The Roman Pavement, Dorchester, Massachusetts

Roman Pavement Dorchester High School, Massachusetts, USA

The Roman Pavement in the entrance to the Dorchester High School , Massachusetts, USA © DCM

From the Massachusetts newspaper ‘THE ITEM’ February 1906, an article written by the A. W. H entitled ‘The Roman Pavement’

Rumors have lately been afloat that an old Roman pavement, discovered in Dorchester, England, is to be laid in the floor of our school. Since we are to see daily this relic of an empire which perished fifteen hundred years ago, it is fitting that we should know something of its history and by whose efforts we have come into possession of it.

Close up of the Roman Pavement in the Dorchester High School , Massachusetts, USA © DCM

Close up of the Roman Pavement in the Dorchester High School , Massachusetts, USA © DCM

In 1903 there appeared a notice in the Listener of the Boston Transcript saying, that, while making repairs in the crypt of All Saints’ Church, Dorchester, England, there had been discovered, beneath the foundations, a pavement laid by the Romans probably more than sixteen hundred years ago. The rector of All Saints’ parish, Mr. Filleul, expressed his willingness to present this pavement to the City of Boston, should it wish it. The paragraph was brought to the attention of Mr. Lincoln by Miss Hovey: and the former at once wrote to Mr. Filleul accepting his offer and suggesting that, since our Dorchester here is the namesake and offspring of the old English town, the pavement should be laid either in the floor of the Dorchester High School or in that of the proposed new public library, th place to be designated at the rector’s discretion. Soon Mr. Filleul replied, selecting the library as the more fitting place for the pavement to be laid. Mr. Lincoln at once consulted the architects of the building; but they thought best not to have it placed in the present library building.

Dorchester High School, Massachusetts, USA

Dorchester High School, Massachusetts, USA

When the circumstances were made known to Mr. Filleul, he consented to its being placed in the High School. Whereupon Mr. Lincoln consulted the schoolhouse commissioners about having it laid in the Dorchester High School. The commissioners voted at once, as soon as the matter was brought to their attention, to incur the expense of laying the pavement.

But, while a home for the “migrant floor” was being secured with more or less difficulty on this side of the Atlantic, the generous parson of Dorchester across the sea was putting himself to much trouble in our behalf, and enduring much unjust criticism on account of his kindness toward the people of the American Dorchester. We quote the following scathing lines taken from a Devonshire newspaper in regard to Mr. Filleul’s action:

“If vandalism of this kind is to be permitted, there is no knowing where it will stop. We shall next, perhaps, hear of a proposal to sell York Minster to New York, or St. Paul’s to the town of that name in Minnesota. * * * The excuse for selling the old Roman pavement is that the money to be paid for it will help to buy a new organ for the church. * * * The proper place for the Roman Pavement, if it cannot be left in situ, is the Dorchester museum.”

We are glad to add, however, that a Dorset paper, evidently better informed of the facts of the transaction, has valiantly defended Mr. Filleul’s position and generosity, and wrote in reply to the above article :

“There has been no act of vandalism, and to associate so good an antiquarian as Mr. Filleul with such an offence is grotesque. The facts have evidently been misunderstood. In the first place, there is no sale, and in the second, the fragment of pavement * * * is but one of a score of similar specimens that have been found in the borough. To make such a gift out of our bounty to the Dorchester across the sea seems to us an altogether gracious act, and entirely devoid of offence even to the most punctilious antiquary. The Standard, in an admirable leading article, regards the exchange of courtesies between the two Dorchesters as equally interesting and creditable to the Western county and Western state. “It was from Dorchester,” says the writer, “that the little Massachu¬setts town of the same name derived its origin, and not long ago it took the graceful opportunity of acknowledging its parentage by erecting memorials in two of the churches of the old Roman settlement to the Rev. John White, its virtual founder. The pres¬ent gift is no more than “making even” with American generosity; but the descendant is not to be outdone by the ancestor, and has determined to exhibit its gratitude by a “handsome donation ” towards a new organ for All Saints’ Church.”

