Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 2.43: Roman Pavements Found Near Warminster

Plate: Engraved by James Basire (1730-1802) after drawings made by Catherine Downes; published in 1788.

Object: Plate 2.43 shows artifacts discovered in 1786 at Pitt Meadow (Pitt Mead), outside of Warminster in Wiltshire. The first engraving of the discoveries was produced by James Basire after sketches made by Catherine Downes, who carried out extensive excavations at Pitt Mead in 1786 following the initial discovery of a Roman mosaic floor by a local man in the same year and believed to be part of a larger Roman villa. Downes’s excavations revealed four mosaics (tessellated pavements), a bath house, and a range of small finds including pottery, bone, coins, metal objects, and an ivory bodkin, several of which are depicted in Basire’s engraving.

Transcription: Roman Pavements Discovered in Pitt Mead near Warminster, Wilts. 1786. Catherine Downes del. Sumptibus Soc. Antiquar. Londini. Publish’d according to Act of Parliament 13 April 1788. J. Basire

Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plate 2.43.

Commentary by Madeleine Pelling: In 1801, tourists setting out from the fashionable Somerset spa town and armed with the newly published Excursions from Bath, written by the antiquary Reverend Richard Warner (1763-1857), might have been inclined to venture towards the prosperous town of Warminster, then known for its wool trade and high density of coaching inns servicing travelers across the West Country. Fifteen years earlier, Warner informed his readers, a field outside the town, Pitt Mead, had been the site of an archaeological excavation. This moment of subterranean enquiry was particularly noteworthy thanks, in part, to the discoveries made there. These discoveries included several intricate, though fragmented, Roman mosaics and a rich array of coins, pottery, and bone. Equally significant was that the excavation had been conducted by a woman, one whose labors would have wider scholarly implications beyond the concerns of Warner’s sight-seeing readers. Warner described how:

In the latter end of the year 1786, part of a Roman pavement was accidentally discovered, of which a Mrs. Down [sic], who then resided at Warminster, being apprised, she visited the spot, examined it carefully, made further successful researches, took drawings of the remains, and transmitted them to the late Daines Barrington, who communicating the same to the Antiquarian Society, they were published in the Archaeologia of 1787. (1801, 187)

As Warner’s Excursions from Bath testified, Catherine Downes become publicly associated with the Warminster excavation; her assertion of archaeological authority and intellectual ownership of this work would play out across a number of public and private forums, including a letter written by Downes to the Society of Antiquaries in London (SAL), a description based on the letter published with minor edits in Vetusta Monumenta, and a later, competing account in the Gentleman’s Magazine that challenged her claims to its discovery.

Women as Antiquarians and Archaeologists

Little is now known of Catherine Downes, although the letter written by her to the SAL about the Warminster excavation—which was read aloud by Daines Barrington (1727-1800) and subsequently copied into its minutes (SAL Minutes XXI.463-68)—provides some insight into a genteel woman with a keen interest in and knowledge of history. Downes’s sketches, mentioned by Warner, served as the basis for Plate 2.43 of Vetusta Monumenta, while her letter served as the basis for the explanatory account. Downes was part of a local network of antiquarians; when “a Gentleman of Warminster requested her to permit a Drawing of her’s to be sent to the Antiquarian Society; but [...] neglected to send it," she took it upon herself to communicate her findings from the site at Pitt Meadow (Pitt Mead, as it was locally known), in what remains a rare example of a woman’s contribution to the eighteenth-century institution (SAL Minutes XXI.463). Of the sketches, Downes wrote:

the learned & honourable Society may depend upon the Accuracy of the Drafter, as I took them all [...] upon the Spot, which no other Person had the opportunity of doing. As to the Execution, conscious as I am of a great deficiency (as I never had the least Instructions) I can, with Truth, say, nothing but an ardent desire of preventing what most People think so important a Discovery being hid from your learned Body, could have Induced me to let it meet the Eye of Taste & Science. (SAL Minutes XXI.468)

Asserting legitimacy in the textual and scholarly spaces of institutions like the SAL at a time when women were disbarred from its meeting places was complex. At the Society gathering in which her letter was read aloud, Downes’s words were prefaced by an apology from their author for the “want of learned Phrases, & Grammatical knowledge” (SAL Minutes XXI. 463). And yet Downes's voice, albeit filtered through that of Barrington, was subsequently inscribed into the pages of the Society’s Minute Books, a text central to the institution’s collective identity and mission. Inclusion in the Vetusta Monumenta in 1788, however, entailed formalizing and, with that, editing Downes’s work. Her vernacular sketches were translated into the formal visual language of the institution by the Society’s engraver, James Basire (1730-1802), and appeared alongside a lightly edited version of her account of the excavation. Downes’s justification of her “want of learned phrases,” for example, was omitted from the published version of the text, while phrases such as “I shall now inform you” (SAL Minutes XXI. 468) were removed and the dates of specific discoveries on site inserted, working to decentre Downes’s voice in favour of the wider coherency of the Vetusta Monumenta project.

