Orpheus, Brading Roman villa © David Gill
A mosaic showing Orpheus playing a lyre (with scarlet strings) is located in Room VI of the West Wing at Brading Roman villa. This position served as the main entrance to this part of the villa.
Orpheus is seated on a rock and wears a red Phrygian cap. He is surrounded to his right by an ape and a peacock, and to his left a bird and a fox.
J.M.C. Toynbee (Art in Roman Britain, no. 195) dated this mosaic to the 4th century AD and noted that it is ‘the best-preserved, and in many ways the most attractive, of all the British renderings of Orpheus himself’. Other examples of Orpheus on mosaics from Britain include Barton Farm Villa, outside Cirencester, and Woodchester Villa in Gloucestershire.
Toynbee suggests that heads appeared in the four corners of the mosaic.
Orpheus, Brading Roman villa © David Gill
- See also Sarah Scott, ‘Symbols of Power and Nature: The Orpheus Mosaic of Fourth Century Britain and Their Architectural Contexts’ [TRAC]
Part of the Woodchester mosaic, British Museum © David Gill
The Woodchester mosaic is first record in Camden’s Britannia (1695). It was partially unearthed in 1772 by Edmund Browne who made drawings of the remains. Samuel Lysons (bap. 1763–d. 1819) [ODNB] made more detailed recordings in 1794 and published a coloured drawing in 1796.
Lysons presented a small fragment of the mosaic to the British Museum in 1808.
Lysons was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1786, and Director of the Society from 1798 to 1809. He also undertook work at Bignor.
Among the mosaics still in situ in the Roman villa at Bignor is a panel of winter. The room was on the west side of the complex. The villa was discovered in July 1811, and the mosaics were opened to the public in 1814. Special buildings were constructed to protect the mosaics from further damage.
Helikon Mosaic © David Gill
Visitors to the Roman town of Aldborough (Isurium Bragantium) in Yorkshire will be able to rest on the site of Mount Helikon. A Ministry sign draws attention to where a fragment of a mosaic showing the muses was found. The setting was an apsidal room, perhaps part of a triclinium or dining-room.
The mosaic was found in 1846, and the site was re-excavated between 1976 and 1980. An illustration of the mosaic appears in Henry Eckroyd Smith’s Reliquiae Isurianae (1852) [online].
Site of the Helikon mosaic at Aldborough © David Gill
The word Helikon appears next to a female figure holding a scroll. The identification with the muses was made by R.P. Wright who suggested that the Greek inscription identifying Mount Helikon indicated the subject of the mosaic.
This particular muse was originally identified as Klio (and appears in the English Heritage guidebook). However a photograph taken around 1900 (and in the English Heritage archive) shows a theatrical mask suggesting an identification with Melpomene or Thalia (see Ling 2007). The photograph hints that there may have been a (fragmentary) name on the scroll (perhaps Thalia). The other eight muses have not survived, although parts of one of the others were found during the excavation.
Helikon mosaic at Aldborough © David Gill
Detail of Helikon mosaic © David Gill
The site of the Roman town was placed in State Guardianship in 1952 and is now cared by English Heritage. The mosaic is on display in the site museum
Johnson, S. and D.S. Neal, 2002. Re-Excavation And Study Of The Helicon Mosaic, Aldborough Roman Town. Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 74: 113-34.
Ling, Roger 2007. Inscriptions on Romano-British Mosaics and Wall-Paintings. Britannia, 38: 63-91. doi:10.3815/000000007784016395. [JSTOR]
Bignor Roman Villa © David Gill
The Roman villa lies to the north of the South Downs in Sussex. It was discovered in 1811 and by 1814 the site was attracting large numbers of visitors. The villa contains a series of fine mosaics protected by a series of thatched buildings.
Our earliest guide dates to October 1975. It consists of 16 pages, following a tour of the site using the plan that appears in the centre (pp. 8-9). There are simple line drawings in the text.
We also have a guide book undated, with an image of the 1812 drawing of the Venus mosaic on the cover. It contains a history of the excavations, and a ‘walk around guide and description’. It is complete with plans and colour images, as well as a colour reconstruction.
The latest guide (again undated) is essentially a revised version of the previous one. There is an additional section on ‘Farming & Countryside’, as well as a page of the ‘Covering Buildings’ constructed to protect the remains in the early 19th century, and a section on the educational programme of the villa.
For other guidebooks to Roman villas see Lullingstone, North Leigh, and Welwyn.
The Roman villa at North Leigh lies some 10 miles from Oxford (and is under the care of English Heritage). This was a site leased and excavated by Professor Francis Haverfield, and thus has plenty of resonances with the history of archaeology in Britain.
On my shelf is a 1973 Department of the Environment guide to the villa (cost 3p). It consists of a folded piece of A4 light card, with a plan on the inside. There is a detailed description of the remains.