The donation mentioned in these paragraphs is being made up, through the efforts of Mr. Lincoln and by citizens of Dorchester interested in the High School, and is no more than an acknowledgment of English courtesy.

About the genuineness of the pavement, there can be no question. The above quotations show that the people of Dorset have no doubt that it is the work of Romans: and Mr. Edwia D. Mead of Boston who saw it a few years ago as it lay in Dorchester, further corroborates the opinion by expressing his delight that so genuine a relic of Roman antiquity is to belong to Boston. He also adds that the owners of the pavement are to be congratulated on possessing a priceless treasure.

Roman Pavement discovered in Dorchester, Dorset similiar to  one Dorchester now in Dorchester, Massachusetts

Roman Pavement discovered in Dorchester, Dorset similiar to one Dorchester now in Dorchester, Massachusetts

The negotiations necessary to procure the relic took a great deal of time, so that the fragment itself did not reach us until this month, January 1906. Since we are to see it so soon, it will be of interest to know how and of what it is made. The section of pavement, which is to be laid in the lower corridor, is made of nine thousand tesserae, or little cubes about an inch.square, six thousand white, and three thousand red. The red tessene are made of some manufactured stone more compact than our brick; and the white are probably cut from the common white limestone which is so abundant in southern England. They are to be laid in the same patten as that of the pavement in the photograph Mr. Filleul has sent us, which is a picture of a pavement similar to ours, and gives a good idea of how deeply these traces of Roman civilization have lain buried beneath the dust of centuries. Each interior square is about eight inches on a side and contains about sixty-four cubes. Aside from the mere laying of the pavement, each tessera must have individual attention and be cleaned of caked dirt and stain before set in the cement.

We have at hand a letter from Mr. Filleul, from which we quote in part, telling something of the nature and former environment of the pavement and mentioning an interesting though rather gruesome historical incident in regard to it.

“This pavement, of course, is not one of the finer qualities of which several have be buried in Dorchester: but it is a sort that seems to have been used chiefly for inferior rooms, and passages, and courtyards. We traced this pavement, of which you are having the remains, for thirty-five feet without getting; to the end of it. so it was evidently a passage or pathway. It was covered by about three feet of earth.

“It might interest you to know the pavement lay on the flanks of an old road in the parish called formerly ‘Gallows Hill and underneath a building which was formerly part of the ‘Bell Inn’. At this inn criminals were allowed their last drink before being turned off on the gallows just by it.”

This, then, is the story of our Roman pavement. To the imaginative who pass by it may suggest the proud centurion, with his clanking broadsword and breastplate, who, perhaps, trod on those very stones before the great empire fell. It will serve to remind those of historical bent of the thoroughness with which the imperial race carried out their civic and military system even in the sombre wilds of Britain: and all of us will extend our thanks to Miss Hovey, Mr. Lincoln, and the Rev. Mr. Filleul for their kindness in procuring a relic of a mighty civilization for the people of Dorchester.

A. W. H., 1905

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Roman Mosaics

The Dorset County Museum has twelve mosaics on display from the Roman period, mostly fragments. Many are from Durnovaria, Roman Dorchester. The study of these fragments and the many others found in the County identify some as the Durnovarian school of mosaicists who provided a rich variety of designs for pavements constructed throughout the Fourth Century A.D. These designs are noted for their use of sea beasts, gods, goddesses and other ornament. None are identical.

In the entrance doorway of the museum is a mosaic made up in 1908 with tesserae from the surround of a pavement found behind 45 South Street, Dorchester, during building operations in 1905. In the entrance passage is a fragment of the geometric mosaic found beneath the pavement showing the sea creature theasos, found at Dewlish.

Mosaic found in Dewlish in 1975

Mosaic found in Dewlish in 1975 © DCM

On the wall above the reception desk to the right is a fragment from a mosaic depicting a sea creature procession or theasos, found at Dewlish during the excavations of 1975.

To the right of the Durngate Street pavement and under the staircase to the gallery is a complete mosaic from a plunge bath excavated on the site of the Romano-British villa at Hemsworth. It was presented to the museum by the executors of Lord Aliington in 1905.

