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THE ROMAN VILLA AT HINTON ST MARY

The picture-postcard village of Hinton St Mary in North Dorset is the location of one of the most iconic discoveries from Roman Britain. A large beautifully decorated mosaic pavement was found (accidentally) behind the village blacksmith’s in 1963, which was later lifted and transported to the British Museum. The mosaic’s central panel shows a male figure that it is thought could be the earliest depiction of Jesus Christ anywhere in the Roman Empire. It is a unique piece of evidence for the spread of Christianity in later Roman Britain

Despite the obvious significance of the mosaic, very little is actually known about the buildings to which it belonged, or the community who lived with it. Did the pavement adorn a room in a high-status ‘villa’, or was it perhaps from a church or another religious building? A new collaborative research project aims to answer the many questions that remain about the mosaic, and to provide a better understanding of its wider context in the history of late Roman Britain

Hinton St Mary mosaic

The Mosaic

The mosaic from Hinton St Mary is among the most celebrated and remarkable survivals from the Roman period. Measuring 8 m by 5 m, the tessellated pavement covered the floor of a large double room. The mosaic is mostly made from local yellow, brown, dark grey and white stones, as well as pieces of red tile set into a thick bedding of mortar. It was made by mosaicists who operated in the area around Dorchester in the 4th century, and it has been suggested that parts of the mosaic were prefabricated offsite before being brought to Hinton St Mary

Hinton St Mary_Bellerophon

The unequal parts of the mosaic both comprise central roundels surrounded by rectangular or semi-circular panels, separated by bands of guilloche (twisted plaits). The roundels face in opposite directions and we do not know how people would have entered, or used, the rooms

The smaller room is perhaps an antechamber and it’s roundel shows the pagan hero Bellerophon riding on Pegasus and about to spear the Chimaera (a monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s head on its back, and a tail ending in a serpent’s head). Inward facing scenes of collared dogs hunting stags in woods fill the panels to either side

The central roundel in the larger room shows the bust of a man wearing a tunic and cloak, flanked by pomegranates and with the Greek letters X and P (Chi and Rho) behind his head. Lunettes against the room’s walls also show hunting scenes of dogs chasing deer as well as a spreading tree, though this time facing outwards (i.e., away from the roundel). Busts of men with red cloaks occupy quarter-circles in the four corners – two with pomegranates and two with rosettes by their heads – who might represent the pagan Four Seasons or Winds

Chi and Rho are the first two letters of the word ‘Christ’ in Greek (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ) and, when amalgamated like this, became a well-known symbol of Christianity and of Christians. Scholars have suggested the figure in the centre of the larger room is one of the earliest representations of Jesus Christ from the ancient world, and probably the first to be placed on a mosaic.

Hiinto St Mary_Christ panel

This identification seems to be supported by the flanking pomegranates, which were symbols of immortality at the time and are believed to represent the Christian promise of eternal life. Continuing this theme, some people consider that the busts of men in the corners might represent the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John

However, late Roman depictions of Christ usually show him with a nimbus (halo) behind his head, an important symbol of divinity that is missing from the Hinton St Mary mosaic. Others have wondered if it would have been even considered appropriate for an image of Christ to be included on a floor for anyone to walk over (although pagan gods are often shown on mosaic pavements). If the figure is not Christ, some people have suggested the bust could be a Christian Emperor such as Constantine the Great (in which case the corner busts might represent his four sons), or the later usurper Magnentius, some of whose coins bore the Chi-Rho symbol prominently on their reverses. Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire during Constantine’s reign and the figure’s distinctive cleft chin is shared with other portraits of Constantine (and Magnentius too), although it would be also highly unusual for a floor to carry an imperial bust

Despite a great deal of informed speculation over the past 60 years or so, we do not know the identity of the man in the main roundel. Indeed, it is perfectly possible that there are other explanations – perhaps he was the Christian villa owner himself, or another important figure in the early Christian community in this part of Roman Britain. Understanding if the mosaic was part of a high-status villa or another type of building is a good way of resolving this important question. This requires a better appreciation of the buried remains at Hinton St Mary, which is something only archaeology can provide

Previous Archaeological Investigations

The year after the mosaic’s discovery in 1963, British Museum curator Kenneth Painter carried out a limited excavation in the field behind the blacksmith’s forge in order to identify the extent and nature of the buildings it had belonged to. Painter opened 18 narrow trenches of various lengths, which he suggested showed that the mosaic floor had originally furnished a pair of rooms in an apparently substantial building complex that flourished in the 4th century

Painter expected the building complex at Hinton St Mary to be similar in plan to a typical late Roman ‘courtyard’ villa, of which many impressive examples are known in Britain, and his excavation duly located three ranges of rooms or wings around a central courtyard, with a boundary ditch on the fourth side. Trenches over the tessellated rooms, as well as in their immediate vicinity, uncovered the mosaic but did not prove that these rooms were a part of a long range. Possible evidence for a side wing was found only on the north-western side, consisting of, Painter suggested, a long stone building approximately 10m wide with crude tessellated floors decorated with simple geometric patterns (‘Area 1’). Although the evidence for the two side-wings was very limited and did not fit well with the interpretation of a high-status building, this was explained as the result of extensive stone robbing in the centuries after the Roman period

