ONE of the most important Roman antiquities in Western Europe, at Brading on the Isle of Wight, was reopened by the Duke of Edinburgh yesterday after a £3.1 million mission to prevent its decay.
Discovered in the 1880s, the spectacular 3rd-century mosaic floors of an opulent villa, which remain in near-pristine condition, were threatened when their protective building was found to be unsafe.
Readers of The Times played a key role in saving the mosaics, contributing more than £100,000 after an article in 2003 reported that Brading Roman Villa was on the World Monuments Fund’s list of most endangered sites and English Heritage’s register of buildings at risk.
Engineers reported that the protective building, which was damaged by flood water during a freak storm in 1990s, was unlikely to last more than another two years. The charitable trust that owns the villa hoped for lottery funding to build a new structure, but needed to raise matching funds before they could apply. This was a daunting task on an island with a population of 134,000 and one of the highest unemployment rates in the South of England.
Kenneth Hicks, the managing trustee of the villa, said yesterday that The Times had raised awareness of Brading’s plight. “People as far afield as America and Canada responded as a result of reading The Times,” he said. “As a result, the new building was a rare lottery project to have finished on time and within budget.”
The villa is one of the few domestic Roman buildings in Britain where mosaic floors can be seen in situ. They depict classical scenes unparalleled in the Romano-British world, including peacocks, signifying eternal life, and Tritons, or sea beasts, carrying reclining nymphs. The villa’s luxury suggests that it was owned by the wealthiest of Roman Britons. Such is the extraordinary quality of the mosaics, and the rare materials used, that they have been likened to an art gallery in stone. Research at the villa has detected evidence of burning, suggesting that the villa was damaged by fire in about AD290. One theory is that the villa’s owner was Allectus, who in AD293 murdered his predecessor Carausius, a Roman army commander who had proclaimed himself emperor of Britain. Allectus reigned for only three years before he himself was killed.
A Victorian unearthed the site, which had been preserved under soil and leaf mould, after being shown antiquities that had been found in the area by children. The mosaics were thought to date from the 4th century AD, but new research has put them at 100 years earlier.
Kevin Trott, the villa’s archaeologist, said: “There are very few Roman villas of the 3rd century with mosaics in Britain; this is causing quite a stir.”
Further excavations are planned if funds can be raised. The discovery of painted plaster suggests that another building as important may be unearthed.
When the Duke formally opened the new building — an award-winning, single-storey, grass-roofed design by the architects Rainey Petrie Johns — he returned five Roman clay-fired flue tiles of the 3rd century. They had been given to Princess Beatrice, a daughter of Queen Victoria, in 1915 when she was governor of the Isle of Wight.