A stitch in time…

For the past few weeks, we have been busy stabilizing the mosaics on site.  The wobbly bits are in danger of getting broken or moved around during the upcoming phase of construction, so we are tacking them down with a removable stitch.  The stitch is made of geotextile (just like the ones we talked about for covering the mosaic) cut into tiny strips and tacked down with a removable acrylic adhesive on top of the tesserae. 

This method allows us to keep the loose vulnerable tesserae in place with a brace but with a very light touch.  Once the building is up and mosaics are ready to be unveiled, the stitches will be removed with a tiny swab of acetone and the mosaics will be once again just as they were found during the excavation.  This is a very time consuming process, so all hands have been on deck for over a week solid now.  We’re finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel, and hope to be finished by the end of this week with stitch bracing all four excavated mosaics. 

Here are some images of what the stitches look like on the mosaic.

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Here comes the sun

At last the sun has come out and Chedworth can be seen in all its beauty, the mosaics are drying after the final cleaning and the colours showing more radiant than ever before. The sun is gradually drying the pavements and as a result the base supporting the tesserae layer is becoming firmer and holding the tesserae in position. This is very satisfying for the conservators as it means very little work will be required to preserve them in the “as found” condition. This means that visitors in the future will be able to see the mosaics exactly as the archaeologists saw them when they were originally discovered, without any restoration or modern interpretation.

As time goes on and the conservators become more familiar with both the scope and type archaeological material and how the design of the new building will enhance the presentation it becomes clear just how impressive the new display at Chedworth will be. The mosaic that is emerging from beneath the asphalt path is currently covered with wood and plastic roofs, with a protective sheet on the surface and the centre section is still covered with asphalt, but even in this condition the scale, at over 35 metres long, is striking and it is hard to imagine just how impressive this will look when it all is revealed and properly displayed in the building.

Things are moving up a gear as September starts with the archaeologists back to uncover the archaeology in rooms 7 and 8 in order that it can be assessed and recorded, then made safe before the building work begins. Also the stone masons are here removing the capping from the Victorian walls of the west range and levelling the same ready to receive the footings for the new building. As the activity increases the conservators have now designed and implemented a new survey system to record the condition of the mosaics and will very soon start reattaching loose material and protecting vulnerable areas before recovering begins.

There is still a lot to see here and a lot of experts all in one place who are available to discuss the works currently underway with visitors. So if you want to hear the whole story direct from the horses mouth come and visit us while the sun still shines at Chedworth.

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Give me shelter

A few weeks back, we decided to TAKE COVER (see post of the very same name) and build some temporary shelters over the exposed mosaics in order to keep the rain off of them and help ease them into life on the surface.  It is difficult to say much about their condition and how to care for them when they are freshly excavated in a meaningful way, since their state will change so much as they acclimate to the surface conditions. 

As you may have noticed, it has been a very rainy few weeks here in the Cotswolds, and the mosaics would have been exposed to this direct water for the first time if our shelters had not gone up.  We are happy to say that the shelters have stopped the rain and allowed to the mosaics to slowly dry out a little bit in the past few weeks.  The mortar and surrounding material has firmed up between the tesserae, making them more stable than when first excavated.  The mosaics appear to need less intervention than originally thought because the soft mortar has firmed up on its own when given a chance to air out a bit.  With this protection from the shelters, we can monitor the natural changed happening to the mosaics as they are exposed to air and how they are improving on their own, then decide what further intervention might be needed. 

A snap judgement made based on their condition a month ago would have been unnecessary intervention, as they are stabilizing on their own with only some adjustments to their environment.  This leads the conservators to believe that the condition will naturally improve further once the buildings are on top of the space and the air temperature and moisture content is even more stable.  Once again, the wise and light touch of the conservator has come to great results.  Just doing our job 🙂

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A really cool laser

We’ve talked about the condition survey going on at the site, now here are some nuggets of the nitty gritty.

For the condition survey to be meaningful, it needs to be able to be repeated exactly later on to see what has changed.  In order to make it repeatable, we need to create a grid on fixed points that can be found and used again by other surveys in the future.  Easier said than done.  A building is going up around the mosaics this winter, so this is our last chance to easily put survey marks inside the western end of the villa that are connected to the outside geography.  To do it right, we have employed a spinning laser to mark the spots…

How it works: you place the laser station on a point where you/it can see all the areas you want to mark (the laser can’t see around corners any better than you can!)  Once you have established the height of this station above sea level using a little maths, you flip the laser ON switch – very high tech.  The laser whizzes  around, throwing out a signal at this known height in every direction and all you need is a sensor to walk around and pick up this signal everywhere that you want to mark. 