Although eighteenth-century women regularly laboured in the gathering of historical materials and data, note-taking and letter-writing on behalf of their male relatives and antiquarian friends, such work has remained largely invisible. Rosemary Sweet cites Downes’s contribution to Vetusta Monumenta as “an interesting exception [that] gives further evidence that the readership for works on antiquities was by no means exclusively male” (2004, 76). More than proving her a reader of antiquarian literature, however, the inclusion of Downes’s (lightly edited) letter gives compelling evidence of both her value to the Society and her pioneering work as an early archaeologist. The opportunities open to eighteenth-century women engaging in archaeological practice, and the inevitable limitations that accompanied them, have yet to be fully explored by scholars. Discriminatory policies of membership as well as geographical and social restrictions curtailed many women’s access to antiquarian knowledge in the period, but for some financially- and physically-capable women, archaeology could provide not only intellectual rewards but also new forms of embodied encounters with the past. Digging outside the metropolis of London, Downes found an opportunity to contribute to historiographical debates, uncovering (and in some cases controlling access to) important artifactual discoveries central to antiquarian investigation in Britain—despite her exclusion from the Society itself.

Richard Hingley cites Downes, along with the nineteenth-century archaeologist Frances Stackhouse Acton (1794-1881), as amongst the earliest examples of women involved in the archaeological recovery of Roman Britain (2008, 15). As indicated by a parenthetical aside in her letter to the Society (carried over into the published text) in which she identifies Warminster as the site of the illusive Roman settlement Verlucio, Downes was also familiar with contemporary historiographical discourse surrounding this period. The location of Verlucio had been a subject of regular debate among antiquarian scholars, including William Stukeley (1687-1765), Roger Gale (1672-1744) and John Horsley (1685-1732) who variously placed it at nearby Heddington and Westbury. It was, in fact, William Camden (1551-1623) who placed Verlucio at Warminster, “deriving both names from the Deveril, on which the latter town sits.” As Sarah Scott also points out in her commentary for Plates 1.50-1.52, Camden’s Britannia (1586) was “a hugely influential volume which inspired interest in Britain’s past.”’ After the publication of a new edition by Edmund Gibson over a century later, Britannia sparked particular interest in the history of Britain’s Roman occupation. Downes’ corroboration of Camden’s position not only signals her career as a discerning reader of historiographical texts but also her clear understanding of antiquarianism’s commitments to deploying the fabric of the past as evidence alongside, or even in place of, published works. Downes notably proposes her discoveries as evidential proof of Camden’s earlier theory.

Depicting the Excavation

The Pitt Mead site had, Downes testified in her own account, first been discovered by a local scholar and his son, reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine in November 1786 to be a “Mr Walker and Son, Lecturers in Philosophy” (1786, 990). The land on which the excavation took place belonged to Thomas Thynne, Lord Weymouth (1765-1837), whose seat at the nearby Longleat house became a repository for much of the material excavated. Upon reading of the initial discoveries made by Walker, Downes immediately sought and secured permission to search for further antiquities. “I took a man over,” she wrote to the Society, “& began to dig” (SAL Minutes XXI.465).

Downes described to the Society how, after breaking ground at Pitt Mead, she instantly “hit upon the top of the Pavement [...] & traced it to its full Extent.” Aided by the local man she had hired as well as several workers supplied by Lord Weymouth, Downes developed an impressive, and recognisably modern, methodical approach to the excavation, and a Roman villa as well as a bath house were revealed. The locations and extensions of trenches were informed by following identifiable features, including mosaic floors, a wall “two feet thick, running in a direct line East & West.” and even “a Bath, or Sudatory; the Floor, a very hard Cement, composed of something extremely white, like Marble broken in pieces, Sand, Brick, & Oystershells broken together.” (SAL Minutes XXI.466) Discovery and interpretation went hand in hand. Downes’s descriptive comparison of the “cement” to the pieces of marble, sand, brick, and oyster shells broken and mixed together veers readily into an informed but nevertheless speculative mode. Likewise, for example, Downes describes how she “found some pieces of burnt wood, in a kind of Drain, or flew” (SAL Minutes XXI.466).

