Week 9

We are just over two months into our project, now, and everything seems to be speeding up. The four strand guilloche was started at the beginning of the week. It is an exacting pattern – you might think of it as a ‘twisted rope design’. Here’s a photograph of Julia setting tesserae into mortar (well, Julia’s Hand):

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For the statistically minded, to date we have laid 35-40,000 tesserae… one by one. Once the four-strand guilloche is complete – and it could be by the end of this, the tenth week – we will have completed over six square metres of mosaic floor and there is only one further, fairly simple (or so we believe) pattern to complete before the mosaic is complete! But that doesn’t mean the floor is finished. The mosaic section covers about 10 square metres of a total of 25. They rest of the room will be paved with terra cotta – coloured tesserae. They are 4 times the size of our mosaic tesserae at 2m x 2cm and do not form a pattern – more or less laid as a pavement. As such we call this type of floor a tessellated pavement. Actually, a mosaic is also a tessellated pavement but is called a mosaic when it is made into shapes, patterns and figures. This arrangement of a central mosaic surrounded by a plain surround is quite typical of Roman floors for this type of room (quite a fancy one).

People often ask when we plan to finish. It’s still hard to answer but we hope to have the central mosaic completed before it gets too cold!

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Maria sorting tesserae prior to laying.

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Week 8

We are two months into the Butser Mosaic project and everything is going well and gathering pace. As we move into week 9 we should have ‘squared the circle’ by completing the decorative corner patterns around our central, circular designs. These four…. let’s call them ‘corner pieces’ (although, as they are around a circle, that’s a bit dodgy)…. consist of two separate ‘motifs’. One we’ll call a lotus and the other a scallop shell.

The two motifs are diagonally opposite each other in the original mosaic. One recent head scratcher was figuring out which one goes on the left and which the right as you walk into the room. There are a few photographs of the orientation of the mosaic in the original excavation but, on close inspection, a couple of these appear to have been reversed when printed into the reference books! Fortunately, we were able to reference the monograph – the book published by the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society – authored by David E. Johnston and Johnathan Dicks. This features beautiful illustrations by David Neal, including a plan of the villa with the orientation of our mosaic. Interestingly, David Neal, along with Stephen Cosh, produced a four-volume survey of Romano-British mosaics with hand-painted copies of the majority of known examples. One key reason for doing this was the inadequacy of photography to accurately record detail…. now we know why.

We have also had two new recruits join the team: Linden and Richard, both keen field archaeologists. Now they get to experience what it’s like to lay the things they dig up!

Once our scallops and lotuses are complete we will have laid around 4 square metres of mosaic. We have done a few back of the envelope calculations: about 35,000 tesserae laid and 500 kg of mortar used -all mixed by hand (ouch). The next phase is to move on to the 4-strand guilloche.

We have also added some new footage to our Mosaic Movie. Use the link at the top of the page or click here to see it

Here’s a photo of the mock-up version…. only 2 square metres of that to lay!

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Week 7

First up, a HUGE thank you to Emily and Louisa!!! Emily and Louisa have been part of the team since minute one. Other commitments beckon so they are taking a break from the fun and foibles of mosaic laying. We would like to say thanks and express our gratitude for their hard work and fantastic efforts in keeping the project kicking along. We don’t want this to sound too final, though. Emily is part of the Butser education team and is returning to duty after the school summer holidays, and Louisa is doing likewise at Bignor Roman villa. If you haven’t ever been to Bignor it is a really beautiful location with some of the finest mosaics… and staff… in Britain.

Mosaic Mysteries

Despite the fairly obvious fact that we can see them(!), Romano-British mosaics are rather mysterious. We only part understand how they were made. We do know that the cement which supported them was lime-based. It contained aggregates like sand and small stones (just like modern concrete) but we have a relatively limited understanding of the makeup and mix of these materials. For example, the lime used to bind the concrete together came from heating material that contained plenty of calcium carbonate: limestones (including chalk) and sea shells, for example. One question is, how hot was the heating process? We understand how to heat lime in modern kilns but were Roman-style kilns as hot and did that matter? Did variations in making the lime lead to variations in the durability of the mosaic (probably!). What else went into the lime concrete mix…. That’s an interesting one. We know that terracotta (pots, tiles, bricks, etc.) was crushed and added to Romano-British concretes: it can be seen in broken period concretes and mortars and gives them a characteristic pink colour. Terracotta also has a ‘pozzolanic’ effect – that is, it strengthens the material.

