A section of a decorative fresco discovered in London, dating to 1st century AD (all images by and courtesy of MOLA)

Deer nibbling on fruit trees, blue-feathered birds, and a vine winding around a candelabra adorn an astonishingly well-preserved 1st-century Roman fresco that archaeologists have just discovered in London.

During an excavation for a new office development at 21 Lime Street, a team from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) found the millimeter-thin fresco nearly 20 feet below street level. Dating to the late 1st century AD, and the first decades of London, it’s one of the earliest surviving frescos from Roman Britain.

The Roman fresco is more than 6.5 feet wide and nearly 5 feet high (image © MOLA)

The fresco survived intact for 2,000 years thanks to a huge Roman construction project. “The fate of this rare wall painting was literally sealed in the ground,” researchers said in a statement. “In AD 100, construction of the 2nd Forum Basilica, the main civic center for the city and the largest Roman building ever built north of the Alps, began. In advance of construction of the Forum the area was flattened. The painted wall was deliberately toppled and the Forum immediately built over it, incredibly preserving the fresco for nearly 2000 years.”

Conservators carefully lifted it from the ground in 16 sections. Back at the lab, they micro-excavated the soil whilst it was still damp, revealing red, green, and black panels bordered with cream lines. “The fresco was hand-painted by a skilled artist in natural earth pigments, except one area of red on the twisting vine stem which is picked out in cinnabar, an expensive mercuric sulphide pigment that had to be mined in Spain,” the researchers wrote.

3) WEB MOLA archaeological conservator, Luisa Duarte, a section of decorated Roman wall © MOLA

MOLA archaeological conservator Luisa Duarte works on a section of the decorated Roman wall (image © MOLA)

The rare, ornate wall painting is likely to have decorated a reception room for party guests at the home of a wealthy Roman citizen. Its design scheme doesn’t match any known frescoes dating from Roman Britain, and researchers are using it to study the fashions and interiors preferred by early London’s upper crust.

A MOLA conservator micro-excavates sections of the fresco (image © MOLA)

Conservators from MOLA removing a section of the 1st century Roman wall plaster (image © MOLA)

A MOLA archaeologist excavates tiles that sat below the London’s Roman Forum in the 2nd-century (image © MOLA)

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.