Engraved by James Basire (1730-1802), Plate 2.44 depicts two fragments of Roman mosaics located in Cirencester and Woodchester, Gloustershire. Though earlier drawings are known to exist for at least the Woodchester pavement, these were determined to be inaccurate by the Society and were not used as the basis for their print (Lysons 1817, 4.2). Rather, Basire modeled his engraving after images by the antiquarian Samuel Lysons (1763-1819), who drew and colored them in 1787. Basire’s finished plate was published 23 April 1788.
The larger fragment on the plate’s left-hand side represents a section of a pavement found at Cirencester—one of six that have been unearthed near Dyer Street. It features a scattering of marine creatures, a portion of the surrounding outer border, and possibly the wheel of a deity’s chariot in the upper right-hand corner. Unearthed in 1783, it is thought to date from the second century, but its original dimensions are currently unknown (Cosh and Neal 2010, 106).
The second, smaller fragment on the right shows a portion of what was later deemed the “Great Pavement” at Woodchester. First discovered in 1693, the original mosaic measured 14.86 meters (48 feet 10 inches) squared, making it the largest known mosaic from Roman Britain. The outer section of the mosaic consisted of twenty-four geometric panels arranged into a square, separated from its border of swastika-meander by band of double-banded guilloche. The section depicted on Plate 2.44 was unearthed around 1786 and displays part of the mosaic’s inner section: three concentric rings, each demarcated by a triple band of guilloche: the inner contains four birds, the central houses an elephant, while the outer harbors a swirling pattern of acanthus scroll. Orpheus playing his lyre is the mosaic’s primary figure and, though not part of the fragment depicted in Vetusta Monumenta, would have been placed off-center relative to the mosaic’s octagonal heart, allowing for a fountain to sit at the mosaic’s axial point.
No. I. Part of a Roman tessellated Pavement found at Cirencester in Gloucestershire, 1783.
Scale of Feet.
No. II. Part of a Roman tessellated Pavement found at Woodchester in Glouc-rshire.
Scale of Feet.
Paint. Lysons del. / Sumptibus. Soc. Antiquar. Londini. Publish’d according to Act of Parliament, 23d. April 1788. / J. Basire Sc.
Original Explanatory Account:
Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plate 2.44.
Commentary by Yoonjae Shin:
In 1995, Martin Henig argued that “the [eighteenth century] tradition of high-quality mosaic-recording and publication did not long survive and its decline is signaled by Sir Richard Colt Hoare in his treatment of the ‘Roman Aera’, appended in 1821 to Auncient Wiltescire” (180). If this claim is true, then this engraving captures an intriguing moment in British historiography. Interest in Roman pavements was at a high point—some 30 years before its decline—with Lysons, the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL), and other antiquarian bodies producing numerous illustrated publications on mosaics during this time. This was all part of an enthusiasm for rethinking Britain’s historical claim to art and culture as a part of Rome’s empire, spurred on by continuing discovery in England and changing circumstances in Europe. First incorporated into the conceptualization of English history by earlier antiquarians such as William Camden (1551-1623), the rehabilitation of Roman Britain would culminate in a transformation in Britain’s understanding of itself, shifting from a cultural backwater on the fringe of Rome’s empire to an integrated part of it. From this vantage point, the Society’s plate on Cirencester and Woodchester could be viewed as emphasizing a new understanding of the isle’s importance to the Roman Empire—a view championed by late eighteenth-century scholars such as Samuel Lysons—metamorphosizing it from a distant, military outpost into a part of a larger, cultural whole.
