Roman mosaic Newton St Loe

Museums, Mosaics and More

Watercolour by Thomas Marsh of a pavement from Newton St. Loe

Watercolour by Thomas Marsh of a pavement from Newton St. Loe

A museum archaeologist’s life is perhaps one of the most challenging and varied of all. Take today – I had a pretty good idea of what was in store (no pun intended) but as usual there were a few more challenges than I expected!

I like to start early – generally before the phone starts to ring – but I guess that there weren’t too many other archaeologists who started their day shopping for pillows. I needed to acquire these in preparation for putting back together one of our largest archaeological jigsaw puzzles, the Orpheus mosaic from Newton St. Loe.

The Roman villa at Newton St. Loe was discovered during the construction of the Bristol to Bath section of Brunel’s Great Western Railway in 1837.

Several mosaic floors were found at the villa including one which illustrated the story of Orpheus, a mythical poet and musician, charming a circle of wild animals. The mosaic was lifted and re-laid at Keynsham Railway Station where it remained until 1851 when it was given to the Bristol Institution (a forerunner of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery). Repeated moves between various stores over the next 150 years left the floor highly fragmented and at one time it was even thought to have been lost.

Brunel had wanted to create a museum for all the material found during the construction of the Great Western Railway. This led to a trainee civil engineer, Thomas Edward Milles Marsh (1818-1907) being given the task of recording the villa before its destruction. He prepared accurate plans including a life size tracing of the Orpheus mosaic and was responsible for lifting this floor and another for display. Although not involved in further archaeological work, Marsh retained his records and these were eventually donated to Bristol Museum by his daughter in 1936.

When Marsh transferred the mosaic to Keynsham it was in good condition. However evidence suggests that when it was moved again it may have been lifted with a pick-axe. Further breaks then occurred because of poor packaging and moves between stores, as well as frost and fire-damage. This led to the floor being broken into several thousand pieces and presents a major challenge in terms of its reconstruction, conservation and storage.

Marsh made careful records of and published some of them including this one

Marsh made careful records of the villa including this one

A full-scale reconstruction of the floor was discounted for many years because of its poor condition. In 1992 members of the Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics (ASPROM) began the painstaking job of identifying its fragments. It was finally pieced together, in public, in the front hall of the museum between July and December, 2000. The reconstruction enabled us to make improvements to its storage to make it more easily accessible for conservation, research and display.

So what do my pillows have to do with the mosaic? Well as I am also working on a British Museum touring exhibition – “Roman Empire:Power & People”– we have decided to display some of our own amazing Roman collections in other places around the museum. Orpheus needed to be returned from the underworld, which in this case was the museum basement. Thankfully in the 13 years the mosaic has been stored away we have installed a bigger and better lift, which made the task of moving it up two floors so much easier than ever before. So what did it take? Four strong men, two curators, a pallet truck and some good old fashioned elbow-grease. Oh yes and two pillows which I’ll need to kneel on as I shuffle all of the fragments back together next week.

Steve looks on whilst the two Ians wonder if they have the right piece in the right place.

Steve looks on whilst the two Ians wonder if they have the right piece in the right place.

Now if the excitement of moving the mosaic wasn’t enough, today I have also been editing object labels for the BM touring exhibition (we are leading on all the design and interpretation), shortlisting for the Future Curators Programme (we are hosting a post in 2014) and preparing for our contribution to the Festival of Archaeology at our very own villa site – Kings Weston Roman Villa tomorrow. I have also been proofreading a new guide to the site that we will be evaluating tomorrow with the work-experience students who have been with us all week.

Funnily enough the day finished pretty much as it started, although instead of pillows I was shopping for Basil, Lavender, charcoal, broccoli and compost…which amazingly are all items we need for the activities we’ll be running out at the villa tomorrow. Clearly a museum archaeologist’s job description probably never includes shopping but it is inevitable since thinking on your feet and having a creative mind invariably requires new resources – even if they aren’t always the obvious archaeological kind!

Re enactors at Kings Weston Roman Villa 2013

Re enactors at Kings Weston Roman Villa 2013