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BBC Two TV series Digging For Britain set to unearth story of Rutland's rare Roman mosaic - our interview with Professor Alice Roberts



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The story of one of the most important archaeological discoveries in a century is to be told on television early in the new year.

The latest series of Digging For Britain opens with the unearthing of a large Roman villa complex on farmland in Rutland and airs on BBC Two at 8pm tonight (Tuesday, January 4).

What made the excavation unique was a mosaic depicting scenes from Homer’s Trojan War epic, The Iliad - the first example of its kind found in the UK.

Professor Alice Roberts gets up close with the mosaic during filming for Digging For Britain. Photo: Rare TV (53739291)
Professor Alice Roberts gets up close with the mosaic during filming for Digging For Britain. Photo: Rare TV (53739291)

Professor Alice Roberts, an author and anthropologist who has worked extensively in broadcasting since debut on Time Team 20 years ago, presents the show.

She made two trips to Rutland for filming, working with David Neal, England’s leading expert on mosaic research.

“I was so overwhelmed to see it - it was quite emotional,” she said.

The mosaic is one of a handful in Europe found to depict scenes from Homer's The Iliad. Photo: University of Leicester Archaeological Services
The mosaic is one of a handful in Europe found to depict scenes from Homer's The Iliad. Photo: University of Leicester Archaeological Services

“There aren’t many mosaics found with figures on them, so that is rare, but the thing that blew it out of the water was that it wasn’t just a single figure, it was very obviously the story of the Trojan War.

“You have to go with what David said when he described it as the most significant find in 100 years.”

The show features an interview with Jim Irvine who stumbled upon the find while on a walk in 2020 with his family, who farms on the land.

Jim Irvine, with dad Brian Naylor, discovered the Roman mosaic in a field they farm on
Jim Irvine, with dad Brian Naylor, discovered the Roman mosaic in a field they farm on

“It is quite unusual,” added Alice.

“The reason Jim and his family ended up walking where they did was because they’d been chased there by these angry bees.

“If it wasn’t for Jim then being curious and alert enough to look at Google Maps after finding these pieces of pottery, and seeing this pattern in the earth which he hadn’t noticed before.

Dr David Neal described the mosaic as the most significant find in Britain in a century. Photo: Historic England
Dr David Neal described the mosaic as the most significant find in Britain in a century. Photo: Historic England

“And then there was the fact Google Maps had just uploaded images from 2018 - that was a very dry year and helped a lot of archaeology come to light.

“The trench was also very shallow - it was amazing it hadn’t been ploughed up.

“So there was this whole series of fortunate events.

A member of the team from ULAS/University of Leicester during the excavations of a mosaic pavement. Photo: Historic England
A member of the team from ULAS/University of Leicester during the excavations of a mosaic pavement. Photo: Historic England

“It just shows you how much archaeology is out there because there had been no record of anything around there.”

As well as broadcasting duties, Alice was also thrilled to work on the mosaic itself with the University of Leicester and Historic England.

As an osteologist - or bone expert - she helped students analyse burials that were also discovered there.

More could be discovered at the site which is a well-preserved Roman villa estate. Photo: Historic England
More could be discovered at the site which is a well-preserved Roman villa estate. Photo: Historic England

“I was desperate to work on the dig and became slightly obsessed with it,” she said.

“I had never dug a mosaic before so I was really excited and a little nervous, but had David to help guide me.

“To be a part of a team that uncovered it was a real privilege. You are seeing this picture and story emerging from 1,600 years ago.

Digging for Britain presenter Professor Alice Roberts. Photo: BBC/Rare TV/University of Leicester Archaeological Services
Digging for Britain presenter Professor Alice Roberts. Photo: BBC/Rare TV/University of Leicester Archaeological Services

“The story itself goes back another couple of thousands years before that so it was already an ancient story when it was made.”

While the mosaic may be the star of the show, Alice believes the larger site also holds significant value and hopes more hidden stories will be uncovered.

Historic England is planning further excavations for 2022, while Rutland County Council has been approached about an off-site display.

Alice at work on a Roman mosaic with David Neal. Photo: BBC/Rare TV/University of Leicester Archaeological Services
Alice at work on a Roman mosaic with David Neal. Photo: BBC/Rare TV/University of Leicester Archaeological Services

“The scope of this, and the potential is so huge because it looks like we have a really well-preserved villa estate,” she explained.

“There is so much archaeology there - you have a whole villa complex.

“There is another villa next to the one with the mosaic in, there are curious other buildings at the other side of the field. It’s of national importance.

The Roman Mosaic in Rutland. Photo: BBC/Rare TV/University of Leicester Archaeological Services
The Roman Mosaic in Rutland. Photo: BBC/Rare TV/University of Leicester Archaeological Services

“If it continues to be excavated we’ll find out a lot about how these villa estates worked and how that site evolved over four centuries, perhaps, and maybe more as there’s evidence of post-Roman activity, too.

“I would love to find out more about it, but that’s more out of my own curiosity and it should be balanced with the argument for preservation.”



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