Another interesting pozzolan comes from crushed volcanic stone, mined in southern Italy (including at Pozzuoli, near Naples and hence the name). It’s widely used in the Mediterranean and it gives immense strength to Roman concrete used in saltwater constructions. But was it used in Britain? The question becomes “what is it that helps ancient mosaics get ancient”  ?!

To help us tackle this kind of technical challenge we are fortunate in our project in being able to call on advice from the Lime Centre in nearby Morestead. It’s where we get our supplies and the folks there have been very generous with their advice on materials, mixing and application. There is a caveat: our use of the materials, to bond a mosaic together and to the floor, is far from typical! And that brings us back to those questions about Roman materials science! Exactly what did they do and how did they do it?

And that isn’t the only mystery that our experiment is making us think about. A recent visit to Hadrian’s Wall, Vindolanda and Arbeia started some thinking… why do mosaics (and villas) seem to be concentrated in the south of what we now call England? Were the 10,000 troops on the Wall, living without the benefits of mosaic floors, really just collecting taxes?

It’s amazing what a mosaic project can start you thinking about.

For sites of villas and other really cool Roman stuff in Britain, have a look at this Archaeology Data Service site: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/romangl/map.html

By the way… if you haven’t been to Hadrian’s Wall, Arbeia or the fabulous Vindolanda – just go!

 

Emily and Louisa happily at work in the service of Romano-British mosaic reproduction

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Week 5

The villa mosaic project is gathering pace! We are coming to the end of week 5 and just now finishing off the swastika meander… and it’s looking fantastic.

For those interested in statistics, we have now completed 2 square metres of mosaic. There are just over 10 square metres of the central panel (the geometric design) in the original. The room is around 25 square metres but the outer edges – the largest area of the floor – is not patterned and uses much larger tesserae than the central design (5cm square as against our 1cm square detail tesserae). Based on those figures it suggests a completion time of around 6 months. However, our laying rate has increased significantly. We are up to around 1/8th square meter per person, per day – we think more than double where we started. So, it remains to be seen whether we can maintain that rate as we move on to the more complicated guilloche pattern – seen in the picture above.

The guilloche design, which looks like twisted and interlocking ropes, is a very common motif across the Roman world. If you compare different mosaics you notice that there are slight variations in execution. Interestingly, the fragment of the Chilgrove mosaic on display in the Novium museum in Chichester looks very like our Winchester design, which lends support to the theory that mosaicists worked across regional bases – they had a ‘home base’ (perhaps a workshop) and travelled to commissions within their area.

Here are Juliet, Louisa and Jamie finishing off the swastika

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Weeks 3 – 4

The mosaic is moving along beautifully. In week 3 we completed the wave pattern and a dry layout of the ‘swastika meander’ – the next pattern in the design.

The swastika is an incredibly widely distributed symbol, across time and the globe. It appears in Bronze Age art, in Hindu, Buddhist and Jane religious representations and in Greco-Roman art (among many others). It is almost everywhere a positive symbol. It was only in the 20th Century that it became associated with the horrors of Nazism.

The meander is a more straightforward pattern to lay (yay!) and we have been able to make quick progress. If you would like to see a little movie that reviews our progress over the past 4 weeks click on the link above in the heading strap – ‘Butser Mosaic – The Movie’

Here’s a photograph of the progress to date…

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Week 3

This week the Butser Mosaic Team have been tackling the much anticipated (feared) wave pattern. After plenty of ‘dry run’ practice (laid onto the floor, without mortar) it was time to put the mortar down and get serious.

The success of the outcome is testament to the dedication of everyone involved. This wasn’t an easy pattern to tackle but the results speak for themselves. Our laying abilities have gone from strength to strength and that is down to hard work, concentration, patience and the will to crouch in a very awkward position for an extended period!

The new mortar is proving much easier to work with than our first batch and, with a bit of luck, we will be able to get faster as the project goes on. So far we have laid just nearly one square metre. With 9 square metres still to go on the graphic design alone (the border of much larger orange tesserae should be much easier to take on) there is still plenty to do but the progress is great.

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Juliet and Arthur tackle ‘the wave’.

