The Mosaic Collection: The Tale of the Deverill Roman Villa
Everyone dreams of finding treasure at the bottom of their garden…
In February 2015, while laying electricity cables so that his children could play ping pong in an old barn, rug designer Luke Irwin struck a cold, flat surface. There, about 18 inches beneath the muddy topsoil of his Wiltshire farmhouse, lay an untouched Roman mosaic – a striking pattern, unseen for some 1,500 years that had the rug designer transfixed.
A mesh of vivid oranges, creams and greys, the mosaic was extraordinarily well-preserved, the pieces that had broken away now scattered to one side – a selection of building blocks inviting him in to complete the puzzle. In a historical sense, this was akin to striking hidden treasure.
“There was this frisson of excitement, which I had previously experienced when I was six or seven and been taken to Pompeii for the first time,” he recalls. “It was that tangibility of seeing the Pompeii graffiti… history is not dry anymore; this is alive.”
Recognising that mosaics don’t often turn up alone in remote fields, Irwin began making phone calls, suspecting that the open countryside surrounding his house may be hiding secrets and treasures the likes of which he could only imagine. Wiltshire Archaeology Service, Salisbury Museum and Historic England were soon involved to assess the site.
The world beneath our feet
The initial dig confirmed the designer’s suspicions, although the archaeologists’ findings went far beyond anything he had expected. Archaeologists from Historic England and Salisbury Museum confirmed that the mosaic formed part of a grand villa which was built sometime between 175 AD and 220 AD, and was repeatedly re-modelled right up until the mid-4th century. Evidence suggested that it may have been ransacked at around 360 AD, before being inhabited again in the following century.
Dominating their valley setting with a footprint of 50m x 50m (possibly up to 70m x 70m), the three-storey structures found are similar to those at Chedworth, offering reason to believe that the villa belonged to a family of extraordinary wealth and importance. Other artefacts discovered include discarded oyster shells, a perfectly preserved Roman well, a Roman bath house and, movingly, the stone coffin of a Roman child, which held geraniums until it was identified – a rare find hidden in plain sight.
“This is not a subtle country house, this is showy,’ Dr David Roberts, who led the investigations for Historic England explains. “It dominates the landscape, and it is visible from the nearby Roman road. It is very overt – it is almost violent in the landscape. It is clearly a family making their mark.”
“It is very overt – it is almost violent in the landscape. ”
Certainly, the quality of the mosaic fragments found around the mosaic hint that this was a family with resources, and oyster shells, fresh two millennia ago, point to tastes that might be considered refined for the Iron Age people of Wiltshire. Post-Roman pottery with elements of Saxon technology, dating from the fifth century AD, found in the ruins, add further depth to the mystery: the Saxons aren’t known to have colonised the Deverill area until the early 600s.
So how important is the villa? “It’s clearly very significant, but its significance doesn’t really derive just from the fact that there is this wonderful building,” says Dr Roberts. “It’s in everything that’s around it. This site has not been touched since its collapse over 1,500 years ago and, as such, is of enormous importance. Without question, this is a hugely valuable site in terms of research, with incredible potential. The discovery of such an elaborate and extraordinarily well-preserved villa, undamaged by agriculture for over 1,500 years, is unparalleled in recent years. Overall, the excellent preservation, large scale and complexity of this site present a unique opportunity to understand Roman and post-Roman Britain.”
You might presume that mosaic patterns are an obvious inspiration point for a designer, but Luke Irwin was determined to use this discovery to go beyond basic rug design.
“What I absolutely didn’t want to do was a pastiche of Roman mosaic,” he explains. “When you see something that’s unearthed, you see the vibrancy of the colour in it, which is extraordinary, and you realise that this is a design for flooring which predates rugs. What I loved about it was the sense of the worn, of the distressing, and the geometry from the mosaic pieces, which gives it a beautiful kind of structure.”
As is always the case with a Luke Irwin collection, the movement from inspiration to the loom was as much about the cerebral as the aesthetic. It is Luke’s fascination with what has gone before that sets him apart. Irwin began gathering snippets of information, learning about the world in which the original mosaics were created and soaking up as much possible from the discoveries being unearthed. “When you hold a piece of the mosaic in the palm of your hand, it’s like an electric shock. You suddenly understand the scale, the tangibility, the whole feel of it.”
“It’s so much more than taking aspects of the mosaic and putting it into this,” he explains, gesturing at the rug. “It’s bigger than that. You’re overwhelmed by the realisation that someone’s lived on this site for thousands of years. You look out at an empty field from your front door, and yet 1,500 years ago there was what was essentially a palace. The link to the collection is my perpetual desire to be immersed in history. It’s the sense of wonder. It’s how time just drifts on.”
“When you hold a piece of the mosaic in the palm of your hand, it’s like an electric shock. You suddenly understand the scale, the tangibility, the whole feel of it. ”
Technically speaking, the collection takes existing rug-making techniques and applies them in a way that breaks new ground. To create the time-ravaged appearance unique to this collection, the team realised that they could use the oxidization process to stunning effect.
“The mosaic cubes are made from hand-woven silk,” Luke Irwin tells us, “around which are thin lines of wool. When you wash the rug in iron oxide, there’s a reaction to the wool that eats it back to the warp and the weft. We plot on the design the area of distressing, and that section will be woven in wool so that, when it’s washed, it gets worn away.”
“If the rugs were created with no wear or ageing incorporated into the design, then I think we would have slightly missed the point,” says Luke. “When you own these rugs, not only will you have something that is beautiful to look at, it should also be – if you have any form of inquisitiveness within you – something that you look at that will always make you think, hopefully on a bigger level, about our place in time and history, and of all of these things that have gone before.”
“Mostly people have rugs, cushions and sofas, and their room looks so fine, so splendid, so understated. But they’re not really looking at it. It’s just a backdrop to their life. With this collection it might just put a thought process in your head that is a bit more interesting than the norm. It becomes like a portal or a sort of potion to take you back 2,000 years. There are not many objects that have the power to trigger those thoughts.”
The future of the Deverill Villa
Back on the archaeological site, however, there is still much to do.
“At the moment, although we’ve proved what kind of villa it is, and what period, we don’t know how big it might be; we don’t know how long-term it is, we don’t know what was there beforehand… In short, there is a host of unanswered questions.”
“We really do need to go and look at it again, but it’s needs to be done in a very sensitive way with maximum information for minimum investment and destruction. By excavating it, we destroy it. For example, for the small excavation we’ve just done we didn’t go and look at any of the mosaics because we didn’t have the budget to conserve them. You can’t expose that to weathering and erosion that will destroy it without a plan to do so – that’s just vandalism. You have to do these in an engaged way. By conducting a much wider research project to understand the scope, you get a lot more out in terms of knowledge and understanding.”
“In this age of communication, which is sort of spurious... we’ve forgotten how to look. ”
Whatever becomes of this amazing discovery, it has recharged Luke’s drive to live the life inquisitive. “The problem is that since we’ve discovered what we’ve discovered in our garden, I’m always looking down, because I’m always looking for a piece of Roman masonry or pottery. But it’s not where you look, it’s just the simple act of looking. In this age of communication, which is sort of spurious, everyone is walking down a street looking at his or her phone and we’ve forgotten how to look.
SHARE THIS ESSAY