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Roman mosaics for villa reconstructions and museums

These articles are looking at creating a copy of a Roman mosaic floor using marble and other hard stones and not modern mosaic materials. It also assumes that you want the mosaic to be created in as authentic a way as is practical.

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Why have a mosaic floor?

Quite simply put it is because it is one of those things that is emblematic of Rome. Ask anyone of what images come to mind when they think of a Roman villa and the chances are it will be one of three things; an imposing building in stone, brightly coloured frescoes on the walls or floor mosaics.

If you are looking at reconstructing a Roman mosaic floor as part of a museum display or to enhance a villa reconstruction then the first thing we will look at is what can be done.

 

  1. Setting a mosaic to cover an entire floor. This is where you commission someone for the whole process. This can be done behind closed doors on site or at a separate workshop to avoid disturbance and the finished piece only unveiled on completion. Modern methods can be used for convenience.

 

  1. Setting an entire floor and allow the public to see the work in progress. This gives you the opportunity

 

  1. Set part of a floor to demonstrate various techniques, proven and hypothetical. These areas can be left to show tools, materials etc. This is where you have it as a static display and nothing more is done.

 

Let’s take a closer look at these three options. The first one will be the most expensive, this is where you commission someone to do the floor for you. Nice if you have the budget and you just want to have a floor on display. In today's economic climate though, I doubt many institutions can afford it especially when you think that to commission a mosaic floor can cost anywhere from €2,000 - €20,000 per square meter (3’ x 3’) . Even if you have the budget for this, in my opinion, it is a wasted opportunity when you can show so much to your visiting public by demonstrating the work in progress.

 

The second option is the main one we will be looking at, to aim for whatever amount of the floor your budget will allow for, (and you don’t have to do a whole floor), then you can involve volunteers, have staff trained up to supervise the work. By utilising just one half of a room you can allow access for the public to observe the work and spread it over months. Correctly set up the work can be stopped at any time and easily restarted. Not only can your visitors see what is involved in the work in terms of material, cutting methods, setting methods etc but they can see it all in progress. You can use social media to allow people to track the progress of the mosaic and to explore the potential for public funding for more mosaics. Alongside the main mosaic, using the experience gained from working on it, staff can then run Roman mosaic workshops for both adults and children. Motifs, borders and other patterns from the main mosaic can be used in the workshops. They can see the patterns being created on a large scale and then make there own version.

What you can show;

  • Materials, marble and other stones ready for cutting

  • Tools etc, the hammer and hardie, adhesives, waxes.

  • Techniques, sinopia (painted guidelines), etched guidelines, the use of string and batons. The hypothetical use of the staff, working free hand. You can also show the different methods that we know of and those that are possible, direct

  • The different jobs involved in the process, painter, mosaicists, cutters, mortar mixers.

Methods

  • Direct, working straight onto the floor. We have archaeological evidence for this.

  • Reverse method, the pattern is drawn onto cloth in reverse. The tesserae are stuck down with water soluble glue, face down onto the cloth. When completed the whole piece is cut into sections and then flipped over onto a layer of cement on the floor. When dry the cloth is removed. This is hypothetical but we know they did have the capability to do it.

  • Emblemata - a fine mosaic is set onto a tile of terracotta or marble and this is then set into the floor and the rest of the mosaic set direct around it. There are very fine figure panels completed in this way as well has quite simple patterns. There is archaeological evidence for this.

 

In the third option, just having a small static display showing some of the process. This allows you to show the work without having to continue any more of the mosaic.


 

How authentic should you aim to be?

The public will always be asking questions about what they see so you need to know what is authentic and what is not. The main objective is to show the mosaic, to show the practical work involved in an ancient floor mosaic. It doesn’t matter if your workers all wear authentic Roman underwear, it is the mosaic that counts. You can look more at authenticity in different areas as you go along but don’t make life too hard for yourself. I’ve had people who want to find the original quarries for some of their material (some have been completely worked out and some have been lost to time, we just don’t know where they are any more), remember the important thing is the mosaic and how you create it. Authenticity in materials is something you can improve on in time but initially, focus your efforts on getting something the public can see, and if anyone says ‘But has that marble been quarried by hand as the Romans did?’ then give them and pick axe and say, ‘Off you go’ ;-) (As a side note the Romans did actually have a water powered wet saw for cutting stone).

Let’s look at the specific areas as regards how authentic you can be;

Tesserae - the biggest cost area, marble working in a modern world is an expensive, messy business. You absolutely do not want to use the machine cut, individual square tesserae but there are ways to get it and cut it so it does look the same as the ancient material quarried and cut entirely by hand.

Adhesives - when I refer to adhesives I mean the cement/mortar that is used to stick down the tesserae with. We know the composition of the Pozzolan (ancient cement) used by the Romans. The problem is the lowest slave working mixing this up will be 100 times better than any modern person trying it out. It’s trying it out and then doing it as a job for years, knowing what works and what doesn’t. You don’t want to have your mosaic fall apart in six months because you didn’t have the mix correct. The Romans had a powder that when mixed with water would set hard enough for a floor. That’s your starting point, go from there.

Sealants/waxes - these are needed to bring up the colour of the marble as, after it has had the surface ground off, the colours become dull. There are mixes you can use that the Romans might have used, as in ancient times these do need to be reapplied. If the public can walk over finished mosaics then it will give you an idea of how often this might have been needed.

Working methods - you can be as accurate as possible here with what we know so what the public see will be pretty close to how to was done.

So, aim to get a mosaic down, then look at becoming progressively more authentic in your materials and methods as you do more. Don’t sacrifice getting something for the public to see because you’re trying to work exactly as the ancient craftsmen did.