Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plates 1.50-1.52: Three Roman Pavements Found at Wellow

Plates: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) after drawings made by his brother, James Vertue, and by James West (1703-1772); published in 1738.

Objects: Plates 1.50-1.52 show three mosaic pavements which were found at Wellow in Somerset (ST 72805799). This is the site of a courtyard villa, located at Upper Hayes, to the west of Wellow church. The first colored engraving of Mosaic I (Plate 1.50) was produced by the Reverend John Skinner (1772-1839), who carried out the first systematic excavations at Wellow in 1822 and recorded the first plan of the villa showing three ranges of rooms around a courtyard (Skinner and Weddell 1823).

Skinner’s excavations revealed a courtyard with three ranges of rooms along the north, east and west sides, several with mosaic pavements and hypocausts (Skinner and Weddell 1823; “Romano-British Somerset” 1906, 1.312-4, fig. 69; Cosh and Neal 2005, 219.1-219.8).

Mosaic I in Plate 1.50 was located in the central room (A) (dimensions 10.46m by 8m) of the north range (Cosh and Neal 2005, 219.1); Mosaic II in Plate 1.51 was located in room B (4.16m by 6.15m) in the far north west corner of the north wing (219.2); the corridor mosaic (III) in Plate 1.52 was located in room C (2.30m by 8m) to the west of the main room (219.3). All three mosaics are depicted in Plate 1.52 with their dimensions. Further mosaics were recorded by Skinner (see Cosh and Neal 2005, 219.4-219.7). The mosaics have been dated to the mid-fourth century and were probably in use for a long period as there is evidence of repairs.

Mosaics I and III no longer survive. Mosaic II was found in 1737, reopened and damaged in 1807, and is now thought to be lost.

by Graham Shipley

Plate 1.50, Top: Scala — N.° I. — pedum.
Plate 1.50, Bottom: Elegantissimum Pavimentu(m) Tessellatum apud Wellow prope Aquas Solis in agro Somersetensi An.° MDCCXXXVII. repertum aeri incidi curavit Societas Antiquar. Lond. An.° 1738.

Plate 1.51, Top: Scala — N.° II —pedum
Plate 1.51, Bottom: Apud Wellow prope Aquas Solis [sic] in agro Somersetensi repertum. Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ Londini ӕri incisum A.° MDCCXXXVIII.

Plate 1.52, Top: HAS ROMANORUM IN BRITANNIA MAGNIFICENTIAE ARTISQUE RELIQUIAS. / Tria, Sci(licet). Elegantissima Pavimenta Tessellata, quae apud WELLOW prope AQUAS SOLIS [sic], in agro Somersetensi, mense Junio Ann.° MD CCXXXVII. reperta, accuratissime delineari fecerat JACOBUS WEST ex Interiori Templo Armiger, et aera incidi Sumptibus suis curavit SOCIETAS ANTIQUARIA Londini An.° 1738.
Plate 1.52, Above 1st Image: N.° III
Plate 1.52, Below 1st Image: Scala — Pedum
Plate 1.52, Above 1st Small Image: N.° I. / Maximum hoc Pavimentum primo repertum fuit, longum XXXII pedes; latum XXII.
Plate 1.52, Above 2nd Small Image: N.° III. / Hoc aliud long. XVII. pedes. lat. V. in eodem Agro repertum.
Plate 1.52, Above 3rd Small Image: N.° II. / Hoc Pavimentum haud longe distans continet in longitudine XX. pedes, in latitudine XV.
Plate 1.52, Bottom: Sumtibus Societat: Antiquariӕ Lendini. 1738.

by Graham Shipley

Plate 1.50, Top: Number I. Scale in feet
Plate 1.50, Bottom: [This] most elegant tessellated pavement, found at Wellow near Bath in the county of Somerset in the year 1737, has been engraved in copper upon the initiative of the Society of Antiquaries of London, in the year 1738.

Plate 1.51, Top: Number II. Scale in feet.
Plate 1.51, Bottom: Found at Wellow near Bath in the county of Somerset. Engraved on copper at the expense of the Society of Antiquaries of London in the year 1738.

