Archaeologists are poised to pen a new narrative after the latest dig at Hinton St Mary’s famous Roman mosaic site. Roger Guttridge reports
Archaeologists are expecting to re-write the story surrounding Hinton St Mary’s iconic Roman mosaic pavement almost six decades after the original discovery.
After just two weeks back at the site, archaeologists commissioned by the British Museum have uncovered parts of a second mosaic, plus thousands of other finds ranging from pottery to oyster shells.
And dig co-director Peter Guest said the traditional view that this was a Romano British villa may have to change.
“We still have a few questions to answer but we’re beginning to show that the story we thought we understood is actually wrong,” he said.
“We need to start re-thinking what was happening in this quiet part of Dorset 1,700 years ago.
“We would like to explain to people in Hinton St Mary, Sturminster Newton and North Dorset what this place may have looked like and how the mosaic might have been used.
“One of the interesting things is that it is very late. The Romans were in Britain for 350 years and the Roman period ended about 400 AD.
“Everything we are finding suggests that up until about 350 AD the site was open fields.
“But about 350 somebody – or some people – decided to build some elaborate buildings here.
“They had the finest mosaics that money could buy and decorated walls around them too.
“But it was only used for about 50 years before the Roman occupation ended.”
The earliest Roman Christ
The original mosaic was discovered in 1963 behind the then blacksmith’s forge, now owned by equestrian artist Katie Scorgie.
The discovery was big news not just in Dorset but in the wider archaeological world, not least because of its central panel – a depiction of a man that is thought could be the earliest representation of Jesus Christ in the entire Roman empire.
The mosaic pavement also included depictions of dogs, deer, trees and pomegranates.
“It is a unique piece of evidence for the spread of Christianity in late Roman Britain,” said Peter, a freelance archaeologist trading as Vianova Archaeology, contracted by the British Museum to lead the latest dig.
There never was a villa
“It’s thought that it may represent Jesus Christ. If it’s not Jesus, it might be one of the first Christian emperors but [either way] it’s important.
“We now know there wasn’t a Roman villa here. There were Roman buildings but they weren’t part of a big farmhouse or manor.
“Clearly it was a place of importance, perhaps religiously.It could have been a shrine or the focus of an early Christian community, perhaps a monastic one. But it was only an important place for a maximum of 50 to 100 years.”
Peter believes there was ‘almost certainly’ no overlap into the Anglo-Saxon era for the Hinton site.
The evidence that the Hinton buildings were not a villa includes the fact that the eight-by-5 metre double room that housed the original mosaic flooring was not part of a much bigger building.
“It was part of a complex of little buildings,” said Peter. “We think there would have been stables and agricultural buildings.”
The current four-week dig follows a trial excavation last year and a third season is planned for 2023.
It is doubling as a training dig for 15 university students, with pupils of Sturminster’s Yewstock School also involved.
New finds include black burnished ware pottery from the shores of Poole harbour and colour-coated ware; low-value coins from the early 300s; an enamel object that may have been a decorated stud; part of a ring with a stone inside; two lead weights; kiln-fired bricks and stone roof tiles; animal bones, probably of pigs and cattle; and oyster shells.
“Oysters were a popular snack for the Romans,” said finds officer Christine Waite.
A second mosaic
Most excitingly – but frustratingly – the dig has also unearthed a second mosaic, once housed in a second building 10 or 15 yards south-west of the original.
“It’s of the same date and must have formed part of the same complex,” said Peter.
“Unfortunately we only have fragments. The rest was destroyed when this field was ploughed, probably 1,000 years ago.
“I have a suspicion that in its time it was as nice, if not nicer, than the famous one.”
Surviving parts include a black-and-white border section, black triangles and a few smaller black, white and red cubes which hint at a more elaborate decoration.
The high quality cubes in both mosaics are thought to have been made at Dorchester.
Jamie recalls 1963 dig
One of the first to work on the Hinton St Mary dig 59 years ago vividly recalls the excitement generated as the site’s archaeological importance became evident.
Retired art college lecturer Jamie Hobson, 72, personally helped to uncover the central roundel that turned out to be unique in the Roman empire.
“There was a lot of excitement and I remember being filmed by the BBC,” says Jamie, who now lives at Salisbury.
“It was a real quality find. Nothing like it had been discovered before.”
Jamie was a 13-year-old at Sturminster Newton Secondary School in 1963 and remembers headmaster Stan Tozer approaching him in the corridor.
“Hobson, you’re interested in archaeology. Walk up to Hinton. Somebody has found something.”
There he met Dorset Museum curator Roger Peers and a second archaeologist he remembers as being ‘old school’.
“I seem to recall being up there for weeks and not doing anything at school but that may be just my memory,” he says.
“I loved every minute of it. I and another boy, Colin Lawrence, uncovered part of the roundel. I went home to Shillingstone but came back next morning. We were beginning to discuss what it was.
“Someone suggested it might be the head of Christ.”
Jamie’s last memory of the dig is from a wet Saturday when they were using water and sand to clean the mosaic and bring up the colours.
“The colours were quite intense when we dug it but they quickly became dull and that’s why we were cleaning it,” he says.
“After that I think they covered it with glue and paper, rolled it up and took it to the British Museum.”
A new home for the Hinton mosaic?
Could Hinton St Mary’s famous Roman mosaic be on its way back to Dorset after almost 60 years?
Since the British Museum’s millennium revamp more than 20 years ago, only the central roundel has been on display in London, with the rest of the pavement in storage.
But the digital BV understands that discussions are at an advanced stage with a view to bringing the important Roman artefact to the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester or another site.
“Wherever it goes, we would like to be able to better explain it to the public,” said dig co-director Peter Guest.
“It is iconic and not just in Britain. Whether it depicts Jesus Christ or a Christian emperor, it’s unique in a Roman world that included the Holy land.”
• The dig site will be open to visitors this Sunday 3rd July, from 2 to 5pm.