The remains of a Roman mosaic floor covered-over some 65 years ago has been re-exposed on Folkestone’s East Cliff. The mosaic belongs to a large Roman villa built during the second century AD. The villa complex had more than fifty rooms and included two bath-suites.
Much of the villa site was excavated and laid out as a tourist attraction during the 1920s but the cost of upkeep led to the remains being reburied by Folkestone Council in 1957. For the original Roman owners of the villa there were fine views across the English Channel from their grand mansion but the clay cliffs upon which the villa stands are not stable and continuing coastal erosion means that this important Roman site is in danger of slowly falling into the sea over the course of the next one hundred years. Several rooms of a bath-suite have already been lost since they were first excavated.
Beginning in 2010 Canterbury Archaeological Trust, has been leading teams of local volunteers and university students in excavations aimed at recording the most vulnerable remains before they are lost. Lead site archaeologist Keith Parfitt said: ‘The villa at Folkestone represents a very important site in the archaeology of southern Britain.’ Underneath the Roman villa traces of earlier buildings relating to the late Iron Age have been discovered – the villa had been placed on a site occupied by native Britons for centuries before the Roman invasion. Mr Parfitt believes that in many ways the pre-Roman remains are of even more importance than the villa – but these early structures are much harder to identify, having mostly been of made timber and thatch which has long since decayed. Such remains were largely missed by the excavators of the 1920s. The Roman mosaic being excavated throughout September this year belongs to the villa’s grand central dining room. When it was first exposed in 1924 around two-thirds of this mosaic survived and the Council erected a cover-building over it to protect it from the weather. Unfortunately, this building was destroyed during the Second World War and local accounts suggested that by 1957 when the mosaic was reburied it was in a rather sorry state.
The aim of the excavation in 2022 is to determine just how much of the mosaic now survives so it can be decided how best to preserve what is left. ‘We really didn’t know quite what to expect’, said Mr Parfitt. Made from tiny cubes of cut tile and coloured stones set into a mortar bedding such floors readily degrade when left outdoors, exposed to the elements. ‘I would not have been surprised if there was nothing left at all’, Mr Parfitt added. But excavations over the last few days have shown that a significant amount of the mosaic still remains. It would seem that there had been some subsequent restoration of what was exposed during the original 1920s work and these recent repairs helped stabilise what remained of the Roman design. Much of the southern half of the mosaic survives. For most of the excavators this was the first time that they had been involved with uncovering a mosaic and there has been considerable excitement on site. The mosaic will be reburied again at the end of the month pending discussions on whether it should be lifted and moved to a museum for permanent preservation and display. It is hoped that organised visits can be arranged to give local residents, community groups and schools a chance to see the remains before the site is backfilled.