidence of structures. What was assumed and expected was a courtyard villa.  The great mosaic would take its place in such a building, as in many other villas.  And so Historic England proclaimed it to be  on its website.

The British Museum bought the mosaic which it took to its home in London.  There the roundel containing the possible portrait of Christ was cut out and put on display, while the rest of that magnificent mosaic was consigned to storage in the vaults of the museum.

Interest grew in this supposed great villa, as Historic England had proclaimed it to be, although with such a small amount of evidence beyond the mosaic.  When the discovery was made in 1963, no geophysics was conducted in the field as a whole because the technology had not yet been developed. However, more recently, ground, penetrating radar investigations appeared to show virtually nothing of the expected villa.  This was both surprising and disappointing.  It was decided to excavate.

No Villa was found!  The north end of the mosaic was joined to another room or structure, which disappeared under a modern building and then, under perhaps a road.  No building joined the east of the mosaic room.  To the south west of the mosaic room and separated from it by a cobbled surface, a two room range was found.  One room contained a mosaic which had been badly damaged by ploughing; the other had only a beaten earth floor.  In what appeared to be a courtyard immediately to the south of the mosaic room there appeared a sizeable covered drain which divided into four parallel channels proceeding south away from the mosaic room.  After a while these ended with no structure evident.  The purpose of this feature is a mystery.

No human activity was found below or above the structures which lasted for about 70 years from the early 300s AD.  It seems they then became derelict and it would appear that the main part of the buildings were removed because no mass of collapsed rubble was found, nor any indication of burning, destruction, or reuse.  Not many finds were recovered, perhaps enough to fill only 3 to 4 shoeboxes.

So no grand Villa as might befit such a grand mosaic was found.  One suggestion, referencing the Chi Rho Christian motif, was that it might have been an early monastery that, for some reason, came to an end quite some time before the pagan Anglo-Saxons arrived in this part of the country.  But for now much uncertainty surrounds this site.

(Summarised by Bev Knot)