The Pavement at Cirencester
The Cirencester mosaic fragment was first uncovered in 1783. While excavations were underway at No. 50 Dyer Street, workers unearthed part of this ornate Roman pavement–the first of six mosaics to be uncovered along this particular roadway, and which are now believed to have been housed in one of the many large buildings in the area (Cosh and Neal 2010, 105). According to the explanatory account published with this print by the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1788 (unsigned, but attributable to Richard Gough), the fragment was uncovered “in digging the foundation of a house belonging to John Smith” and found lying “at the depth of six feet below the level of the street” (1788, 1). Once exposed, the mosaic was left open to both viewers and the elements for at least sixty years, allowing antiquarians such as Samuel Lysons to draw what had been uncovered (Cosh and Neal 2010, 106). Though this seemingly careless treatment was not particularly uncommon at the time, it likely explains why so little of the pavement survives into the present. The sole piece of the mosaic that exists today is the result of a small excavation which took place in the early 1970s, when a lift was being installed in the building that stands where the pavement is buried. This digging resulted in an eight inch strip of the pavement—“enough to confirm the accuracy of Lysons’ illustration”—being exposed and lifted (Rainey 1973, 48). It is currently in private hands.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars wrote sparingly on this mosaic, and little can be said with much certainty about it today. While more precise dating is difficult, it is now generally thought to have been laid sometime during the second century CE due to its quality and its proximity to other mosaics of that time (Cosh and Neal 2010, 106). Similarly, the exact dimensions of the pavement are unknown. At least one nineteenth-century observer noted, however, that it was “probably eighteen feet square, of which rather more than a fourth part was preserved” (“Tessellated Pavement” 1849, 358). Cosh and Neal observe that, based on what is known about the house and the six mosaics found within it, the owner must have been a wealthy and important individual (2010, 105).
Later antiquarians were certainly aware of the Society’s illustration as well as others that existed of this pavement. An 1849 article in the Gentleman’s Magazine noted that this pavement “is engraved in the Vetusta Monumenta of the Society of Antiquaries of London, […] and more carefully in Lyson’s Reliquiae Britannico-Romanae” (“Tessellated Pavement” 1849, 358). Indeed the Vetusta Monumenta engraving curiously lacks features found in other illustrations, notably Lysons’s own Reliquiae Britannico-Romanae from a quarter-century later (1817, 2.Plate VII). Extending beyond the borders of the Vetusta Monumenta depiction, Lysons’s later image includes more marine creatures along the bottom, as well as the second winged cupid in a less damaged state and a small hand, likely belonging to a third cupid, on the right.
Despite the uncertainties that surround the pavement, contemporary scholars agree that it was likely a large, square panel featuring a marine tableau., Perhaps originally featuring Neptune at its center, it may have depicted the Triumph of Neptune (Cosh and Neal 2010, 106). The animals shown in Vetusta Monumenta are a mixture of the mythical and the real, including a sea-leopard and a sea-horse surrounded by smaller figures such as fish, clams, scallops, and what Thomas Morgan identified in 1886 as a conger-eel, all in blues and reds (80). Two human figures are also visible in this engraving: in the uppermost corner is a winged cupid swimming beside a wheel, who is placed above a partially-destroyed second cupid, astride a dolphin. These designs are set on a white background.
Aquatic scenes such as this were not rare in Roman Britain. Anne Rainey explains that “besides producing a number of very striking geometric designs, mosaicists in Britain drew quite widely on Graeco-Roman mythology for their subjects” and that “marine compositions with Neptune, fishes and dolphins were a particularly popular theme” (Rainey 1973, 15). Others, however, have noted that the depiction of gods and cupids in such scenes is less common in Britain than elsewhere (Cosh and Neal 2010, 106). Yet it is not just the inclusion of deities that makes this mosaic a fascinating find: the similarity of this pavement to others uncovered throughout Europe makes this an object of particular interest, for this array of marine creatures backed by white “bears a greater resemblance to similar mosaics found in the Mediterranean area than anything so far discovered in Britain” (Rainey 1973, 47). Margaret Rule posits that copy-books, widely used throughout the Roman world, may be one possible explanation for these similarities (1974, 14). Commentators such as Gough saw parallels between the depiction of animals between these plates and those on the continent (1788, 2) Likewise, in his presentation of this mosaic in his Reliquiae Britannico-Romanae, Lysons could not help but make this connection explicit: he follows his depiction of the Cirencester fragment with an outline of a marine-themed mosaic situated in Rome, noting the similarities in content and in style between the two pavements (1817, 2.Plate VIII no. 1). Through this pavement and others, the connection between Romano-British mosaics and those found in other parts of the Roman Empire was being made more and more evident.
