Silver Service:
Fine dining in Roman Britain

Recline and discover how the Mildenhall Great Dish was used

23 May – 4 August 2013
Free, Room 3

The Mildenhall Treasure is Britain’s finest late Roman silver dining service, and the Great Dish is its magnificent centerpiece. Dating to the fourth century, it is an enormous disc of pure silver, over 60cm in diameter and over 8kg in weight. It shows a Bacchic revel, the god of wine and his entourage drinking, dancing and generally making merry, and is a masterpiece of Roman craftsmanship. Found in 1942 by a farmer whilst ploughing near Mildenhall in Suffolk, the treasure came to the Museum in 1946 and is considered to be one of the most impressive hoards ever recovered from British soil. This unique display is to accompany a new publication of ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’ by curator Richard Hobbs.

The display will see a late Roman dining room recreated as a means of demonstrating the Roman habit of eating whilst reclining on a couch, with the Great Dish providing an example of the type of large platter on which food for sharing would have been presented.

This image of Romans reclining whilst eating is well-known in the popular psyche; a beautiful fresco can currently be seen in the Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum for example which shows guests at a banquet reclining on couches. What is perhaps not so well known is that the couches on which Romans reclined changed over the course of the Roman Empire. In the first century AD, the preference was for three couches to be arranged in a ‘U’ shape or triclinium - a number of examples are still visible in stone at well-preserved Roman towns such as Pompeii. But by the fourth century AD, a semi-circular couch, known as a stibadium, became more common. This is important because it suggests that dining became less formal; whereas the position where one reclined in the triclinium arrangement was strictly controlled, with the host and guest of honour having designated places, the stibadium was more inclusive, giving diners greater opportunity to converse with the whole party - just as today round dinner tables are better for shared conversations than rectangular ones. This suggests that the pastime of eating became more about enjoying the entire dining experience, and the atmosphere of convivial friendship, rather than worrying about your social status because of where you’d been allowed to rest your elbow.

The fact that the Great Dish was found in Britain suggests that there were some wealthy individuals who indeed reclined on a curved couch whilst they enjoyed a range of fine foods, but the question as to where in Britain such a vessel would have been used requires more imagination. This display will consider the fact that although examples of curved couches have been preserved in other parts of the Empire, none have yet been discovered in Britain. Some rural Roman villas have rooms with curved extensions – an example can be seen at Lullingstone in Kent – and these were almost certainly built to accommodate curved couches, as do the shape of some floor mosaics.

These discoveries will be brought together in this impressive display to demonstrate how the Roman custom of reclining on a curved couch to dine was just as true in Roman Britain as it was in the rest of the Empire – truly ‘Romanisation’ in action.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun

The Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure, found in Mildenhall, Suffolk. Roman Britain, 4th century AD.

Notes to editors

Opening hours 10.00-17.30 Saturday to Thursday, 10.00-20.30 Fridays.
The exhibition runs between 23 May – 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays are a series of regularly changing displays which look at objects in new or different ways. Sometimes the display highlights a well-known item, sometimes it surprises the audience with extraordinary items from times and cultures that may not be very familiar. This is also an opportunity for the Museum to learn how it can improve its larger exhibitions and permanent gallery displays. These displays have been made possible by the generous sponsorship of The Asahi Shimbun Company, who are long standing supporters of the British Museum. With a circulation of about 8 million for the morning edition alone, The Asahi Shimbun is the most prestigious newspaper in Japan. The company also publishes magazines and books, and provides a substantial information service on the Internet. The Asahi Shimbun Company has a century long tradition of staging exhibitions in Japan of art, culture and history from around the world.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Reading Room
28 March – 29 September 2013

This exhibition will be the first ever held on the subject in the British Museum, and the first major exhibition in London for almost 40 years. The exhibition will bring together many fascinating objects, both recent discoveries and celebrated finds from earlier excavations. Unlike previous exhibitions, its focus will not be on the sites as a whole, but on the archaeology of the home and the lives of the people who lived there.

The exhibition will transport visitors to the heart of the life and times of the people of the Roman cities Pompeii and Herculaneum. From the bustling street through to the intimate spaces of a Roman home, looking at daily Roman life prior to the devastating volcanic eruption of nearly 2000 years ago, and give some perspective on the domestic context for the objects. No other exhibition on Pompeii has been attempted this on a similar scale; the focus will be on the ordinary Roman and the realities of home-life and, uniquely, will include material from both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Admission charge £15 plus a range of concessions. Tickets can be booked online at or 020 7323 8181. Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays

An accompanying publication is available from March 2013 by British Museum Press: Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, by Paul Roberts. A magnificent illustrated book offering a unique perspective on the everyday lives of the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Hardback, £45, paperback £25.

Follow updates on the exhibition via Twitter on #PompeiiExhibition and the Museum’s Twitter account @britishmuseum

A full public programme accompanies the exhibition. More information is available from the press office.

Sponsored by Goldman Sachs

In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

For further information

Please contact the Press Office on 020 7323 8583 / 8394 or

For high resolution images go to register for free and find the British Museum under Arts

For public information please print or 020 7323 8181