The Malton ‘Town House’

A colour photo of a painting of a bust of a female figure wearing a red open fronted top over a black top - she has auburn hair with a band gathered on the top of her head - she also has a white nimbus (halo) surrouding her head - this bust has two thick borders across the top which continue down the right hand side
Figure 5 – Portrait of a female figure

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Between 1949 and 1952 a series of excavations were undertaken in the southern area of Orchard Field. A key discovery by the archaeologists was a substantial building termed – at the time – the Malton ‘Town House’.

This structure stood at the edge of a cobbled area 7.5 metres from the road leading out from the main south-east gate of Malton fort (Porta Praetoria) down towards the river. The imposing façade of the building facing the road was constructed from large, shaped blocks of locally quarried stone.

A 1.8-metre-wide doorway – most likely with a porch – led into an enormous hall (15 metres by 7 metres) with a mortar floor. At the northeast end of this hall were three heated rooms with hypocausts. The largest of these contained a beautiful mosaic and the entrance was probably adorned with carved lintels in the form of winged victories. An archway would have connected the mosaic room to a very fine end-apsidal room furnished with an opus signinum floor.

A colour photo showing a example of an opus signinum cast floor, made up of a mixture of broken tiles and mortar making it appear like solid stone - this example uses lots of pieces of terracotta tile
Figure 1 – Opus signinum flooring

The word `opus` (Latin for `work`) is attached to various types of floor or wall coverings. Opus signinum is made of tiles broken up into very small pieces, mixed with mortar, and then beaten down with a rammer (Figure 1). Opus tessellatum refers to the normal technique of mosaicing, using pieces of stone or tile (tesserae) around 5mm to 10mm across.

An colour illustration of a mosaic found at Town House in Malton - this has several twisting patterns of multicoloured strands called guilloche in red and in white - there is a central square - above and below this is a rectangle in the middle of two squares, as well as squares and triangles making up a patterns of several borders one within another
Figure 2 – Town House Mosaic

The overall mosaic design within the Town House comprised three fields: a central square flanked by rectangles. Originally the two oblongs would have illustrated the four seasons with an animal between each pair of figures. But only the panel of winter, a running hunting dog and a partially destroyed image of a leaping deer remain. A twisting pattern of multicoloured strands (guilloche) also surrounds the central square, the rectangles and the end panel illustrations (Figure 2).

The Town House mosaic has been described as well executed with artistic merit. Illustrating animals or faces were particular challenges requiring smaller tesserae (typically cubes of 4mm or less) and much greater technical skill to place or to shape pieces. Opus vermiculatum (meaning `worm-like work`) is a method of laying mosaic tesserae to emphasise an outline around a natural subject. Often it was produced in workshops in relatively small panels that were transported to the site glued to some temporary support.

A colour illustration of a mosaic from Beadlam Villa showing two rectangular blocks above and below a square containing an interconnected pattern, with a mixed of styles, including twisted multicoloured strands of guilloche work - this is surrounded by another straight line borders alternating red/white/red
Figure 3 – Beadlam Villa Mosaic

An intriguing feature about the Town House mosaic are the similarities of design between this mosaic and other nearby examples found within the villas unearthed at Beadlam and Brantingham (Figures 3 and 4). Every Roman mosaic is unique but, in common with Malton, the two villa mosaics utilise the same overall geometric design with end rectangular panels and a central square. They make liberal use of a multicoloured guilloche pattern too.

A colour photo of a mosaic from Brantingham Villa showing a central square surrounded by two smaller square above and below, each square contains a intricate pattern of black, white, and red tiles - there are three straight line borders surrounding the more complicated patterns, which alternate red/white/red
Figure 4 – Brantingham Villa mosaic

It has been suggested that mosaicists – musivarii – worked at various locations within specific geographical areas perhaps associated with mosaic schools (officina). A musivarus supervising the laying of the laying of a mosaic may have been executing schemes adapted by a designer from a pattern book. The stylistic similarities of the mosaics from Malton, Beadlam and Brantingham have been linked to an officina based in the Brough/Aldborough region (the Isurian- Petuarian Officina).

A colour photo of a painting of a bust of a female figure wearing a red open fronted top over a black top - she has auburn hair with a band gathered on the top of her head - she also has a white nimbus (halo) surrouding her head - this bust has two thick borders across the top which continue down the right hand side
Figure 5 – Portrait of a female figure

The walls of the mosaic room in the Town House at Malton had also been re-plastered and re-painted at least three times. The surviving impressionistic portrait of a female figure with brown hair, dark eyes looking to the left and a distinct white nimbus surrounding the head is stunning (Figure 5). An image of a bearded male with a stave, possibly Jupiter, is surrounded by a rich red border (Figure 6).

An painting of a bearded male with a stave, possibly Jupiter, and includes a white nimbus (halo), this is surrounded by a rich red border
Figure 6 – Portrait of Jupiter

According to Diocletian’s price edict of AD 302 a wall painter was paid three times more than a mosaic worker. Also, the costly cinnabar used for the red pigment in the Malton paintings would have been brought in especially by the owner of the Town House for the artist – probably from Spain.