Basire’s engraving diligently depicts a range of finds unearthed during the excavation, drawing closely on Downes’s account and, presumably, the sketches that she also provided. Details of the mosaic floors, described as pavements, are picked out with attendance to specific features, as in Fig. 3 where text is overlaid onto a complex pattern in order to indicate a multitude of colors; details that, although redundant in this version of the print, may have served to instruct those looking to hand-color the work. The nature of mosaic, with its intricate and repeated tiles built to represent patterned and pictoral subjects, lends itself well to engraving, and here Basire successfully shows the individual tiles, or tesserae, as well as the images they create—from the headless female figure wrapped in drapery in Fig. 1 to the hare at her feet. Interestingly, this particular mosaic was dismantled before Downes arrived at the site and so, as she clarifies in her account, her depiction of this object (unlike her other sketches) was based on an earlier drawing completed by someone else: “an ingenious person of this place [who] took a sketch of the Figure & Colours” (SAL Minutes XXI.464). Whether drawing on this earlier sketch or his own invention, Basire introduces lines of varying lengths that extend beyond the edges of the mosaic, indicating where the rows of tiles would otherwise continue and alerting his audience to the fragmentary nature of the pavements, an aesthetic decision in keeping with contemporary antiquarian models that were, as Katharina Boehm discusses in her commentary for Plate 1.7, influenced by the ideas of the picturesque.

For Plate 2.43, Basire assembles a coherent composition that functions on multiple levels. Fig. 2, showing a more complete mosaic than Fig. 1, delineates not only the boundaries of the engraving in the lower left corner, working to frame the other artifacts including the disproportionately large finds shown in Figs. 5, 6, 7 and 8, but also the boundaries of excavation itself. Pitt Mead is anatomised on the page through thin connecting lines and associated labels which note spatial measurements between found objects, presenting a bird’s eye view of the site. A cross formed of two contradictory lines in the lower right corner, the vertical line terminating in an arrow indicating North, serves to situate the items depicted on the page within a real and, crucially, quantifiable landscape drawn from Downes’ account.

Small finds are given particular precedence on the print. A piece of animal horn, a metal ring, star, and an ivory bodkin are all depicted in upscaled magnification. Skilfully engraved lines detail the textured surfaces of the horn and the possibly rusted metal star, while the shading in the interior of the ring highlights its irregular shape with impressive realism. These are imperfect objects, misshapen, fragmented and all portrayed with a compelling precision indicative of their materiality. Basire’s focus on the fragmentary echoes Downes’s own interest in the imperfect. In her account, she writes that aside from the mosaic pavements, ring, horn and bodkin, “in all our Researches nothing else has been found that is perfect” gesturing vaguely to an assemblage of “broken pieces of pottery, of all colours, kinds, and shapes” (SAL Minutes XXI.466).

The perils of field archaeology in the eighteenth century are evident from Downes’s account in which she records how three of the four mosaics discovered were variously torn apart and stolen by thieves, with Basire’s engraving memorialising not only the objects found during the Pitt Mead excavation but also those lost. Only Fig. 4, a square and virtually in-tact mosaic floor decorated with a circular design, was saved, Downes tells us, “by the Ingenuity of Lord Weymouth’s Surveyor” who carried it “to his Lordship’s Seat at Longleat, where it will be safe from the depredations of the Vulgar” (SAL Minutes XXI.467). We might consider the transfer of the mosaic from the ground at Warminster to the interior at Longleat within a broader context of elite collecting and the systems of economic and social networking that similarly underscored the Society’s own model. Lord Weymouth’s maternal ancestral line boasted famous collectors including Robert Harley (1661-1742) and Edward Harley (1689-1741). His grandmother was the prolific antiquities and natural history collector Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, 2nd Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), whose private museum had been sold at auction a year prior to the excavation.

The depiction of the mosaic in Vetusta Monumenta then was doubly important in circulating this important find amongst a readership who, depending on their social position, might not otherwise have access to it. Downes’s account of the removal of the mosaic from Warminster also gives a valuable insight into developing conservation practice:

After providing a sufficient quantity of Canvas, he made a Cement of Wax, Resin, & Tallows, melted upon the spot, & after picking, & cleaning the joints of the Tessella very well, spreading the Cement upon a piece of Canvas, equal to the size of the piece of Pavement he intended to take up at one time [...] laid it upon the face of the Tessella, upon that two or three sheets of Strong Paper, & a flat Board; then underminded the piece with larger Iron Pins, & when the Cement was cold, turned it up, put it in to Hampers, & carried it away. (SAL Minutes XXI.467-68)

It appears that Downes was present at the unpacking of the mosaic upon its arrival at Longleat, where she describes the thick coat of plaster of Paris that was laid “on the bottom part of the Tessella, the heat of which caused the Cement to fall from the face-side, & leave the Figures intirely clean & perfect.” (SAL Minutes XXI.468) Her keen perception of the urgency in developing conservation methods within archaeological practice, in which engraving itself might be considered an equally valuable tool, is compellingly captured in her closing statement on the matter: “I have been thus particular in the process here observed, in hopes the Hint may be the means of preserving future discoveries of this kind” (SAL Minutes XXI.468).

