Amateur Archaeologists in England Unearth Rare Roman Mosaic

Cotswold Archaeology
Cotswold Archaeology

For the past three years, amateur archaeologists and historians in southern England have been working side-by-side with volunteers to excavate several seemingly related local Roman sites. Now, just two weeks before the dig's scheduled conclusion, they've made a fantastic discovery: a rare 4th-century CE mosaic that is being hailed as "the most important of its type in Britain in more than half a century," according to The New York Times.

Dating to roughly 380 CE, the mosaic was unearthed near the village of Boxford in Berkshire. The project—which included a rotating assembly of 55 members—involved local interest groups like the Boxford History Project and the Berkshire Archaeological Research Group, and was overseen by Cotswold Archaeology, a company that helps builders preserve archaeological finds. Funding was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which gives grants to heritage projects across the UK.

In the project's first two years, the group members discovered a large Roman villa, a bathhouse, and a farmstead. In 2017, they began excavating the main villa, a site that yielded pottery, jewelry, coins, and other ancient objects. None of these artifacts, however, were as spectacular as the mosaic, which volunteers unearthed in a moment of serendipity shortly before funding for the dig ended.

Revealed sections of the artwork depict scenes featuring Bellerophon, a mythological Greek hero, along with other fabled figures. Bellerophon is famous in legends for capturing the winged horse Pegasus and for defeating the Chimera, a fire-breathing creature with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail.

Citizen archaeologists in Boxford, England unearth a Roman mosaic thought to date from 380 CE.
Cotswold Archaeology

"The range and style of imagery is very rare in the UK, where simple geometric patterns are the norm," Duncan Coe, a principal heritage consultant with Cotswold Archaeology, tells Mental Floss. "The combination of artwork and inscriptions is unique in this country. The range of imagery is also unique, with at least two scenes from the story of Bellerophon, a character from Greek mythology, augmented by Hercules and the Centaur, Cupid and telamones [male statues used as a column]—and we only have half of the mosaic revealed so far."

Excavators uncovered nearly 20 feet of the mosaic, but ultimately reburied it to deter looters and prevent damage. Members of Boxford's local archaeological community hope to secure funding and return to the site—now dubbed the Boxford villa—to dig up the entire scene.

A Roman mosaic thought to date from 380 CE, unearthed by citizen archaeologists in Boxford England.
Cotswold Archaeology

In addition to teaching experts about the villa's owners—who were evidently sophisticated and wealthy—and Boxford's ancient heritage, the newly discovered mosaic isn't just any ordinary artwork, according to Coe: "This isn't just an isolated mosaic, but a small, but very important, part of a bigger jigsaw that advances our understanding of what was happening in southern England just before the Roman government abandoned Britain," he says.

[h/t The New York Times]

Stegosaurus Tracks Discovered on Scotland’s Isle of Skye

Warpaintcobra, iStock via Getty Images
Warpaintcobra, iStock via Getty Images

Today, Scotland's Isle of Skye is a picturesque tourist destination. But 170 million years ago, it was home to one of the most iconic dinosaurs to ever roam the Earth. As The Guardian reports, paleontologists have found prehistoric footprints on the island that are believed to have come from a stegosaurus.

As researchers from the University of Edinburgh note in their new study published in the journal Plos One, the discovery marks the first evidence of stegosaurus on the Isle of Skye. The tracks, which were found in sedimentary rock on the east side of the island, are roughly the size of grapefruits. They follow a line stretching several feet, with a right-left sequence reflecting the gait of a four-legged animal. The shape of the prints themselves—larger, triangular back feet and slightly smaller front ones—match the skeleton of the armor-plated stegosaurus. If they do belong to stegosaurus, the 170-million-year-old find "represents one of the oldest fossil records of this major dinosaur group from anywhere in the world," the researchers write.

The stegosaurus made up just part of the recent Isle of Skye discoveries. Paleontologists also found prints with three-toes and claws from theropods (the group of carnivores that included T. Rex), and stubby three-toed tracks potentially belonging to ornithopods like duck-billed dinosaurs. Altogether, 50 new footprint fossils were found.

The Isle of Skye has long been known as a hotspot for dinosaur remains. During the Middle Jurassic period, the area had a swampy, subtropical climate that supported a vibrant wildlife population. The location where these latest tracks were discovered was a mudflat fringing a lagoon 170 million years ago. The mudflats were likely only around for a brief time before they were overtaken by the lagoon, indicating the species making up the batch of prints occupied the area around the same time. The researchers write, "As a result of this diversity, we can infer that a thriving community of dinosaurs lived in and near the subtropical lagoons of Middle Jurassic Scotland."

[h/t The Guardian]

Tiny, Bird-Like Skull Found in Amber Could Belong to the Mesozoic Era's Smallest Known Dinosaur

The skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae preserved in 99-million-year-old amber.
The skull of Oculudentavis khaungraae preserved in 99-million-year-old amber.
Lida Xing

Scientists recently discovered the skull of an extremely tiny, bird-like dinosaur that could be the smallest known species of the Mesozoic era—the period in which giant dinos like brachiosaurus, stegosaurus, and allosaurus evolved.

The specimen is preserved in a lump of 99-million-year-old amber from northern Myanmar and measures just 7.1 millimeters long, suggesting that the entire animal might have been even smaller than the bee hummingbird, which, at about 2.25 inches, is the smallest bird in existence. Very small fossils like this one are rarely found because layers of silt and rock usually destroy the delicate tissues. Amber preserves them intact.

Jingmai O’Connor, the paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing who discovered the skull within the amber, and her colleagues found that the jaws contained more than 100 teeth—implying that, despite its size, the creature was a predator, possibly feasting on insects. However, since its eye sockets face the side, it probably didn’t have binocular vision, which gives many other predators the depth perception needed to catch prey. The conical shape of the bones in those eye sockets indicates that the animal had rather small pupils and was likely active during the day. The findings were published in the journal Nature.

sketch of Oculudentavis khaungraae
The tiny dinosaur targets an unsuspecting insect.
Nature, YouTube

Because of its defining eyes and teeth, the researchers named the new species Oculudentavis khaungraae. Oculudentavis comes from the Latin words for eye (oculus), teeth (dentes), and bird (avis), and khaungraae derives from Khuang Ra, who had originally donated the amber to China’s Hupoge Amber Museum.

While scientists have unearthed quite a few fossils of large dinosaurs from the Mesozoic era—and pop culture like the Jurassic Park franchise likes to capitalize upon the public’s endless obsession with enormous animals—not as much is known about the era’s most diminutive dinosaurs.

“People focus on how big dinosaurs were,” O’Connor tells Mental Floss. “Now we know they were also really tiny.”

Amber, tree resin that has hardened over millions of years, might be our best hope for learning more.

“When you have an animal preserved in amber, it looks like it just died yesterday. All the soft tissue in place, trapped in this little window into an ancient time,” O’Connor explains in the video above.

The researchers are publishing their full study in the science journal Nature, but there are still plenty of questions to answer.

“This paper is just scratching the surface of the information preserved. Is the skull petrified or is it the original material unaltered, preserved in the amber? Mummified, if you will? What color was it, and can we use isotopes to figure out exactly what it ate; can we reconstruct the brain better?” O’Connor says. “We need the young, tech-savvy generation to develop new methods for extracting data from amber specimens in a non-destructive manner to get at these questions.”

In the meantime, dig into these 26 fascinating facts about fossils.

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