The “Great Pavement” at Woodchester
While the year 1783 marked the discovery of mosaics near Dyer Street in Cirencester, 1786 saw the recovery of a section of what Lysons would later deem the “Great Pavement” in nearby Woodchester. This would be a turning point in antiquaries’ interest in and understanding of the mosaic. Likely originating from a palatial villa, the Great Pavement was first discovered below a churchyard in 1693 (Rainey 1973, 163; Cosh and Neal 2010, 214). The earliest mention of this pavement, Lysons notes, “is in the Additions to Camden’s Britannia, published in 1695, by bishop Gibson” (1817, 4.2). However, the first illustrations of it would not come for another two decades. Of any part of the mosaic, the earliest representations are by Edmund Brown, 1 who exposed and drew part of the mosaic in 1712. Drawings by Richard Bradley came a decade later (Cosh and Neal 2010, 214). As noted in the Society’s account, the portion first drawn by Brown was uncovered for a second time, around 1786, “by the Rev. Peter Hawker, rector of Woodchester, who has taken all possible care for its preservation.” By the time Lysons himself wrote about these findings at the beginning of the 19th century, however, this section was no longer extant: “though much care was taken by the rector for its preservation, the wet and frost have long since destroyed it” (Lysons 1817, 4.2).
Though earlier illustrations of this pavement existed, they were not used as the basis for the Society’s print. Not all of Bradley’s illustrations are extant, and they were said by Lysons to be “very inadequately drawn” (Lysons 1817, 4.2). Conversely, the Society’s account notes that Brown’s drawing was “extremely accurate, but very small, and without a scale” ([Gough] 1788, 1). Due to the limitations of these existing drawings, Basire instead modeled his engraving after new images by Lysons himself, who drew and colored them in 1787. This image would be printed alongside Lysons’s illustration of the Cirencester pavement. As one commentator noted in “An Account of Roman Antiquities,” the town of Woodchester “may be found, in the map of Gloucestershire, at the intersection of two lines; one drawn directly north and south through Gloucester, and the other due east and west, rather less than a mile north of Cirencester,” and the proximity of these two locations may explain why these mosaic fragments were published together(1798, 2-3). This arrangement would appear to follow a precedent set by Plate 2.9, in which mosaics found independently at Roxby and nearby Winterton were similarly engraved on one plate.
Lysons’s drawing for Vetusta Monumenta shows three concentric rings, demarcated by bands of triple-stranded guilloche, surrounding an unpictured octagonal center. Hence, starting at the center octagon, the mosaic would have displayed three coaxial bands filled with both figural and geometric decoration. The innermost section contains various birds and trees and is surrounded by an outer border of laurel wreath. The center section depicts an elephant, measuring about three feet long and decorated with lattice, standing in front of a small tree., While Cosh and Neal conjecture that this latticework could be “artistic licence by the copyist,” they note that “the tree behind the elephant, the birds and other patterns are very similar to surviving examples, and therefore we must assume that the engraving is a fairly faithful rendering” (2010, 220). Another point of conjecture is the elephant’s size. Though Basire’s engraving assigns the elephant a length of nearly three feet, Lysons later stated that most of the central animal figures “are about four feet in length” (Lysons 1817, 4.3). The outer section contains rolling acanthus scrolls, and another outer border of triple-stranded guilloche is just discernible on the engraving. Beyond that, between the mosaic’s outermost square border and the concentric main area, would have been figures which Lysons identified as Naiads carrying urns (Lysons 1817, 4.2). This pattern, of animals parading around a central Orphic figure, is a common theme which appears throughout in Roman Britain. Other notable instances of an Orpheus mosaic exist at Cirencester and at Winterton (Cosh and Neal 2010, 223; Rule 1974, 33).