Plate 1.52, Top: These remains of the magnificence and art of the Romans in Britain—namely, three most elegant tessellated pavements, which, after they were found at Wellow near Bath in the county of Somerset in the month of June 1737, James West, Knight of the Inner Temple, had caused to be most accurately drawn—have been engraved on copper at its own expense by the Society of Antiquaries of London in the year 1738.
Plate 1.52, Above 1st Image: Number III.
Plate 1.52, Below 1st Image: Scale in feet.
Plate 1.52, Above 1st Small Image: Number I. This largest pavement was found first, 32 feet long and 22 wide.
Plate 1.52, Above 2nd Small Image: Number III. This other one, 17 feet long and 5 wide, (was) found in the same field.
Plate 1.52, Above 3rd Small Image: Number II. This pavement, at no great distance, occupies | in length 20 feet, in width 15.

Commentary by Sarah Scott: The largest mosaic found at Wellow (mosaic I, Plate 1.50) was discovered and described by the antiquary John Aubrey (1626-1679) as “Part of a Roman floor found at Wellow in Somersetshire, a manor of Sir Edward Hungerford knight of the Bath, about 1685”; a note on the following page suggests it was actually 1683:

Anno Domini 1683 was discovered a Roman pavement in the manor of Wellow in Somersetshire, in the lands of Edward Hungerford aforesaid; a curious/exact draught wherof was taken by the order of Mr Hugh May, one of his Majesty’s surveyors, a copy whereof William Holder D.D., F.R.S. [on Aubrey’s list of Amici, or close friends] presented to the repository of the Royal Society; and which I have here inserted. (Aubrey [1665-93] 1980-82, 938)

Aubrey’s seminal Monumenta Britannica (1665-93) documented ancient monuments throughout Britain, including several mosaics. Approximately half of the mosaic in Plate 1.50 was surviving when recorded by Aubrey, whose drawing was roughly copied and published by his friend Thomas Gale (1635/6-1702), antiquary and dean of York, in his Antonini iter Britanniarum(1709) (Gale 1709, 89). Further investigations at the site were carried out in 1737; Edmund Prideaux (1693-1745) described the discovery in a letter to the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) dated Bath, 18 June 1737: “I have been yesterday and this day to a Roman mosaic pavement at a town called Wellow about four miles from this place, I happened to hear of it by chance, and went with two other gentlemen last Thursday, and we were shewn [sic] to the place by an old man of the town” (SAL Minutes III.24). Having dug unsuccessfully for some time, a mosaic (I) was finally located: “My servant found by his spade, that he was got to a floor, when we had got away the earth about 2 feet deep, we discovered a pavement … it consisted of several colours, red, others blew [sic] like indigo, and others white in several compartments” (III.24). Its dimensions were described as “About 32 feet, what it was the other way we cannot yet see because the earth is not yet taken away” (III.5).

Prideaux engaged James Vertue (the engraver’s brother) to make a drawing. Prideaux’s account of the discovery is similar to that described in a letter from James Vertue to his brother dated 20 June 1737, and transcribed in the minutes of 27 October 1737 (SAL Minutes III.56-57); he reported that “[a]ll possible diligence was used to take a draught of all the parts, and colours before they were destroyed;” the “beautiful” drawing was sent with the letter, which also included a description of an adjoining pavement “22 feet by 16” (Mosaic II).

A further pavement (Mosaic III?) was reported in the minutes of 20 October 1737: “Mr West brought a drawing by scale of tesselated [sic] pavements found at Wellow in Somersetshire, four miles from Bath, about thirty feet distant from that which Mr Prideaux gave an account of to the Society. This pavement was entire when Mr West saw it, the others were quite destroyed” (SAL Minutes III.54).

