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Roman mosaics for villa reconstructions - part II, how authentic can you be?

Roman mosaics for villa reconstructions - part II, how authentic can you be?

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 use hand made tools, wear handwoven tunics, or even if they are using hand quarried marble, 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, some 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).

Work within your budget and time and you will still be able to create something that will draw in the visitors. Below I go through some of the areas that you can adapt.

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. I go into this area in more detail later.


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.

For more information and training please contact me, Lawrence Payne