Lysons’s work on the Woodchester pavement would not end with the depiction of this fragment. Over the course of 1793 and 1794, while a vault was being dug for the burial of a John Wade of Pudhill, enough of the pavement was uncovered for Lysons to establish its form and dimensions: a square of forty-eight feet ten inches (Lysons 1817,4. 2). From these new discoveries, Lysons could conclude that “a gryphon, a bear, a leopard, a stag, a tigress, a lion, and a lioness survived,” but by the time of his writing, the figures “of a boar and a dog, which are to be seen in Mr. Brown’s drawing, together with that of an elephant, have since been destroyed, and no part now remains of the two others necessary to fill up the whole space.” He was also able to establish, from a note in the margin of one of Bradley’s drawings, that the innermost section of the mosaic, a central octagon, would have contained figures of fish, and that ”about the centre there was a starlike figure” (Lysons 1817, 4.3). Thus—through viewing several different fragments, comparisons to previous illustrations, and notes by earlier artists—Lysons was able to sketch a clearer approximation of the entire mosaic.
The central figure of the mosaic would have represented Orpheus playing the lyre, a figure that would have sat within the mosaic’s avian section rather than at its center (Lysons 1817, 4.3). Beneath the mosaic floor was a hypocaust, a kind of underfloor heating system (cf. Plate 1.57) which is unusual for rooms of a circular shape (Cosh and Neal 2010, 214). However, channels which would have run from the north wall to the center of the mosaic are absent from the hypocaust’s layout. Cosh and Neal speculate that, based on scarring in this same location on the pavement, this may have been where lead piping was laid instead, to feed a fountain which would have stood at the mosaic’s center (2010, 214-17). This would explain Orpheus’s skewed placement within the pavement’s structure and would suggest a heated water source for this room. A mosaic of this size must have consisted of a considerable number of tesserae, and Lysons speculates that “the whole when entire could not therefore have contained less than a million and a half of them.” He also surmises that these tesserae, “for the most part, nearly cubes of half an inch,” were made from resources natural to Britain except, notably, for the white tesserae, whose hardness suggested to him a resemblance to Palombino marble from Italy (Lysons 1817, 4.4). Mosaic patterns, in the form of copy-books, seemed to travel through the Roman Empire. It would appear that artistic materials did as well.
Stylistic analysis done in the 1950s places this mosaic sometime in the fourth century, and technical differences between the decorative borders and the figural areas suggest that work was completed by at least two different groups of workers (Smith as cited in Cosh and Neal 2010, 212). Based on dating and on similarities in themes, patterns, and idiosyncratic embellishments within geographical areas, David Smith initially organized four different groupings or “schools” of mosaics in the 1950s—one of which was based at Cirencester. Smith’s groupings indicated that groups of craftsmen often worked strictly within distinct regional areas, even when their ideas traveled or were emulated elsewhere. Echoing this sentiment, Cosh and Neal note that “it is readily noticeable that the ambulatory around the Orpheus panel at Woodchester differs in style [from the pavement itself], which hints at collaboration between groups of mosaicists on large contracts” (2002, 26). Indeed Woodchester would fit this description: the site consisted of a major villa containing around 64 rooms, and the Great Pavement was the largest mosaic in Britain, measuring just under 15 meters square (Cosh and Neal 2010, 214). Yet it is not just the mosaic itself that is great: “the number of mosaics at Woodchester also appears to be exceptional, for the 13 or 14 in situ are only exceeded in Britain by Fishbourne” (Clarke et al. 1982, 206). The knowledge of a few of these mosaics—along with the discovery of additional hypocausts, statues, coins, and pottery at the same site—led Lysons to conclude that the Woodchester pavement was constructed not for a private individual, but for a Roman personage of high importance. He surmises that the building in which the pavement was found may have served as the residence “of the Proprætor, or, at least, of the governor of this part of the province, and occasionally, perhaps, of the Emperor himself” (Lysons 1817, 4.17).
