Shropshire schoolboys' role in spectacular Roman find

In Rutland, a rare Roman mosaic found beneath a farmer's field has made national headlines.

Shropshire summer school for secondary modern teachers, being held at the time in Shrewsbury, visited the Roman villa at Yarchester in July 1958.
Shropshire summer school for secondary modern teachers, being held at the time in Shrewsbury, visited the Roman villa at Yarchester in July 1958.

But the West Midlands can match that thanks to a similar discovery years ago – albeit one which was subject to a subsequent cover-up.

In the late 1950s schoolchildren, led by renowned local archaeologist Mr W A Silvester, carried out an excavation which was to reveal one of the region’s hidden treasures, the location of which had been revealed by the behaviour of moles.

It was the Roman villa of Yarchester, in the shadow of the Wenlock Edge, near Bridgnorth, which turned out to have a spectacular mosaic floor.

Much Wenlock schoolchildren and staff at the excavations in September 1957.

And then when all was done Yarchester was simply covered over again to preserve the relics, disappearing once more into the landscape.

One of those involved in uncovering this piece of history was Tony Shapter, the craft teacher at the then Much Wenlock Secondary School, who reminisced about it back in 2000 – by then he was living in Torbay, Devon.

“I recall with great pleasure the Easter fortnight we spent excavating the site so cleverly located by Mr Silvester, investigating the habits of the moles in the field, who surfaced in lines indicating the outline of the Roman villa," he said.

“As work progressed we became very excited at finding first, the plain brown mosaic flooring, then as the slow and painstaking work continued, the joy of seeing the beautiful warm colours of the centrepiece.

“We found many relics of the Roman era, but the highlight of the finds was the Roman coin I found just below the field surface level."

Mr Silvester had gained permission from landowner Mr J Griffiths, of Harley Grange, and began surveying and spot digging on the site.

Work had begun in 1956 or 1957. They discovered spectacular mosaic flooring and a Roman central heating system called a hypocaust.

They were able to plot the shape and size of the villa, and found a coin of the Emperor Constantine, dating from the third or fourth century AD. In 1960 the hypocaust was found by the schoolboy team, providing underfloor ducting through which hot air from a furnace circulated.

By a quirk, the pattern of the channels was in the shape of a Union Jack.

As well as being a place of great historical and archaeological interest, there was local folklore associated with Yarchester.

There was an ancient legend that a pot of gold was buried there, guarded by a black raven, and that anyone who approached could expect to suffer misfortune. Locals gave the spot a wide berth.

And it was believed that there was an underground passage from the site to Buildwas Abbey.

Yarchester had long been known as the site of a Roman villa, or possibly a Roman station.

Fields had appeared on old tithe maps as Hairchester and Upper Hairchester, themselves strong clues to Roman origins as “chester” or “caster” in a place name is suggestive of a Roman site — as in Colchester, Silchester, or Chesterton, near Bridgnorth.

When investigators started asking around in the Harley area in 1925, they had no joy at first. But then they came across somebody who recognised the name as a field near Wigwig called “Airchester”.

Here, within the previous 50 years, there was said to have stood a farm building with Roman stones in it.

It had been pulled down and when the experts saw the site in 1925, Yarchester was a field lying fallow with a few sheep grazing.

A few Roman fragments had been worked to the surface by moles.

Miss H M Auden, a Shropshire archaeologist, had long taken an interest in Yarchester and was anxious for it to be excavated, but sadly was to die shortly before the 1950s work.

After Mr Silvester received permission to look at the site, Mr J L Edwards, the head of the Much Wenlock school, helped out by providing the team of boys who worked in their spare time during the Easter term under Mr J Corbett, the history master.

Among the discoveries the youngsters found a complete floor slab, seventeen-and-a-half inches square, and the inside of the room was seventeen-and-a-half feet square, so a dozen slabs would lay one complete side.

They puzzled over the sizes, but when they did a bit of homework on Roman measurements, all became clear. Seventeen-and-a-half inches is one-and-a-half Roman feet – a cubit. So the room was 12 cubits along each side and it needed 144 slabs, each a cubit square, to cover it.

The mosaic discovered in Rutland depicts scenes from Homer's Iliad, while that at Yarchester was an intricate artwork pattern.

This spectacular Roman mosaic was uncovered. Picture: the late Stan Turner.

Yarchester is a protected Scheduled Monument, described as a villa complex which was probably in use between the late 2nd century and the 4th century AD.

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