Mosaic pavement found in Durngate Street, Dorchester in 1905. The Durngate Street pavement is one of the few in Britain which bear a signature; in this case a 'fruit and leaf motif. © DCM

Mosaic pavement found in Durngate Street, Dorchester in 1905. The Durngate Street pavement is one of the few in Britain which bear a signature; in this case a ‘fruit and leaf motif. © DCM

Through the doorway into the museum’s Victorian Gallery is a pavement from Durngate Street, Dorchester, found and removed to the museum in July 1905 and laid to be walked upon as part of the building. A typical example of the Durnovarian School, the crested serpents and the leaves form an obvious link with that from Hinton St. Mary, at present in store in the British Museum.

By the side of the main staircase is a portion of a mosaic found near South Street, Dorchester in 1894. It was the first mosaic to be placed on display in the museum. It was presented by Mr. Alfred Pope in 1895.

Roman masterpieces in Dorset

This mosaic pavement discovered at Olga Road, Dorchester in 1899 © DCM

This mosaic pavement discovered at Olga Road, Dorchester in 1899 © DCM

The other mosaic in the museums’s  Victorian Gallery is from Olga Road, Dorchester, found in 1899 and presented to the Museum by Mr. Alfred Pope in 1900. It was taken up and re-laid by subscription. This design contrasts with that from Durngate Street and has similarities with mosaics at Corinium, Roman Cirencester.

To the left of the Olga Road pavement is the doorway into the museums’s Temporary Exhibition Gallery where the polychrome mosaic from Fordington High Street, Dorchester is displayed. This mosaic also has similarities with those in Corinium and possibly dates from the Second Century A.D. It was found in October 1927 and presented by Messrs. T. J. Walne and O. C. Vidler when it was taken up and relaid to walk upon as part of the building.

This decorative mosaic found in Fordington, High Street, 1927 . Shows what may be the image of the Roman god of the sea, Neptune surrounded by fish and dolphins © DCM

This decorative mosaic found in Fordington, High Street, Dorchester, 1927 . Shows what may be the image of the Roman god of the sea, Neptune surrounded by fish and dolphins © DCM

There is a repair made in antiquity to the three strand guilloche around one of the circles containing a stylised flower and there are the remains – six red tessarae – of a figure which once occupied the central octagon.

Upstairs from the Temporary Exhibition Gallery is the Archaeological Gallery: Victim of Time, where there are three further fragments of mosaic on display.

In the Roman section there is a fragment of guilloche and stylised flower border presented in 1899 by the Directors of the Devon & Cornwall Bank (now the National Westminster Bank), Dorchester. It was found when building operations were underway for the new Bank.

The, Dorchester Prison mosaic, 4th Century. A tinted photographic lithograph. John Pouncy, 2nd December 1858. Using one of his new experimental photographic processes. This mosaic was presented to the Dorset County Museum by the Governor of Dorchester Prison in 1885, after its removal from the Prison chapel where it had been relaid in 1858. It was set on the north wall of the museum staircase masked by the overhanging portrait of James John Farquharson, 1857.

The, Dorchester Prison Mosaic, 4th Century. A tinted photographic lithograph. John Pouncy, 2nd December 1858. Using one of his new experimental photographic processes. This mosaic was presented to the Dorset County Museum by the Governor of Dorchester Prison in 1885, after its removal from the Prison chapel where it had been relaid in 1858. It was set on the north wall of the museum staircase masked by the overhanging portrait of James John Farquharson, 1857. © DCM

Also in the Conservation section there is a mosaic roundel depicting Oceanus or Neptune, which once formed the centre of a pavement found during the excavation of the Romano-British villa at Hemsworth in 1831. The pavement was lifted in 1908 and presented by the executors of Lord Allington in 1929. The identifying features on the head of this sea god are crab legs and two crab claws on the forehead.

Half way up the main staircase and at the first landing – and temporarily covered by a large oil painting – is a geometric mosaic, found in the County Prison burial ground whilst digging a grave for James Seal who was executed for murder on August 10th 1858, when it was taken up and presented to the Museum.

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