Week 2

 

We have taken some big strides in week 2. In the picture below you can see Emily, Maria and Jess hard at work finishing off the ‘second feature’ in our mosaic: concentric rings of black, white and red tesserae encircling the central ‘flower’ motif. It grows and grows!

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The job is still rather painstaking but we hope it will speed up as we go. One sticking point – literally – has been the mortar we have been using to bed our tesserae in – and ‘stick’ the thing to the floor! We are about to start working with a revised mortar, much closer to the ‘Roman’ original and based on quicklime. It’s not as strong as the mortar we have been using but, hopefully, it’s a lot easier to work with.

A huge thank you must, again, go to all of the people involved in the project. A special thanks to Arthur for making the timber formers we are using to hold the mortar in place as it sets.

 

The Mosaic Project

The Romano-British villa at Butser Ancient Farm, completed in 2003, is a replica of one discovered at Sparsholt near Winchester and excavated in the late 1960’s (in the image above). We are now involved in installing a mosaic floor in the reception room, inspired by the splendid original – which resides in the Winchester Museum.

Unlike the 4th Century, though, this mosaic isn’t being made by slaves. Instead a dedicated team of FABULOUS volunteers are on their hands and knees laying the new mosaic. The team includes volunteers from Liss Archaeology and Bignor Roman villa. While replica mosaics have been constructed in Britain and elsewhere across the Roman world (as well as many painstaking restorations of originals), we believe it is unusual for them to be laid by the ‘direct method’. That is, straight onto the floor. Most are laid on segments, sometimes later placed on a floor. The direct method is (as our crew will confirm) more physically demanding. However, one of the main aims of recreating the mosaic is not just to take the Butser villa a step closer to the original but also get a sense of what working conditions were like for the makers of Roman-era mosaics; perhaps we can even foster a sense of empathy and camaraderie with the mosaicists of 1600 years ago.

In an important way, our laying technique is experimental and experiential. The techniques we use to form the patterns of the mosaic and the materials used to bind them to the floor are also designed to further our knowledge. Lime mortar will be used in the mosaic construction. Unlike modern cement, this material is ‘faithful’ to Romano-British technique. Over the course of the project we will vary the types of lime and other ingredients in the mortar, to help us examine which mixes are optimal for both laying and durability. This floor, like its Sparsholt ancestor, is to be walked upon. Unlike its ancestor we expect tens of thousands of feet each year… hence our interest in durability!

This won’t be a tile-for-tile (or tessera-for-tessera) reproduction of the original. The hand-cut marble cubes we are using are a substitute for the original native stone and terracotta. The aim is to reproduce the original design, dimensions and colours as closely as possible. At about 8000 tesserae for each square metre of floor, there will be about 86,000 tiles in the central geometric design section and another 30,000 larger tesserae in the surrounding single-colour border.

The team at Butser Ancient Farm have also been repainting the villa inside and out to enhance the rooms and give visitors a stronger sense of what it would have been like to visit a villa during Roman times. The bright colours and geometric designs would have created vibrant interiors that are startling to visitors today and will be complemented by the colour and bold designs of the mosaic.

Work on the mosaic will continue throughout the summer at Butser Ancient Farm, and visitors are welcome to come and observe the progress. There will be a series of talks for visitors to explain the ideas and techniques behind the project.

The team at Butser Ancient Farm appreciate the support they have received from the Winchester Museum, Fishbourne Roman Palace, Bignor Roman Villa, Liss Archaeology and South Downs National Park. Each of our organisations showcases significant elements of Romano-British history and heritage and this project is facilitating a co-operative approach between all stakeholders to help foster a broader public understanding of the fantastic Roman heritage of Hampshire and West Sussex. Butser Ancient Farm would like to especially acknowledge South Downs National Park for their generous support through the Sustainable Communities Fund.

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The first week

Progress proceeds apace on the mosaic. Arthur, Karen, Juliet, Emily, Maria, Jane, Jamie, Barbara, Julia, and Louisa did great work throughout the first week and we’ve finished the central 8-pointed star motif. Next we move on to three concentric circles – black, white, red. It should be a lot easier to lay than the central pattern, which proved unexpectedly difficult.. but it might be premature to say that :-).

A great job was done and it looks fantastic – imagine what it will be like when we polish it!!!

 

We are will be laying, measuring and planning the Greek Wave over the weekend!

 

 

 

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