Archaeologists have unearthed a 5th-century Roman mosaic in Britain, marking what experts called a “tremendously exciting” discovery that may upend long-held assumptions about the timeline of the Dark Ages.
The mosaic floor was first discovered at the Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, England, in 2017, and underwent extensive radiocarbon dating—a form of testing that measures the level of carbon in charcoal and other organic materials in an object—to determine the mosaic’s age. U.K. conservation charity the National Trust announced in a press release on Thursday announced that the testing had been completed.
According to Martin Papworth, National Trust archaeologist, the date of the mosaic is significant, given the prevailing belief that towns and villas in the region were in state of decline triggered by the end of Roman rule in Britain by the end of the 4th century. The dawn of the 5th century marked the beginning of the Dark Ages, a period characterized by prolonged cultural and economic deterioration in Western Europe. Few documents survived the era and archaeological evidence remains scarce.
“It has generally been believed that most of the population turned to subsistence farming to sustain themselves and, after the break with Rome, Britannia’s administrative system broke down into a series of local fiefdoms,” Papworth said in a statement. “What is so exciting about the dating of this mosaic at Chedworth is that it is evidence for a more gradual decline. The creation of a new room and the laying of a new floor suggests wealth, and a mosaic industry continuing 50 years later than had been expected.”
Chedworth and his team are undertaking a six-year program of archaeological research at the Chedworth Roman Villa. The surrounding countryside is home to many “richly decorated” Roman Villas. Stephen Cosh, a Roman mosaic expert, said in a statement that further research of the neighboring villas is necessary to determine if they contain similar decorations. For now, archeologists can only speculate on how the Chedworth Villa’s owners had sustained such a stylish lifestyle in a period long marked by decay.
“I am still reeling from the shock of this dating,” said Cosh.