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Chilgrove Mosaic

Tulip design


In 1963 a farmer was ploughing a field in the Chilgrove valley. His plough struck a stone object, which on inspection turned out to be the remains of a small Roman column or pedestal. With the kind permission of the West Dean Estate, archaeological excavations - which were to span fourteen seasons - revealed two Roman villas within a mile of each other, and a third villa at Upmarden.

Set into a landscape suited to mixed farming, and with a ready water-supply, the two households occupying the villas - which were to become known to archaeologists as Chilgrove I and Chilgrove II - would have benefitted from agricultural wealth produced from the land.

In the 2nd century AD, Chilgrove Villa I appears to have comprised five rooms. It had associated granaries or store buildings, and a stockyard for animals. Its earliest history was as a relatively humble timber structure, but as more money was invested in the villa, this would be been replaced by part or full masonry walls. By the late 3rd century AD the villa was rebuilt on a large and luxurious scale, with the addition of a bath house and an improved stockyard with barns. By the 4th century AD, changes to the villa - which included improvements to the bath house, the installation of mosaic floors, and the addition of an extra room - all point to the growing prosperity of the family living within it.

The mosaic

The mosaic discovered in Room 6 of Chilgrove Villa I, dates from the 4th century AD. It is a polychrome mosaic, meaning that the design is in colour. The mosaic has been made from different materials to create the range of colours and tones that compliment such a sophisticated design - tile (red), chalk (white), baked chalk (yellow), limestone (grey/blue) and ironstone (brown). The pattern is symmetrical, and features knot, bud and petal designs between plaited geometric bands (known as guilloche), all surrounded by a border of red tesserae.

The central design is unfortunately lost. Known as the emblema, this would have been the main feature of the mosaic, and is likely to have been of higher-quality workmanship than the designs surrounding it. It is thought that emblema may have been produced at a workshop in advance, and were transported to a site to be laid, while the surrounding designs were marked out and applied on-site. It is also probable that a more experienced mosaicist (mosaic-maker) would have been responsible for producing the emblema, and that there may have even been mosaicists who specialised in their production.

The makers

The Chilgrove mosaic may represent the work of a particular 'School' of mosaicists, working in the south of Britain. This group has been named the Central Southern School. A 'School' is a group of craftsmen who specialised in a particular kind of design, pattern or finish. These styles can be identified, allowing art historians and archaeologists to suggest patterns of production in the Roman world. Different Schools may have been working from a dedicated workshop or may have travelled for work, setting up temporary workshops on a site while completing a project.

A number of mosaics from Roman Britain have been attributed to the Central Southern School, specifically examples from Sussex and Hampshire. The work of this particular School has been identified at Bignor Roman Villa, Sparsholt, Hants, and Bramdean, Hants. It is possible that they ceased production of mosaics in around AD325. The success of workshops and Schools of mosaicists would have relied on the availability of patrons - people able to buy mosaics - to maintain their business. As the empire suffered economically and politically in the late 4th century AD, many skilled craftsmen would have struggled to find work.

The Chilgrove mosaic represents a product by a school of craftsmen who were confident and experienced in mosaic design. However, although the Chilgrove mosaic was well designed, it was poorly laid, having been discovered on only a few inches of dirty mortar.

Damage and decline

By the late 4th century AD, Chilgrove Villa I had experienced some significant changes. Archaeological evidence shows that part of the villa had burnt down, the baths had been robbed of their building stone and one of the rooms within the villa had been turned into a forge for iron working. The latest datable evidence on the site for the Roman period is a coin of the emperor Magnentius (AD363), however it is possible that the farm labourers from Chilgrove Villa I joined with that of Chilgrove Villa II, to continue working the land, while the remains of Chilgrove Villa I were used by 'squatters' or by labourers for industrial and semi-domestic purposes.

A large portion of the Chilgrove mosaic - including the central design - has been destroyed. Sometime in the late 4th century the mosaic was damaged by a post-hole, which was sunk straight through it, and a child aged less than two years old was buried underneath one corner. The continuing agricultural use of land in the Chilgrove valley for generations has also meant that the mosaic suffered as a result of plough damage.

Tulip design
Knot design
Interlace design
Flower design
Chilgrove mosaic on display