Sections of the mosaic “continued to be cut by graves” until the end of the nineteenth century. About forty-two percent of the pavement was surviving when it was recorded in situ during its last exposure in 1973. Additionally during this time, part of the outer circle containing acanthus scroll was lifted; this section is now held by the British Museum. The rest of the pavement was reburied and currently lies beneath the churchyard at Woodchester (Cosh and Neal 2010, 214). It may not be uncovered for the foreseeable future: the last time it was uncovered in 1973—for a total of seven weeks—the over 140,000 visitors who came to view the mosaic caused such traffic congestion that the local populace decided that “it should never be unearthed again” (Clarke et al. 1982, 197; Gloucestershire Museums 2010).
Reception: Lysons, Britain, and the Roman Empire
While the interest in mosaics was already on the rise during the 1700s—reflected in the increase of mosaics being printed in Vetusta Monumenta and elsewhere—Henig claims that “the culmination of the interest in and investigation of mosaics came at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, with the gentleman-scholar Samuel Lysons” (1995, 178). In fact, he notes that “Lysons’ excavations and the Reliquiae Britannico-Romanae, however imperfectly realized, do seem to have broken new ground in the study of the mosaic art of Roman Britain” (179). In addition to any advancements he may have made in the field of archaeology, Lysons was also part of the vanguard changing the reception of Romano-British pavements (Scott 2013). Particularly noteworthy is his effort in recontextualizing Britain’s Roman past, especially as international conflicts escalated throughout Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. In the context of nationalist sentiment that was on the rise across the continent, locating cultural dignity at home was a way for Britain to recognize itself as an “equal” to a traditionally continental standard of art.
In the earlier eighteenth century, Britain’s role in the Roman Empire was not well regarded or understood. Sarah Scott notes that early antiquarian interest in Roman Britain, largely perceived as a military outpost and cultural backwater, “focused on the excavation and recording of military remains and roads” (2013, 5). Indeed, this perception would even color the approach to non-military Roman antiquities. For example, a 1760 article discussing the mosaic found at Winterton, Lincolnshire (Plate 2.9) suggested that the pavement had a strictly utilitarian, military purpose: flooring the tents of Rome’s military leaders. Based on such coarse evaluations, then, it would appear that Britain was not a particularly dazzling jewel in Rome’s crown. Thus Lysons and his contemporaries, those who studied local antiquities and highlighted their historical significance, stimulated pride and interest in the artifacts and helped usher in an “emergence of a real sense of ‘Englishness’” (Scott 2014, 301). One could now look back at Britain’s Roman past with both aesthetic pleasure and cultural pride.
Lysons certainly strove to give Britain a place in the larger scale of the Roman Empire, and the finds at both Cirencester and Woodchester would help him to reshape the popular conception of Roman Britain. Since the 1700s, a number of Roman artifacts had been found in Cirencester, and recent archaeological data suggest that the Roman town found here was a civitas—the center of a self-governed political unit which was oftentimes based on a pre-existing tribal territory (Darvill and Gerrard 1994, 57). The SAL highlighted the number of recent finds around this area in their explanatory account: “Dyer-street,” Gough writes, “which is one of the four principal streets of Cirencester, leads to the Foss-way, one of the Roman roads, which met there; and tesselated pavements have frequently been found on both sides of the street” (1788, 1). Other nineteenth-century commentators seem to have understood the importance of the Orpheus pavement in reinterpreting Britain’s Roman past too. Scott observes that “throughout the course of the eighteenth century the discovery of increasing numbers of artefacts of non-military origin began to show that Roman Britain had been an established and civilized part of the Roman Empire” (2014, 303). The sites at Cirencester and Woodchester aided antiquarians in establishing this claim.