Aftermath and Legacies

Downes’ correspondence with the Society and the resulting publications enjoyed a legacy beyond initial interest surrounding the excavation. Both Vetusta Monumenta and a separate bound copy of Basire’s print with the explanatory account appear, for example, in A Catalog of Books Relating to the History and Topography of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland authored by the collector and antiquarian Sir Richard Colt Hoare in 1815. The years between the 1786 excavation and Hoare’s later veneration of Downes, however, saw various claimants come forward to challenge the validity of her work as an argument about who should be credited with the Warminster discoveries played out across print media.

In March 1788, Downes wrote again to the Society to right a mistake she had noticed in her original account, marking a complex period in the historiography of the site itself in which various parties struggled for control of its narrative. “Give me leave,” she requested, “to mention to you a small inaccuracy of the press in regard to the Lecturer in Philosophy: for Walker, read Warltire.” The correction was added into the explanatory account of the print that was published as part of Vetusta Monumenta.

Possibly, this correction was in answer to an earlier and controversial article that appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine in December 1787 in which an anonymous contributor identified only as “W” provided an alternate description as well as an alternate engraving of the excavation and finds at Warminster. The report attacked “the person to whom this discovery has been falsely attributed,” while of Lord Weymouth’s removal of the surviving mosaic to Longleat, the author complained that a “great part of it is already destroyed, through the curiosity of the neighbouring virtuosi, who have broken up and carried away the tesserae of which it is composed” (Anonymous 1787, 221). The account included details of small finds beyond those mentioned by Downes and depicted in the Vetusta Monumenta engraving, suggesting any likely author as a local eye-witness to the discoveries. It is likely that the alternate engraving provided to the Gentleman’s Magazine was based on two pen and wash drawings of the mosaics that survive in the Longleat archive and are, according to an archival note, marked with the attribution “S. Yockney, del.,” a local printer who appears in contemporary trade directories (Anonymous 1790, 683). That same archival note attributes the description in the Gentleman’s Magazine to the local Warminster antiquary Henry Wansey (1751-1827).

By the end of 1788, Lord Weymouth had suspended all work at the Pitt Mead site—whether this decision was the result of public disagreements or simply the satisfaction of having acquired the surviving mosaic remains unclear. As Warner’s perambulatory Excursions makes clear, archaeological investigation at Pitt Mead ceased until the turn of the new century when the size and scale of the site was again revised and expanded by a local archaeologist:

After the curiosity of the public had been gratified, the discoveries were neglected and forgotten, and no person had spirit enough to pursue any researches in Pitmead [until] the present summer, when Mr. Cunnington, of Heytesbury, (a very respectable dealer in the woollen line, who has long pursued, with considerable success, antiquarian investigations) discovered another pavement, composed of tesserae, nineteen feet three inches square. (1801, 187)


Basire’s engraving of Plate 2.43 in Vetusta Monumenta captures the rare contribution by a woman to both the SAL and broader, formal antiquarian conversations in the late-eighteenth century. More than this, the print exists in impressive symbiosis with Catherine Downes’s written account, and together, the two serve as a window onto early archaeological practice, narrativizing the excavation, and anatomising and making tangible the object- and landscape in which it unfolded. The centring of the immediacy and fragility of objects on the print, moreover, might suggest archaeology as a site of bodily encounter between the ancient individuals who made and used these items, those who unearthed them and, by extension, those readers experiencing the same in print who, through the compounding of Downes’s account and the startling vividness of Basire’s engraving, might seemingly reach out and lift objects off the surface of the page.

Archaeology is, by its very nature, destructive, and Basire’s image of the discoveries at Pitt Mead survives as an invaluable record of the Roman villa and various artifacts uncovered there, many of which were destroyed or transported elsewhere. Despite its careful preservation and removal to Longleat house, the most complete mosaic found by Downes and featured as Fig. 4 on Basire’s engraving was, in 1951, unable to be located, making the Society’s publication an important part of a limited archive documenting its existence.

Works Cited:

Anonymous. 1786. The Gentleman’s Magazine. London.

Anonymous. 1787. The Gentleman’s Magazine. London.

Anonymous. 1790. The Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce, and Manufacture. London.

Camden, William. (1695) 1971. Camden’s Britannia 1695: A Facsimile of the 1695 Edition Published by Edmund Gibson. London: Times Newspapers.

Hingley, Richard. 2008. The Recovery of Roman Britain 1586-1906: A Colony So Fertile. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.

Warner, Rev. Richard. 1801. Excursions from Bath. Bath: Printed by Cruttwell.

This page references: