Chris Cleere, a conservator based at The School Creative Centre in Rye and who specialises in the in-situ conservation of archaeological sites, is busy preparing some of Britain’s finest mosaics to go on display for the first time in 150 years in a new building at Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire.
The majority of the mosaics on display were uncovered in the 1860′s however recent excavations at the villa have uncovered more mosaics – including one of the country’s longest in-situ corridor mosaics – which will go on display inside a new conservation shelter.
National Trust archaeologist Martin Papworth said they had known for many years there were more mosaics than those already on display inside two Victorian built timber sheds.
“They were seen and noted during the Victorian excavations at Chedworth but only two areas were put on display under the old shelters. However, when we did some work to check on their condition we were concerned that frost and weather were affecting them and it was agreed they could be better protected by building a new environmental controlled shelter over that whole section of the villa and excavating them for display.”
The mosaics previously on display under the Victorian shelters include three mosaics in the Bath House and one in the Triclinium or dining room. The excavations will, for the first time in 150 years, allow the display of the corridor mosaics, and three others – in an additional room and two short corridors. These include one of the longest in-situ corridor mosaics in the country at 35 metres long, to be displayed under a special walkway suspended just above the Roman floor.
Following the excavation work at Chedworth any loose tiles – or tesserae – were taped in place to ensure they didn’t move before they were covered.
Chris explained: “The mosaics were wet when they were excavated and now they are safe inside the new building we will let them dry out and see what happens. Then we can assess what type of work we need to do over next summer for the long term conservation
Different areas of the mosaics will need different work because of the way they have been treated over the years.
The mosaics put on display by the Victorians have had gaps filled in with cement while the newly excavated areas will have the gaps packed with an inert mineral, which will prevent further damage to the edges.
“Obviously we want to conserve the mosaics so they look similar,” added Chris. “We might trim back some of Victorian cement in the gaps so it is below the level of the mosaics and then put on a layer of fine sand – the same as is being used for the more recently excavated areas.”
Some methods used in past restorations are no longer used. Some mosaics were lifted and relaid to even out any undulations caused over the centuries. But now the tesserae are left as they are found, with easily reversible work done to stabilise them.
“This is a Roman site with mosaics where they were left for 1,600 years. If we restore the mosaics to be level again, where do we stop? We have the lower sections of the Roman walls, do we build those up again, do we rebuild the whole villa?” asked Chris.
“Our view is that we conserve the original Roman material on site as it is found and if there is a desire to build a reconstruction then that can be done elsewhere, off site without disturbing the original material which has survived here for so long.”
Chris has been conserving objects, archaeological sites and historic buildings for nearly 15 years. Having studied conservation at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology in London, he has since worked all over the world on major UNESCO World-Heritage projects as a stone conservator and heritage preservation consultant, focusing on the Mediterranean countries as well as Eastern Europe.To find out more about Chris and his work you can visit www.chriscleere.co.uk.
Visitors will be able to view Chris and his teams work at Chedworth when the new conservation shelter is officially opened on 4 March.