Indeed, Lysons would write of the Woodchester pavement that “the complete design of this pavement […] is, I believe, equaled by few of those discovered in other provinces of the Roman Empire, and is undoubtedly superior to any thing of the same kind hitherto found in this country” (Lysons 1817,4. 2). The existence of these beautiful mosaics hinted at the existence of equally impressive villas to house them. In the advertisement to his Reliquiae Britannico-Romanae, Lysons wrote that
The scale and magnificence of these two pavements—one found in the heart of a civitas and the other among the largest mosaics from Roman Britain—helped generate an interpretation of Britain’s Roman past that highlighted the importance of this colony for the Romans.
although scarcely any traces exist above ground, of the building erected by the Romans, during the four hundred years they continued in possession of this Island […] perhaps it is not too much to say, that no province of the Roman Empire contained a greater number of extensive and richly-decorated villas. (Lysons 1817, 1.iii)
Lysons’s reevaluation of Roman Britain was not merely an aesthetic exercise, however. Scott writes that Lysons was “at the heart of an intellectual elite which genuinely believed that the encouragement and promotion of British intellectual and artistic achievement was an essential undertaking in the national interest” (2014, 304). During the period in which the SAL published its engraving of the Cirencester and Woodchester pavements—bookended by two periods of war with France (1778-83 and 1792-1815)—a growing sense of nationalism was beginning to develop across Europe. In England, this atmosphere paradoxically created “a strong desire to be seen to live up to common European standards in collecting and connoisseurship against the backdrop of a shared classical heritage[...]; in particular, there was a concern to challenge the widely held view that Britain was culturally inferior to its Continental neighbours, most notably France” (Scott 2014, 294-95). Lysons’s methods, depictions, and descriptions of British mosaics set a new benchmark for antiquarian work in England. They also made a point to readers and scholars abroad, one whose nationalist sentiments would take on political undertones in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Some of Lyson’s major texts, such as the Reliquiae Britannico-Romanae, were aimed at both a domestic and a foreign audience and “asserted British cultural achievements under Roman rule while showcasing British skills in the recording and interpretation of antiquities” (Scott 2013, 16). Thus, while he hoped his volumes would prove an acceptable addition to libraries both at home and abroad, he also challenged his readers to include Britain in their comparative studies of history. Within his work, Lysons often drew upon his extensive knowledge, classical and modern, to argue the similarities “between British and Continental discoveries through reference to examples discussed in contemporary European publications and in well-known sources such as Montfaucon, de Caylus, and Winckelmann” (Scott 2014, 312-13). By showing how ideas found in Europe were mirrored in British pavements, Lysons firmly placed Britain in a greater, broadly European, classical context. Therefore, while Scott argues that Lysons’s comparisons are not always the most apt, she maintains that “it is nevertheless significant that Lysons was making comparisons and was aware of the potential of this kind of analysis” (2013, 12). With his laudatory approach to Romano-British artworks as much as his exacting methodology and with his assuming the position of the Director of the Society of Antiquaries (1798-1809), Lysons helped champion a second reconsideration of Britain’s classical past.
Thus, the Roman mosaics engraved by the SAL can be seen to fit into a larger national project, deepening the understanding of Britain’s classical past. The debate about British identity and national origins would not disappear alongside the enthusiasm for engraving and printing such antiquities. Instead, it would come to the fore even more prominently during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in works such as Francis Haverfield’s The Romanization of Roman Britain—where he claimed that the emergence of orderly civilization “was the work of the [Roman] Empire,” a task that Britain would later claim to take up itself (Haverfield 1905, 2). The society’s engraving, then, captures not only two fragments of mosaics now lost but also an historical moment contributing to Britain’s changing self-definition.
 A copy of Brown’s drawing (by Priscilla Combe) is viewable at the British Library.
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“Tessellated Pavement Found at Cirencester.” 1849. Gentleman’s Magazine 32: 357-60.