The making of mosaics

I made a few notes and exchanged stories with Anne as the work slowly and painstakingly continued. The pattern magically beginning to appear was a distinctive geometric design, although a vase and flowers were later visible.

IMG_0599Photograph © JW

IMG_0603Showing beautiful Detail – © JW

Nothing is known for certain about the craftsmen who created the mosaics for Somerset villas, or about the way the craft was organised. As they laboured, Alan was able to fill me in on some of the details. Evidently, archaeologists studying mosaics in Britain have identified distinctive styles and some scholars believe that mosaicists may have been largely itinerant, moving from villa to villa in response to commissions from wealthy patrons. Mosaics often share the same designs and motifs and such similarities have a geographical component. It was thought that the mosaic currently being uncovered could be attributed to the Lindinis Group, so called after the Roman Name for Ilchester, the group’s notional centre.

IMG_0556Alan Graham cleans the mosaic with a wet sponge – © JW

At the time, all I basically knew about a mosaic is that it was a picture or pattern made from small cubes of stone or tile (tesserae). I was keen to learn where the Somerset craftsmen got the raw materials. Alan told me that blue-grey and white Lias limestone was the most common material used and easily obtainable from local sources. Indeed, I noticed some houses in the area built of soft-coloured Blue Lias limestone with distinctive clay-tiled roofs. The red tesserae were made from fired clay tiles also shaped either by using a hammer and anvil or by using pliers.

Next day

The following day Mrs John and I were at the field bright and early. It was still raining. She was excited and exhilarated just thinking about the work ahead. Her ‘cleaning’ technique had been approved and she was raring to go. While Mike and Alan busied themselves uncovering walls and borders, Lynda concentrated on revealing a portion of the detailed figurative work. Anne and I radiated approval from the muddy sidelines!

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© JW

You will notice from the pictures that remains of walls and substantial stone foundations are in evidence. It was beginning to look as though this was a courtyard villa linked together by corridors, verandas or both. We began to wonder if there might also be a separate bath house with hypocaust nearby!

IMG_0742© JW – Mosaic varied in size

What you can also clearly see from the pictures is that individual tesserae used in the mosaic varied in size. The larger type, about 30mm square, is employed in the coarse borders down to the much smaller 5mm square used for detailed figurative work.

What you can also clearly see from the pictures is that individual tesserae used in the mosaic varied in size. The larger type, about 30mm square, is employed in the coarse borders down to the much smaller 5mm square used for detailed figurative work.

Alan explained that a layer of fine gravel was laid as a compact foundation. Then a layer of concrete with gravel or crushed tile or layers of lime mortar were added. The tesserae were embedded in a final layer of mortar and then the spaces between were grouted using a liquid mortar. The pattern would then be marked out so the craftsmen could begin the painstaking task of laying the tesserae, a job taking several weeks to complete.

IMG_0760Mike and Anne – © JW

Unfortunately that firm base can be seen to have experienced trauma in the past, for a medieval drainage ditch cuts straight through the site and can be seen in some of the pictures. I wonder if those earlier navvies had noticed or even cared about all the ‘coloured bits of stone’ strewn about?

At the end of a second day we made our way back home, amazed at what we had witnessed, feeling rather privileged that we had been invited, and rather sad to think that after detailed records had been made the mosaic would be covered over and the farmer will continue to sow, reap and plough like he had for years previously. Only this time, he would have more than an inkling of what lay just several inches beneath the soil.

IMG_0791© JW Click to enlarge

Week 2

But that wasn’t the end. Unknown to me, another trench was started by Mike and Allan, adjacent to the one already investigated and the newer mosaic discovered promised to be even more interesting. This information was conveyed to us by an excited Anne, and she urged us to get back down there if we could.

Initially, the priority had been to expose, clean and record the mosaic. Also, by careful cleaning to understand something of the building in which it lay. It was evident that in less than one week of intensive work by a single archaeologist and a couple of volunteers that objective hadn’t been achieved. There was more work to be done!

IMG_0583© JW

When we arrived on site, the heavy had been done. Mrs John donned her rubber gloves and, taking instructions from the resident expert Allan, continued the slow, labourious, yet enjoyable task of cleaning the mosaic with sponges and water.

You may discern from some of the pictures a twisted rope design. Roman mosaics are built up from standard patterns and the rope design, most often used in borders to frame other stylised elements is called gilloche.

IMG_0783© JW – Click to enlarge

Our education on Roman mosaics continued with Alan telling us that the more elaborate designs would first be drawn out on the mortar base, Alternatively, panels might be fabricated in a workshop where the design was sketched in a tray of fine sand. The tesserae were then laid face up and pieces of linen cloth glued onto the surface, using a flour and water paste. When the glue was set, the panel could be transported and set in place. Washing removed the glue and the tesserae were then grouted.

There were also visitors on this day. Some came to look and wonder, but former FLO Naomi Payne – now an Historic Environment Officer – turned up with friend and both did sterling work uncovering and cleaning even more of the mosaic. The farmer brought his parents to take a look.

IMG_0637© JW Click to enlarge

Alan teetered precariously on a flimsy 30’ aluminum ladder to take overhead pictures using Anne and me as a steadying ballast, and even the sun made a very brief but welcome appearance.

Understanding the archaeology

Knowledge of the local community is considered significant and important. One of Bob Croft’s roles is to publicise the county and its archaeology and to enhance public understanding. Archaeology is a great fascination to a lot of people so bearing that in mind and on the final day, the local primary school children were invited to view the newly uncovered mosaic. What an experience for them and one which they will never forget.

IMG_0661© JW

In the wider Ilchester area over forty villas – many of them with mosaics – are known, though very few have been excavated. We can rest assured that the site has at least been satisfactorily recorded, protected, backfilled with soil and safely put to bed before the winter frosts.

The purpose of the dig was to try and determine the nature of the building, the period of its occupation and so on – was it a courtyard villa as initially thought, or something else? No doubt there will be a press statement forthcoming, but we shall have to wait for a final report from archaeologist, Alan Graham, the purpose of which is protection of the site, taking stock and deciding what to do next as regards long term preservation.

In conclusion, we must remember that this rare and unusual site would still be hidden and slowly disappearing if it hadn’t been discovered and reported by two observant detectorists, Anne Laverty and Mike Pittard. The historical record is much richer because of their dedication and long-term commitment to the hobby of metal detecting. Through their awareness of the surrounding landscape and realising the significance of found materials other then metal has vastly benefited the local population, archaeologists and others. I thank you for allowing me to share in the excitement of your magnificent find.

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© JW

For helping with the production of this article my thanks are extended to my wife, sub-editor, chauffeuse and general factotum Mrs John; to archaeologist Bob Graham for his scholarly wisdom and good cheer and also to Mr Bob Croft for allowing me to use material from the small book he edited. Roman Mosaics in Somerset is available from Somerset Council Heritage Service, priced at about £3. Special thanks to Anne and Mike for inviting me to witness the uncovering of this magnificent mosaic.

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