LONDON — The geraniums grew in an oblong stone vessel, and no one ever thought much about it. But when Luke Irwin, a rug designer in the county of Wiltshire, England, hired workmen to lay electric cables under his yard, so that his son could have light in a barn when the family played table tennis, they uncovered an intricate mosaic floor of red, blue and white tiles only 18 inches down.
Irwin called the local council, which sent archaeologists who discovered the remains of a lavish Roman villa under his extensive yard, and told him that the flowers were growing in what had been a child’s coffin.
“I sent a photograph to the council, and within 24 hours they were here with archaeologists to see what we’d found,” Irwin said. Experts from Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire and Historic England carefully began excavating the site and understood that the mosaic was part of the floor of a large building, which they believe to be one of the largest Roman villas discovered in England.
In an eight-day dig in the property, near Tisbury, archaeologists also found coins, jewelry, pottery, a well, under-floor heating pipes, and the shells of hundreds of oysters and whelks, which had apparently been farmed, harvested and then carried 45 miles into the countryside in barrels of salt water, indicating that the Roman owners were people of some standing and wealth.
Historic England called the find “unparalleled in recent years,” in part because the remains of the villa were so undisturbed, and it is hoping to get more funds for a more complete dig. It estimates that the villa had 20 to 25 rooms on the ground floor alone.
Dating from between A.D. 175 and 220, the home is thought to have been three stories high.
David Roberts, an archaeologist from Historic England, said the artifacts showed the villa had belonged to an “elite family” who lived a “luxurious” life.
“The site has not been touched since its collapse 1,400 years ago, and so it’s of extreme importance,” Roberts said. Only a few test pits have been dug, but he said it was clear the walls of the villa were probably still more than a yard high, although they are buried under sediment from a nearby river.
The discovery has been compared to a Roman villa at Chedworth, found in 1864 and then put on display, and acquired by the National Trust in 1924.
Some of the artifacts from the Irwin find have been taken to the Salisbury Museum, and the rest of the dig has been covered up for now, to protect it.
As for Irwin, who visited Pompeii as a child, the find was moving, and he found a comparison between the mosaic floor and the luxury carpets he designs for what he called “the Roman aristocrats of today.”