Plates 1.50-152 are based on these drawings. A proof of one of the prints was shown by Vertue at the meeting held on 9 March 1738, which was described as “being one of three plates, ordered to be engraved at the charge of this Society” (SAL Minutes III.110). Two copper plates were brought to the meeting on 18 May 1738 “in order that the Society might consider of proper inscriptions to be inserted under each of them, the third plate of these pavements being now near finished” (III.132). The inscription was delivered to Vertue on 6 July 1738, the amendments of a Select Committee having been incorporated (III.145). The inscription was transcribed in full in the minutes of the meeting held on 20 July and it was agreed that dimensions be added under the scale of each (III.147-48).

On 13 October 1738 Vertue was paid twenty guineas for “Drawing & Engraveing,” and £9 5s. 0d. for paper and printing 500 impressions, engraving the inscriptions and for the copper plates (SAL MS TA, 310). The prints were described as “finished and compleat [sic]” at the meeting on 19 Oct 1738, and it was agreed that two sets of prints should be delivered to each of the members present, and to “other members who may demand them” (SAL Minutes III.163). Three sets of prints were sent to James Vertue as a present from the SAL, and two sets to the proprietor of the land on which the pavements were found (III.164). James West reported that he had delivered the two sets of prints to the proprietor of the land at the meeting on 4 January 1738, and it was agreed that six sets of the prints should be “given Mr West, his having favoured the Society by furnishing them with the original draught from which the prints were taken” (III.183).

Britain’s Classical Past

William Camden’s Britannia (1586) was a hugely influential volume which inspired interest in Britain’s past. It was first translated from Latin into English in 1610 and received considerable recognition in Britain and further afield (Herendeen 2004; Richardson 2004, 113). Although it covered Britain’s past from the earliest times to the Norman period, the main focus was the Roman period. Camden’s work transformed topographical and historical study through fieldwork and through the scrutiny of a wide range of evidence, including original documents, linguistic evidence and artifacts, which were seen as important sources of information about past societies (Herendeen 2004). Camden’s aim was “to restore Britain to its Antiquities and Antiquities to Britain,” although he focused primarily on England and Wales (Camden [1695] 1971, Preface); as shown by Richardson, his writing made a “decisive contribution to the ‘discovery of England’ and to the emergence of a real sense of ‘Englishness’ through the study of local historical foundations and achievements” (Richardson 2004, 115). Camden was a source of inspiration for antiquaries and an essential point of reference for Aubrey, who often quoted Camden in his Monumenta.1

Antiquarian interest in Roman Britain was stimulated by a new edition of Britannia, published in 1695, and translated and edited by the antiquarian scholar Edmund Gibson (1669–1748). Aubrey had been persuaded by Edward Lhwyd to allow material from his Monumenta to be included in Gibson’s edition; Aubrey's efforts to raise subscriptions for his own volume were unsuccessful (Fox 2008). Gibson’s version was so popular that the second edition appeared in 1722, and further revisions by Richard Gough (1735-1809) were published in 1789 and 1806 (Ayres 1997, 102–04; Sweet 2001, 160, 185). The importance of this volume as a source of reference is evident in the letter from James Vertue to his brother concerning the mosaics at Wellow: “The field where they were found is called the Hayes. Camden in his map calls it Wells-hundred” (SAL Minutes III.57).

John Horsley’s Britannia Romana (1732) further fueled enthusiasm (Ayres 1997, 103; Sweet 2004, 162; Hingley 2008, 155). A member of the Royal Society, Horsley believed that it was essential to record all kinds of evidence and details from the past, such as the sizes and shapes of stones and the scale of letters and figures. He criticized earlier works, such as Camden’s Britannia, for their inaccuracy (Horsley 1732; Levine 1991, 393). Horsley asserted the national significance of Romano-British remains, and in the dedication to Sir Richard Ellys, he stressed the contemporary relevance of his project:

In the following account of the remains of Roman grandeur in our island, you will find some traces of that elegance of life, which you, sir, so happily enjoy. That you may long continue to shine in it; that God may long preserve you to do farther important services to religion, and to your country; and that in a degenerate and corrupt age you may long adorn, and protect the cause and interests of piety, liberty and virtue. (1732, in "Preface")