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Also take a look at our Lucius Challenge number 17: Town House Challenge and fill in the architectural features

For more information on Beadlam Villa Visit: and Wikipedia

For more information on Brantlingham Villa visit: and Wikipedia

For more information on European Archaeological Park of Bliesbruck-Reinheim visit: Wikipedia

Figure 1: Opus signinum (reconstructed in the European Archaeological Park of Bliesbruck-Reinheim) ©Creative Commons

Figure 2: Malton Town House mosaic ©Malton Museum

Figure 3: Beadlam Villa mosaic ©David Neal

Figure 4: Brantingham Villa mosaic ©Hull Museums

Figure 5: Portrait of female figure ©Malton Museum

Figure 6: Portrait of Jupiter ©Malton Museum

Aldborough (Isurium Brigantum)

A colour photo showing a Roman mosaic floor - this mosaic has a central star or sun shape within a decorated square - surrounding this are three wide borders of tesserae - this room has white washed walls, and the base of an iron grating is visable against the back wall of this room
Mosaic in situ

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Thirty miles west of Malton is the small village of Aldborough. Nowadays few people will stop off as they race north along the A1 but, eighteen hundred years ago, this was the site of the important Roman town of Isurium Brigantum.

Isurium Brigantum was located at a key intersection between the Roman road of Dere street with the River Ure and was probably founded at the time of the Roman campaigns into Brigantia by Petillius Cerialis (see our Petillius Cerialis post). The Roman road leading out from the South-West gate of Malton fort (Porta Principalis Dextra) would have afforded direct connections to both York and Aldborough.

A colour photo showing the base of a stone wall bordered by grass banks - there are three courses of stonework making up the remains of this wall, and these are covered in low level weeds and moss - in the background there is a dense area of mature trees
Figure 1 The town wall

Traditionally it had been thought that Isurium was first constructed as a fort before becoming the administrative centre for the Romanised Brigantes. However recent work by Martin Millett and Rose Ferraby (University of Cambridge) is challenging this view.

A colour photo showing two interescting walls about five courses high, with an outline on the other two sides of a rectangular area of grass - There is a pathway on the left hand side that turns right along the longest section of wall, and then follows a modern wall that skirts the edge of a grass embankment - there are also steps leading throught this embankment - mature trees are visable in the background
Figure 2 Interval tower

It now seems more likely that the Isurium started life as a smaller civilian settlement that initially prospered through supporting the early military campaigns across Yorkshire. Undoubtedly there would have been a close relationship with the nearby Roman fort at Roecliffe, but Isurium also served as an important location for those seeking accommodation, provisions or repairs as they headed further north.

A colour photo showing parts of the outline of the corner tower, which are bright green with moss cover - the area is undulating, with a graas bank in the foreground, and rougher ground leading to mature trees in the background - in the far top right, well maintained yew hedging can be seen
Figure 3: Corner tower

The Roman fort at Vindolanda (just south of Hadrian`s Wall) is renowned for the discovery of hundreds of postcard-sized wooden-leaf tablets covered in cursive Latin ink writing. They are a rich source of information about life on the northern frontier of Roman Britain during the late 1st century and one of them specifically mentions Isurium. This tablet itemises expenses for food, wine, grain, clothing, accommodation and carriage parts (axes carrarios).

A colour photo showing two column bases lying on rough ground - behing these there is a regular shaped mound with a few blue crocuses growing on it - either side of this there are large patches of daffodils - mature trees can be seen in the background
Figure 5 Column bases

Subsequently, as Hadrian`s Wall was being built, Isurium developed into a planned civilian town with a street grid, becoming the official centre of the Brigantes tribe (termed a civitates). In common with other civitates – such as Wroxeter, Leicester, Silchester, Cirencester and Caerwent – several public buildings were constructed including a forum, basilica and bathhouse in addition to some grand private houses and possible temples. Like Silchester and Cirencester, Aldborough boasted sewers and an amphitheatre too. By the late second century the town was also surrounded by stone walls incorporating four principal gateways.

A colour photo showing a disused quarry with mature trees within and around this site - a lot of the ground is overgrown - this quarry has irregular and significantly large embankments within it

Today there is still much to see of Roman Aldborough including walls, mosaics and numerous finds. It is best to start a tour at the newly refurbished museum before exploring the southern stretch of defences, incorporating an interval tower and a corner tower (Figures 1, 2 and 3). The walls were constructed using sandstone blocks taken from the neighbouring quarries that can still be seen – probably the best-preserved Roman quarries within Great Britain (Figure 4).

A colour photo showing a Roman mosaic floor - this mosaic has a central star or sun shape within a decorated square - surrounding this are three wide borders of tesserae - this room has white washed walls, and the base of an iron grating is visable against the back wall of this room
Mosaic in situ

Beyond the quarries a short walking route turns north following a Victorian promenade along the line of the Roman wall and beside a developing Roman garden feature. One of the particular delights of exploring Aldborough is coming across various architectural remenants lying around such as column bases and altars, presumably from grand public or private buildings (Figure 5). Evidence for the splendour of the Roman town houses is also provided by the mosaics housed in two small buildings in a nearby field (Figure 6). Another mosaic from Aldborough representing the wolf and twins can be viewed in Leeds City Museum.

A colour photo showing a well worn stone carving of the Roman god Mercury - this stone has a red hue to it, and above this is a gothis shaped arch which doesn't seem to match up with this carving
The Roman god Mercury

Before leaving Aldborough it is worth popping into the Church of St Andrew to examine the statue of the Roman god Mercury on the north-west wall that probably came from a nearby temple (Figure 7). The earth banks of the amphitheatre – one of the largest in Britain – can also be seen across the fields to the left as you head out of the village along the York Road.

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Find out more about Aldborough from:

English Heritage

Figure 1: The town wall ©Nick Summerton

Figure 2: Interval tower ©Nick Summerton

Figure 3: Corner tower ©Nick Summerton

Figure 4: Quarry south-west of the Roman walls ©Nick Summerton

Figure 5: Column bases with a view south along the western ramparts towards the Roman garden and the Victorian Promenade ©Nick Summerton

Figure 6: Mosaic from a town house in situ ©Nick Summerton

Figure 7: Statue of the Roman god Mercury in the Church of St Andrew ©Nick Summerton