The Finest Mosaics at the Foot of the Sussex Downs

The mosaic portrait of Venus at Bignor Roman Villa

It is always such a delight to revisit Bignor Roman Villa. It has a unique charm and is one my favourite places anywhere in the country. The finest Roman mosaics are to be found at Bignor at the foot of the Sussex Downs.

The Villa was discovered on the morning of Thursday 18th July 1811 when George Tupper hit what appeared to be a large stone whilst ploughing in Bury Field near the village of Bignor at the foot of the Sussex Downs. He cleared a small area and found the tessellated face of a young man. Further excavation revealed a scene depicting Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek) in the guise of an eagle abducting the shepherd boy, Ganymede.

George Tupper’s landlord, John Hawkins, invited the antiquarian Samuel Lysons to supervise and record the excavation.

Encouraged by Hawkins and Tupper, Lysons would prepare a guide book over subsequent years. The image of the Ganymede mosaic you see here is from his 1820 guide.

Ganymede and Jupiter in the guise of an eagle at Bignor illustrated by Samuel Lysons in his 1820 guide to the Roman Villa

The depiction of Ganymede is strikingly executed. The shading gives form to Ganymede’s cape and muscular body highlighting the exceptional skill of the mosaicist.

This remarkable find was reburied until the June of 1812 and guarded by one of Tupper’s sons. The thatched cover buildings were designed to protect the mosaics and are a distinctive feature at Bignor. Built in 1812 they are amongst the earliest examples of their type in the British Isles. Arguably the most important discovery of 1812 was the Venus mask. This beautifully conceived female head is surrounded by a nimbus in a circle flanked by what are thought to be peacocks, or long-tailed pheasants and leaf sprays.

Venus is popularly known as the Roman goddess of love. However, she is also associated with spring, gardens and fertility. These qualities made her popular with farmers, horticulturalists and landowners throughout the Roman Empire. It seems appropriate that Venus should feature so prominently at Bignor in this timeless rural setting.

The extensive hypocaust underfloor heating system in the Venus Room is partly visible today and illustrates how this room would have been warm and comfortable in the winter months.
Samuel Lysons hinted at the possibility of the Ganymede Room being a banqueting room and today academics still regard it as an unheated summer dining room.

Visitors flocked to the site from 1813 including the great patron of the arts, the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was still creating the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Today Bignor Roman Villa continues to welcome visitors.
When you arrive you cannot fail to be captured by the picturesque setting and charm of the place, and share in the sense of excitement which George Tupper must have felt on the day he discovered the Villa’s remarkable mosaic floors for the first time.

Bignor Roman Villa is open every day until 31st October 2021 and families can also enjoy the Sunflower Maze. To find out more visit

Bignor Roman Villa

The Ganymede mosaic
The Ganymede Mosaic at Bignor Roman Villa

Bignor Roman Villa is for me one of the most special places in all of England. The remains of this important villa nestle in the beautiful Bignor valley in view of the South Downs, a short distance from Stane Street, the important Roman road which linked London with Chichester in the first century AD.

Lisa Tupper in the North Corridor
Lisa Tupper in the North Corridor

The villa was discovered in 1811 by the farmer George Tupper, who unearthed the famous Ganymede mosaic while ploughing. John Hawkins of nearby Bignor Park took charge of the site and excavations and invited Samuel Lysons, a leading antiquary of the day, to supervise the work. In 1812 more mosaics were uncovered under the orchard hedge, which probably included the Venus panels. Lysons was meticulous in his work, presenting three papers to the Society of Antiquaries between the villa’s discovery and 1818. The barns that were erected to protect the mosaics are rare examples from the late Georgian period and are Grade II listed.

Lisa and her husband, William Tupper, are the fifth generation of the Tupper family to be custodians of this remarkable historical sight. They work closely with William’s father, Tom, and their grandparents, Jack and Jill Tupper. Lisa says: “For our family the Roman Villa stands for longevity, a sense of place and family.” The villa site has remained in the Tupper’s ownership for centuries and the family still farms 2000 acres today. “It is wonderful to think that the Romans were farming here some 2000 years ago,” Lisa continues, “and they were farming 4000 acres, a huge estate.”

The Head of Medusa
The Head of Medusa
Venus and the Gladiators
Venus and the Gladiators

The mosaics seem out of time, conserved beneath their thatched Sussex barns. The youthful Ganymede tended his father’s sheep on Mount Ida. Here he is depicted being carried off by an eagle to become a cupbearer to the gods. His cap is typical of those worn in Phrygia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia, now part of the Republic of Turkey. I have always loved the remarkable mosaic which, although there is some debate over the subject, is thought to depict Venus. The woman’s head is flanked by long-tailed birds and delicate fern leaves above a frieze depicting cherubs enacting famous gladiatorial scenes. The scheme, composition and execution of this panel is exquisite and among the finest in Britain. Away from the main complex, the depiction of Medusa in the bathhouse delights too. In its final form, the villa would have covered some five acres, much of which remains to be excavated. Lisa concludes, “I am delighted to be carrying on the work here that has been going on generation by generation.”

Tea and an enthusiastic welcome await the visitor to the remarkable Bignor Roman Villa, which speaks so eloquently across the millennia. We are fortunate that this exemplary archaeological jewel should be in the generous custodianship of the Tupper family. Bignor Roman Villa is open seven days a week. For more information visit or telephone 01798 869259.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 26th March 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Read an archive of Rupert’s articles by clicking here.