Antiquaries sought to rival their continental counterparts in the recording of Roman antiquities, asserting the similarities between Britain’s expanding empire and that of ancient Rome (Sweet 2004, 160; Scott 2014). At this time, Britain was largely seen as a military outpost of the Roman empire, and considerable attention was devoted to the recording of military sites and antiquities. The art of Roman Britain was often perceived in a negative light; for example, James Essex questioned Agricola’s description of temples and other fine structures: “If we accept a few altars, &c. which are so wretchedly executed, that they would at this time disgrace the hand of a common mason … it may indeed be doubted, whether those arts ever arrived to any degree of perfection in Britain while the Romans were masters of it” (1774, 87-8).

However, the discovery of increasing numbers of artifacts of non-military origin, such as mosaics, began to show that Britain had been an established part of the Roman world, with markers of civilization on a par with those found elsewhere in Europe. The most impressive discoveries attracted the attention of collectors and connoisseurs. For example, Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726), the librarian of Robert Harley, the earl of Oxford, attempted to acquire a number of Roman altars from the collection of the antiquary John Warburton (1682-1759) for the new library at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire (Hutchinson 1776-8, 1.60; Sweet 2004, 163).

Discoveries of mosaics aroused a great deal of interest. The fourth earl of Cardigan transported a section of a mosaic discovered at Cotterstock (Plate 1.48) in about 1737 to his house at Deene Park, where it was inserted into the floor of a summerhouse (Gale 1739; Upex 2001, 62-3; Hingley 2008, 172). A tapestry of the Orpheus mosaic at Littlecote (Wiltshire)—the pavement had been discovered in the grounds of Littlecote House in 1727—hung in Littlecote House until 1985 (Hoare 1822, 118-20; Henig 1995, 178). Thomas Hearne’s “Discourse Concerning the Stunsfield Tessellated Pavement” (1712) inspired the recreation of the mosaic as a nine-foot carpet (Brome to Rawlins, 22 December 1735, Bodl. MS. Ballard 19, fols. 61-62, cited in Levine 1978, 355); the mosaic has been shown to have exerted a considerable influence on contemporary tastes (Freshwater, Draper, Henig and Hinds 2000). John Pointer’s influential treatise on the Stunsfield [Stonesfield] pavement, published in 1713, included information on mosaics from ancient sources, such as Vitruvius, and descriptions of mosaics found in Britain, and may have sparked James West’s interest in the mosaics at Wellow; Pointer's volume was in his library. In 1739, the SAL was inspired to compile a comprehensive list of mosaics discovered in Britain (Evans 1956, 95).

The Significance of the Villa at Wellow

Aubrey reported that the mosaics discovered at Wellow (and Farleigh Castle, near Bath) might be the floors of Roman villas: “Sr Chr. Wren says, they were Roman villa’s [sic]; which they built with timber in England so that when they were burnt, no foundations of walls are found” (Aubrey [1665-93] 1980-82, 520). However, mosaics discovered in this period were often interpreted as the floors of military tents because investigations did not reveal the associated structures (Hingley 2008, 165). Samuel Carte believed mosaic I (Plate 1.50) to be the floor of a tent or pavilion belonging to “General Officers who commanded the legions” (see Sweet 2004, 183 and 413-14n111). The plan of the villa was finally revealed by John Skinner (1772-1839) who excavated the site in 1822. Skinner recovered a range of finds including: painted wall plaster, Samian, glass, a bronze spoon, a stone finial (similar to one found at the baths in Bath), fibulae, and coins from Severus Alexander (222-235 AD) to Valentinia (364-375 AD) (Skinner and Weddell 1823). There were also the remains of deer, pigs, sheep, and oxen, as well as the shells of seafood, such as oysters, cockles, and limpets. In 1823, Skinner also reported discarded brick tesserae and blue and white lias in a heap, which he thought might have been used for repairing the mosaic floors.

