ONE of the largest Roman villas ever built in the British Isles has been discovered by accident in the back yard of an English homeowner.
It was the urge to avoid playing ping-pong in the dark that led Luke Irwin to make one of Britain’s most extraordinary archaeological discoveries in recent years.
Irwin, a rug designer, and his wife had decided to convert an old barn on their newly purchased Wiltshire property into a room where they and their children could play table tennis, so they hired electricians to lay cables for lights.
"The electricians originally suggested stringing up an overhead cable from our house to supply the power for the barn, but I insisted it had to be an underground cable," said Irwin. It turned out to be a fateful decision.
The electricians started drilling and hit a hard layer 18 inches below the surface. It was found to consist of pieces of mosaic.
"We knew the significance of that straight away," added Irwin. "No one since the Romans has laid mosaics as house floors in Britain. Fortunately we were able to stop the workmen just before they began to wield pickaxes to break up the mosaic layer."
Irwin called in Historic England (formerly English Heritage), whose archaeologists confirmed that the mosaic had formed part the floor of a grand villa built between 175 and 220 AD, and had been remodelled several times before the 5th century.
The Irwins' house, created out of two labourers' cottages, was built in the center of the old villa and rests on a large slab of Purbeck marble, which is probably of Roman origin. According to the experts, the discovery is of "national significance."
"The rest of the site has not been touched since the house collapsed more than 1,400 years ago, and it is unquestionably of enormous importance," said Dr David Roberts, an Historic England archaeologist.
It is the sense of continuity that has affected Irwin.
"Some of the oyster shells we have found have not been touched by another human for more than 1,500 years and now we have uncovered them lying around our house. It is a very powerful feeling," said Irwin.