Did we mention a laser is spinning in every direction?  This laser can harm your eyes if you look into the beam, which is shooting around in the west end of the villa, so we finished all this work on Monday when the villa was closed to the public with a small team of people out in the “zone” who have been trained to work blindfoled… okay, not really, we just knew where to look and where not to.

As a result of this really cool laser, we now have a series of known fixed heights marked within the western range of the villa so that future surveys have the precise measures to work from.  Genius! 

 Please enjoy the diagram of the process – it’s just like being there but without the chance of going blind

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Get out the grit.

Cleaning has commenced on the mosaics, after research and many tests.  We have found a way to get the job done efficiently and well with a light touch on the mosaics.  The archaeologists removed the overburden of sandy backfill from the mosaics when they exposed them, and it is our job as the conservators to remove those last traces of sand that are in contact with the delicate surface.  Traditional methods of sponging or brushing with water did not get the sandy bits out from between the tesserae very well, and tends to leave alot of water on the mosaics, which may further soften the already soft mortar and terra cotta.  The answer was found in technology… a wet vac!  We custom fit two hoses on the vaccuum and vented them at the source to reduce the suction to a gentle draw – just enough to lift the sand up with the water. 

This turns out to be a two person job; one to wet the area and brush the sand out from between the tesserae and the other to follow on right behind the brush with the vac tool to pull the water right back up again.  The mosaics stay dry and safe, and the sand comes up with the gentlest touch.  Eureka!  Foam padding is placed between the conservators and the mosaics to distribute the load of a person on the surface, but I dare say it helps the conservator as much as the mosaics to make this job a bit easier on the knees.  Though this is a very streamlined approach, it is still a painstaking process and we will be at it for some weeks.  If you can get over here to visit you can see us in action.  Until then, here are some shots of the conservation team in action…

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Take Cover!

After investigating the effects of water on the mosaics it was decided that the delicate tesserae in room 5b and the room 6 corridor (are between the two shelter buildings) require protection from water flowing through the surface and possibly eroding the substructure. It was time to put our carpentry skills to good use and devise shelters to allow the rain to flow away from the mosaics. These would be produced from abandoned wood from previous projects – recycling! Simple timber frames were constructed with cross bracing and studs to ensure stability and then supported on the walls surround the mosaics. To ensure the temporary structures do not damage the delicate Roman walls, Plastazote (a protective black foam) is used to prevent damage and thin wooden boards were placed on top of that to spread the load. By lifting the covers up, airflow prevents a microclimate from forming and also allows visitors to view the mosaics during conservation.

We hope they will dry out a bit more without all of this august rain seeping through their previous covers. Environmental monitoring is taking place within the shelters to allow accurate assessment of the condition of the mosaics as they dry. This should prevent any shock from fast drying periods once the structure is built this winter. Slower is better, so we started now!

Enjoy the photos of our conservators trying out their lumberjack skills!

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Capturing a moment

When the conservators show up on site, the expectation of dramatic change is in the air.  It’s as though the original Roman mosaic artisans have returned to polish up their work to appear just as the day they first laid the mosaic nearly two thousand years ago…

Alas, we are not the Romans who crafted the mosaics, nor are we the people who lived in these rooms and viewed them everyday when they were fresh and new.  Not a single person on this planet is alive who saw these floors in their original glory; all we can do is guess.  But we’re not in the business of guessing in conservation.  We are here to ensure that you see what is real and that it lasts for as long as possible.  With that said, there are still some choices to be made:

Do we relay the mosaics to make them flat like new?

– That would add modern material to the Roman flooring system, destroying the underlying context and giving a misleading appearance to the mosaic.  Conservation is about preserving what is present and taking care not to destroy any original material.

Do we replace missing tesserae with other ones we find loose?

– Well, it is original material, but once they’ve been moved out of place, how would anyone know for certain where exactly each one belongs?  Sure, maybe one missing red tessera can be replaced with one loose one that is the right size found very near that spot, but when do you draw the line?  Do we redesign the whole North end because we THINK it is supposed to be a certain pattern?  There is just too much guessing.  We don’t like to guess.

What do we KNOW?

 – The state of the mosaics is certain at the point when they have been uncovered by the archaeologists.  We know what state they are in at this moment of freshly exposed from the ground after over a millennia of burial.  The moment that we can most accurately capture is that freshly excavated state.  Our job is now to stabilize the mosaics so that they appear as you see them today, newly uncovered, for many generations to come.

Stay tuned for a step-by-step look into the process of making that happen!

Capturing the excitement of that moment of discovery.

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