A building close to the villa (within 1 km) was explored in 1846, and discoveries of “pavements” were reported, but the excavations were not properly recorded and the nature of the pavements is unclear (Haverfield 1906, 314-15). A relief with three standing figures, in a poor state of preservation, is in the British Museum (BM Inv. No. 52, 4-22, 1; Cunliffe and Fulford 1982, 1, fasc. 2, 32-3). More recent archaeological and aerial surveys have revealed a linear feature to the east of the villa, and a possible trackway running north-south; both features are likely to have been linked to the villa and are visible as cropmarks (National Monuments Record ST7257/1-4; ST 7358/1-2).

Wellow is amongst forty or so well-appointed villas which have been recorded in the area around Bath (Aquae Sulis), which was a small but thriving town famous for its baths and temple. Gaius Julius Solinus (third century AD) in chapter 22 of his Polyhistor describes the temple of Minerva at Bath: “In this space (are) many great rivers, hot springs elaborated with opulent furnishings for the purposes of mortals.” The location and density of villas around Bath suggests that they could not have survived solely as agricultural estates; the villa owners in this region, including the owners of Wellow, may therefore have been involved with the administration and commercial aspects of this busy spa town, benefitting from its reputation and prosperity (Scott 2000, 139).

The work of various groups of mosaicists has been identified in this region, including the Southern Dobunnic Group, perhaps based in Bath; they may have been responsible for the mosaics at Wellow, as well as those at nearby villas such as Newton St Loe—13 km from Wellow—and Whatley—less than 10 km from Wellow (Cosh and Neal 2015, 292). Richly decorated rooms, such as those in Plates 1.50-1.52, demonstrated the Romanitas and status of the owners. Repairs to the mosaics show they were clearly prized until at least the end of the fourth century.

The key features of mosaic I (Plate 1.50) can be reconstructed from various drawings. The scheme includes interlaced squares surrounded by a square frame of simple guilloche. John Aubrey’s drawing of 1685 shows a cantharus with flanking crested birds, possibly peacocks, in the surviving L-shaped interspace in the corner of the square panel. One of the peacocks is depicted in Vertue’s “fanciful” reconstruction (Plate 1.50) (Cosh and Neal 2005, 219.1). There is a possible central scene with figures, recorded only in drawings by Aubrey ([1665-93] 1980-82, 938) and Gale (1709). Indeed, Prideaux’s description of excavations in 1737 suggests that the central portion had been destroyed by this time: “I was in hope of seeing some figures but nothing of that sort has yet appeared” (SAL Minutes III.24-5).

The inaccuracies of Plate 1.50 were noted by Sir Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838) when the site was excavated by Col Leigh in 1807: “I was present at the uncovering of this fine mosaic pavement, and saw with astonishment an engraving made from it, at the point of its first discovery, which differed so totally from the original, that I could almost fancy it had been done from memory” (1821, 45n) In 1807, Skinner and Samuel Lysons (1763-1819) also noted the inconsistencies (SAL Minutes XXXI.379). However, an annotated drawing of the mosaic, made by Leigh depicts many features which are largely consistent with the earlier drawings (see Cosh and Neil 2005, no. 219.1).

The figure in Aubrey’s drawing has been interpreted as Orpheus based on elements which resemble Orpheus’ dress and the sound-box of his lyre (Beeson 1994). The similarities between this mosaic and the Orpheus pavements at Littlecote, Woodchester, and Withington lend support to this argument, but the interpretation cannot be verified as the mosaic no longer survives.

Mosaic II (Plate 1.51) has a central square with swastika-meander in red and white surrounding a quincunx arrangement of squares (Cosh and Neal 2005, 219.2). Vertue’s print has a central square containing a flower with six petals within a circle. In a later drawing by Skinner, the flower has only four petals (295, Figure 298). This panel is framed by a Z-pattern in purplish-brown, red, and white, surrounded by a double line of red and purplish-brown. The flanking rectangular panels contain confronting animals with black spots, perhaps representing leopards. The slightly awkward cornering in the swastika-meander border (perhaps copied by Skinner) may be an error on the part of Vertue rather than the mosaicist. The mosaic was found in 1737, reopened and damaged in 1807, and is thought to be lost.

