It’s February 2015 and Luke Irwin has ordered some construction work on his rambling countryside home. But while laying a cable into an old barn, builders stumble across something incredible buried beneath the ground. It’s a discovery that’s lain hidden for 1,500 years – and one that will change Irwin’s life for good.
Most of the time, home renovations yield their own rewards. For example, the practicality of a new bathroom or the warmth of a new heating system is often enough to justify days or weeks of hard work. In some cases, however, these mundane tasks can reveal some startlingly unexpected finds.
For Luke Irwin, a high-end rug designer, it was some routine building work on his property that revealed a hidden treasure so remarkable that it changed the trajectory of his career. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Irwin was once a pupil at the prestigious Eton College near Windsor, England.
And after leaving school at 16, Irwin touched on careers in PR, theater and antiques, before starting his own rug design business in 2003. Nine years later, he and his wife Alice moved with their young children, Otis and Violet, to a 17th century farmhouse in the Wiltshire village of Brixton Deverill.
Apparently, it was love at first sight. “When we went to look at this house, we turn into this gate, and my wife starts shaking,” Irwin explained in a 2016 promotional video for Luke Irwin Rugs. “Saying I have to live here. I have to live here.” But little did they know that the property’s real magic was yet to be revealed.
In February 2015 workers were at the property to install a new shower. And while they were there, Irwin had another request. Apparently, his son Otis enjoyed playing table tennis in a barn in the courtyard, beyond the main house. And hoping to allow his son to continue his hobby in comfort, Irwin asked the workmen to install an electricity connection.
According to Irwin, the initial plan was to deliver power to the building via overhead cables. However, he was adamant that he wanted the connection to be buried beneath the ground. So the builders got to work, digging a trench across the property. And soon, one of the workers let out a startled cry.
Just 1.5 feet below the surface, they had stumbled across something incredible. They had uncovered a perfectly preserved mosaic, consisting of an intricate, interlocking pattern of grey, cream and orange tiles. And for Irwin, who had been passionate about history since a childhood visit to Pompeii, it was the start of a fascinating journey.
Aware of the significance of the find, Irwin reached out to the archaeological department at Wiltshire County Council. And when he sent them a photograph of the mosaic, they mobilized fast. The next day, they had arrived on the Irwins’ farm and were blown away by the unexpected discovery – described by one expert as a “million to one chance.”
Soon, the heritage organization Historic England were interested. However, they only had enough money for a small-scale excavation. Luckily, Irving and some friends were able to contribute towards the costs, making it possible for experts to study the site of the mosaic in greater detail.
During a joint dig between Historic England and Salisbury Museum, the fascinating truth about the Irvings’ dream home began to emerge. Apparently, the mosaic had first been laid as part of an extensive Roman villa that once stood on the land, constructed between 175 and 220 A.D. And that was just the start of the revelations.
Apparently, the three-story building, dubbed Deverill Villa, might once have covered more than 750 square feet. “This is not a subtle country house,” explains Historic England’s Dr. David Roberts on Irwin’s website. “It dominates the landscape, and it is visible from the nearby Roman road. It is very overt – it is almost violent in the landscape. It is clearly a family making their mark.”
While excavating the site, archaeologists also uncovered a number of artifacts that revealed more about the people who once called the villa home. Among them were pipes that would have formed part of an underground heating system, a Roman well and a child-sized coffin forged from stone.
Amazingly, the coffin had been hiding in plain sight, used as a flower planter until one of the visiting archeologists pointed out its significance. Elsewhere, experts discovered a stash of oyster shells, suggesting that the inhabitants of the villa must once have had money to burn.
“We have found discarded oyster and whelk shells,” Roberts told the Guardian in 2016. “To keep them fresh, they must have been brought in barrels of salt water from the sea, which is miles away, and that shows just how rich the villa’s owners must have been.” Indeed, other news outlets have speculated that the property could even have belonged to an emperor in Roman times.
Interestingly, these weren’t the only artifacts that the team recovered from excavations around the Irwins’ home. Apparently, in just one small section of the site, they discovered pottery from both the Bronze and Iron Ages, flint from the Neolithic era and fragments of 13th-century ceramics – all buried alongside other Roman objects. According to Irwin, archaeologists even found evidence that the site had been inhabited during the Mesolithic period, from around 10,000 B.C.
Supposedly, the villa was repeatedly redesigned and remodeled from the time it was built right up until the 4th century A.D. However, it did not succumb to the same fate as other Roman buildings, fading into obscurity after the empire collapsed. Instead, there is evidence that wooden frameworks were raised on the site well into the 5th century.
To historians, the period between Roman and Saxon rule of England is among the murkiest. And intriguingly there is evidence of early Saxon influence on the pottery found at Deverill Villa – around a century before the colonists are thought to have arrived in the region.
With this in mind, archaeologists believe that Deverill Villa could still be hiding some fascinating revelations about the past. However, Historic England is currently unable to meet the costs of further excavations. And in order to protect the discoveries for future generations, they have been reburied beneath the Wiltshire soil. In fact, the fragile mosaic was covered after just 24 hours of exposure – before even Otis and Violet had managed to catch a glimpse.
Ideally, Roberts would like to use geophysics to determine what treasures could be hidden beneath the farmhouse. And if that money is found, it seems as if Irwin will leap at the opportunity to learn more about his ancient home. But meanwhile, he has had to content himself with developing a line of rugs inspired by the mosaic. “The link to the collection is my perpetual desire to be immersed in history,” he explains. “It’s the sense of wonder. It’s just how time drifts on.”