s The Horkstow Mosaic - Hull Museums Collections

The Horkstow Mosaic

Detail from Horkstow mosaic

The Horkstow Mosaic is one of the largest and most interesting mosaics ever found in Britain. It was uncovered in 1797 by labourers making a kitchen garden at Horkstow Hall in Lincolnshire and would have graced a large hall at a very wealthy and sophisticated 4th century Roman villa.

The mosaic is made up of three different panels - an Orpheus Mosaic at the top, followed by the so-called 'Painted Ceiling' or Medallions Mosaic, depicting scenes from classical mythology. At the bottom, within a rectangular panel, is the most complete of the three - the unique Chariot Race. Originally measuring 15.25m by 6.10m, the surviving fragments can be seen in the Roman Gallery at the Hull and East Riding Museum.

The Orpheus Panel

The topmost panel of the mosaic depicts Orpheus enchanting the animals and birds. Unfortunately only about a third survives. Originally it would have looked like an eight-spoked wheel. Paintings made at the time of the discovery of the mosaic in the late 18th century show a figure of Orpheus in Thracian costume at the centre of the wheel, holding a lyre and attended by a peacock and a fox.

Around him are other animals; an elephant, a bear and a boar still survive. A hare being chased by a hound can also be seen, as well as pairs of peacocks. The angles of the enclosing square each contained a bust, seemingly male, with a maltese cross on either side of the head. The depiction of Orpheus is one of only a few in this country.

The Painted Ceiling or Medallions Panel

The central panel of the mosaic is sometimes known as the Painted Ceiling because the design seems more suited to a domed ceiling than a floor. Although large parts have been destroyed, it is clear that the design was a four-spoked wheel held up by serpent-legged giants in the corners.

The early paintings suggest that there was a medallion in the centre, although this no longer survives. The rest of the panel is filled with intricate mythological scenes which are difficult to interpret. Some experts have suggested that they show scenes from the life of Achilles, while others think they may be connected to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and revelry.

The Chariot Race

The mosaic panel at the bottom is unique in Britain and shows an eventful chariot race. The racecourse is indicated by the 'spina' or central island, and the 'metae' or turning posts. The four chariots may represent the four factions in the Roman racing world, each conventionally distinguished by the colour of the charioteers' tunics. The scene is laid out rather like a comic strip. One chariot has lost a wheel and overturned, pitching out the charioteer. An attendant dismounts to rescue him, while another lassos runaway horses. The charioteer who has successfully rounded the end of the 'spina' on the left gives his horses free rein, while the team approaching the other end are reined in for the turn. This scene, so full of action, movement and drama has to be one of the most engaging yet found in Romano-British art.