Mosaic III (Plate 1.52) is shown complete, but a later drawing by Skinner suggests damage at either end (1823, Plate III; Cosh and Neal 2005, 296, Figure 300). Vertue’s drawing may therefore include some restoration, although the two drawings only differ in minor detail: the border of red-stepped triangles is inward-pointing in Vertue’s drawing and outward-facing in Skinner’s (219.3). The scheme comprises a row of five rectangular panels; the panel in the center contains a grid of irregular octagons. The flanking panels contain running peltae in red and purplish-brown, outlined in blue-grey. The end panels contain intersecting octagons outlined in blue-grey, which form small squares and hexagons in white, red, and purplish-brown (219.3). The mosaic is thought to be lost.


Discoveries and rediscoveries of villas and mosaics provided an excellent opportunity to assert Britain’s place at the heart of a shared classical heritage, challenging the notions that Britain had been a military outpost and cultural backwater in the Roman period and that its climate and national character were incompatible with artistic achievement (Scott 2014). The inscription accompanying Plate 1.52 encapsulates the pride felt on the discovery of such remains, and the importance placed on their recording:

These remains of the magnificence and art of the Romans in Britain—namely, three most elegant tessellated pavements, which, after they were found at Wellow near Bath in the county of Somerset in the month of June 1737, James West, Knight of the Inner Temple, had caused to be most accurately drawn—have been engraved on copper at its own expense by the Society of Antiquaries of London in the year 1738.

The discoveries certainly excited a great deal of local interest: “So many people came to see these tesselated [sic] pavements that those who own the ground got for shewing [sic] it about 50 pounds” (SAL Minutes III.56).

It is therefore unsurprising that the mosaics at Wellow continued to attract antiquarian interest, with further investigations and excavations taking place in 1787, 1807, and 1822. The rather crude investigation in 1787, carried out by an “Antiquarian Novice,” was inspired by a mention of the mosaic in Gough’s second volume of British Antiquities:

I went last week with a pick-ax and spade, and about two feet under ground I met with the brick floor, which I cleared about four feet square … I picked up a piece of the tesselated [sic) pavement, of nine square stones, of blue, red and white, and other pieces of four stones and two stones, all which were so strongly cemented together that it was with difficulty I separated them from the mortar (“Some Particulars” 1787, 961).

Twenty years later, the excavations of Colonel Leigh demonstrated a growing concern with accurate recording and preservation, which was increasingly seen as essential for the posterity of the nation (Moser 2014; Lindley 2012; Smiles 2007; Nurse 2007; Ballantyne 2002; Sweet 2001):

A most beautiful specimen of Roman elegance has lately been discovered at Wellow, Somersetshire, and by the interference of Col. Leigh, of Combhay, together with the lord of the manor, Col. Gore Langton, will be prevented from suffering the injury and dilapidation which the relicks [sic] of antiquity so frequently experience.(“Country News, Sept. 24” 1807, 969).

The publications of the SAL, especially Vetusta Monumenta, together with pioneering excavations and publications, such as those of Samuel Lysons at Bignor (Sussex) in 1817 and Woodchester (Glos.) in 1797, were influential. Lysons was part of a social and intellectual circle which included Sir Joseph Banks and other influential members of the SAL and the Royal Society; they worked collaboratively to an international agenda celebrating Britain’s cultural and scientific leadership in Europe (Scott 2013; 2014). They asserted the value of preserving, recording, and explaining all forms of evidence with “scrupulous fidelity” for the widest possible audience (Lysons 1813, 1).

The achievements of antiquaries and the SAL in this period have underpinned an exemplary tradition of mosaic scholarship in Britain, culminating most recently in the beautifully illustrated four-volume corpus of Romano-British mosaics by Stephen Cosh and David Neal.


[1]: For example, see Aubrey’s entries for Silchester, Hampshire and Kenchester, Herefordshire ([1665-93] 1980-82, 438).

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