Letter: Adding more pieces to the mosaic puzzle

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Sir: The mosaic from Horkstow ('Piecing together the pagan past', Miscellany, 1 March) takes on further significance when considered in relation to evidence from elsewhere.

A more general survey of the archaeological record reveals two important points. First, that there was an increased interest in more esoteric forms of mosaic composition in later Roman Britain. Second, that villa architecture became increasingly elaborate and ceremonial in the same period.

These developments can be related to the changing nature of social relations in late antiquity. Wealth had become concentrated in the hands of a few, resulting in a greater divide between rich and poor. Within this divided society the villa owners used the architecture, and the associated ceremony and decor, in order to maintain their power and influence.

In choosing designs that could only be interpreted by an educated elite, the villa owners were distancing themselves from the lower echelons of the social hierarchy, while revealing their aspirations and intellect to close friends and political rivals. Domestic art and architecture, including the villa and mosaic from Horkstow, must be seen as central to power relations in the late Roman world.

In discussing the finer details of the archaeological record, it is often easy to forget that material culture is essentially a social phenomenon. By decontextualizing the evidence we cannot hope to add further 'pieces' to the 'jigsaw of our knowledge'.

Yours faithfully,


Fellow in Social Science

Department of Archaeology

University of Durham


1 March