Painter was aware that his initial excavations had failed to answer many of the basic questions about the mosaic’s immediate surroundings, and his short published reports show that he was not entirely convinced that the site should be called a Romano-British villa. Unfortunately, his plans to return to the site to carry out further investigations did not materialise and these questions remained unanswered. However, the notion that it was a courtyard villa took hold and had become accepted by the time English Heritage (now Historic England) undertook geophysical surveys of the field in 1996 (by then a Scheduled Monument)

Magnetometer and resistivity surveys indicated the presence of detectable archaeological remains, especially walls and ditches, in most of the field as well as beyond the scheduled area to the south-west. Although interpretation of the geophysical results was complicated by widespread contamination from modern activities in the northern part of the field, the surveys seemed to confirm the layout of Roman buildings as proposed after the 1960s excavations. However, the resistivity survey in particular indicates that the site at Hinton St Mary is likely to be more complex than was originally thought – the building with the mosaic floor seems to lie in front of three long rectangular structures that extended downslope, but it was still not certain if the rooms were part of a larger building or stood more-or-less alone

Geophysical techniques are very effective at locating subterranean archaeology, but they cannot tell us about the histories of buried buildings and settlements, or the activities that might have taken place in them. Only the physical examination of archaeological remains by excavation can generate the evidence to explore such questions, which is why the British Museum proposed returning to Hinton St Mary in 2021

Archaeological Evaluation

Six trenches were excavated in August and September 2021 to evaluate the condition of the archaeological remains of the late Roman ‘villa’

This was the first time since 1965 that invasive archaeological fieldwork had been undertaken at Hinton St Mary, when the famous mosaic was lifted

The evaluation trenches were located for two main reasons:

    • to establish the extent and condition of the underlying archaeological remains at Hinton St Mary
    • to begin to answer some of the questions regarding the context of the famous mosaic and the building complex to which it belonged

The evaluation revealed that:

  • the room containing the mosaic floor was part of a larger high-status masonry building
  • the buildings identified by previous geophysical surveys elsewhere in the field were Romano-British, but were more likely to have had agricultural functions
  • there is very little evidence for occupation at the site prior to AD 300
  • the site seems to have been occupied until the end of the 4th or the early 5th centuries
  • Post-Roman activity in the trenches was limited to a substantial stone-built post-medieval field drain, robbing of stone from Roman walls, and other relatively recent drainage features
  • in general, the latest archaeological deposits survive well beneath the modern ground surface

The archaeological remains encountered in the evaluation trenches show that the accepted reconstruction of the plan of the buildings is incorrect and needs to be reconsidered (indeed, it is no longer certain that the mosaic was part of a building we can safely call a ‘villa’). Trench 1 intersected with the 1965 trench to lift the mosaic, but also located the lower courses of a wall bonded to the foundations of the mosaic room that extended for at least 14 m to the southeast

This was probably the building’s front wall, possibly a colonnaded portico with a step from a courtyard to the north, or a boundary wall, confirming that the mosaic existed as part of a larger building complex built in a single episode. Initial examination of the coins and pottery suggests that this took place no earlier than the late 3rd century and that occupation continued at least to the end of the 4th century

The other 5 trenches were sited on the downward slope to the south-west of the mosaic, positioned to examine the buildings previously identified as possible wings. No evidence of villa-type buildings or structures was revealed anywhere, although Trench 4 confirmed the presence of a north-south ditch (whose fills produced 4th century pottery and painted wall plaster) at the southern end of the field. Trench 5 revealed a substantial 18th or 19th century stone-built field drain (no sign of which had appeared on the geophysics), while a Roman-period ditch and a modern land drain were found in Trench 2 (which might have been imaged on the geophysical results)

Otherwise, only Trenches 3 and 6 produced evidence for Roman occupation, but in both cases this consisted of solid stony and cobbled layers that give the impression of yard surfaces, or the hard-wearing floors of stables, animal sheds and other agricultural buildings. A covered drain contemporary with these layers was excavated in Trench 3 and thick mortar deposits in Trench 6 suggest an internal space of some kind in this part of the field,  but no evidence for masonry walls was found in any of the trenches. Nor was there any sign of significant ploughing that might have removed walls and their footings

The evaluation project has confirmed that, if the mosaic had been part of a ‘villa’ building, it was not of a courtyard villa as Kenneth Painter originally proposed. All we can say for certain at the moment is that the famous mosaic decorated the floor of a room attached to  a long narrow building that was built on previously unoccupied ground. If the building had wings, they must have been outside the scheduled area, but it is also possible that the ‘villa’ was actually aligned the other way around, so that any wings and courtyard associated with the mosaic building could have been located to the northeast rather than the southwest

Further geophysical surveys are planned at the site and we are exploring follow-up excavations that will hopefully answer some of the many questions that remain about the history of the mosaic, the buildings to which it belonged, and the people who lived with it

The evaluation excavation was a collaborative research and training project led by Dr Peter Guest (Vianova Archaeology & Heritage Services), Dr Richard Hobbs (The British Museum) and Mike Luke (Albion Archaeology). 15 undergraduate archaeologists from Cardiff University joined the excavation, as well as a number of volunteers. We are very grateful to the residents of Hinton St Mary for their interest and support during the 2021 season. The project’s formal Assessment Report is available to download here

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