Mosaic detail showing dog and stag.

Research project

Archaeological fieldwork at Hinton St Mary, Dorset

Key project information

Duration

June 2021 – June 2025

Contact details

Email: bep@britishmuseum.org

Partners

Vianova Archaeology & Heritage Services
Albion Archaeology

Supported by

Roman Research Trust
Mike and Jolanda Watts
Royal Archaeological Institute
The de Laszlo Foundation

What can new excavations reveal about the building that housed the iconic Hinton St Mary mosaic?

In 1963 a Roman mosaic was discovered at Hinton St Mary, Dorset, UK, which shows what could be one of the earliest representations of Jesus Christ. New archaeological fieldwork is investigating the nature of the building in which the mosaic was placed and other buildings and structures in the immediate vicinity that date from the late 3rd to the early 5th centuries AD.

When first discovered, subsequent excavations suggested that the mosaic was part of a Roman villa, but new fieldwork is challenging that interpretation. Through geophysical survey and archaeological excavation, the project is gaining a better understanding of the settlement and the role that Hinton St Mary played in the lives of the people of late Roman Britain.

About the project

Excavations carried out after the mosaic's discovery at Hinton St Mary in 1963 were unable to provide evidence about the nature of the settlement there. The mosaic is the centrepiece of a project that seeks to understand not only what the images represent but also how it came to be at this site and its social and religious significance within its contemporary community.

The Chi Rho symbol may be a reference to early Christianity, but it might also be a Roman representation of Victory used by emperors in the 4th century AD. Another scene depicts Greek classical mythology, showing Bellerophon slaying the monster Chimaera. Does this represent, in a Christian sense, the triumph of good over evil, or was it simply a way of showing knowledge of Classical mythology?

Engaging with current scholarly debate on the symbols used in the mosaic and using archaeological excavation and geophysical survey, this fieldwork programme is gathering evidence to understand the nature of substantial investment in this part of Roman Britain in what remains a rural landscape. 

The project will seek to answer questions about who is depicted in the mosaic as well as its overall purpose by interpreting its Christian, Roman and Greek mythological imagery. In doing this, it is hoped that further insights will be gained concerning the site's social, cultural and religious significance in an outpost of the empire.

Aims

Run as a research and training excavation − for Cardiff University student archaeologists and volunteers − with the support of the local community, the project will:

  • Understand the nature and function of Roman buildings at the site.
  • Date the construction, use and abandonment of these buildings.
  • Assess the local environment in the Roman period.

Run over three fieldwork seasons followed by post-excavation analysis, the project is attempting to establish if the mosaic was in a free-standing building or part of a building range. It is also important to understand its relationship with other Roman settlements in the region including Frampton, Dewlish and Halstock which can tell us about trade, economic and social interaction in the locality. If the settlement is not a villa but rather a Christian site, perhaps even an early church, this may reorientate our perspective on the advance of Christianity in Roman Britain.

Through publication and improved Museum displays, the project will greatly enhance the understanding of the Roman mosaic at Hinton St Mary.

Meet the team

Richard Hobbs headshot, bookcase behind

Richard Hobbs

Principal Investigator
Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory
British Museum

Peter Guest on a dig.

Peter Guest

Co-Investigator
Vianova Archaeology & Heritage Services

Headshot of Mike Luke outside, in hat and high vis jacket

Mike Luke

Co-Investigator
Albion Archaeology

Acknowledgements

Project supporter

Project supporter 

Supported by

Logos for Roman Research Trust and Royal Archaeological Institute side by side

Mike and Jolanda Watts
The de Laszlo Foundation