Rock and Roll! - Or How to Lift a Mosaic

Rudston Mosaic in situ


Rock and Roll! - Or How to Lift a Mosaic


In 1962 staff at Hull Museums were faced with a huge challenge. How to lift three mosaics from the site of a villa near Rudston, East Yorkshire and safely install them in the Archaeology Museum.

The mosaics - The Venus Mosaic, The Aquatic Mosaic and The Swastika Mosaic - had been found in 1933 while the field was being ploughed by the owner, Mr. H. Robson. They had been preserved in the ground beneath a specially-built shed but were becoming increasingly damaged by water and frost. If left these wonderful works of art would be lost forever.

The team from Hull Museums, led by John Barlett and W.H.Southern, developed a method which clearly worked as it was also used in 1971 to lift the Charioteer Mosaic from the same site in 1971. The 'Tyche' Mosaic from the villa at Brantingham was also lifted using this same method. The method they chose was rolling. This was tried on some plain borders of white tesserae first but worked well and so it was decided to risk it on the larger irreplaceable pavements.

Preparation


This first step was to carefully clean and dry the mosaic. Then the gaps between the tesserae were deepened. When the mosaic was completely dry it was coated with two or three layers of a thick plastic solution combined with strips of material and a fourth top coat of plastic solution applied to glue it all in place. This stage in the lifting of the Charioteer Mosaic took 200 hours!

Rolling a mosaic


A cardboard tube strengthened in the middle and both ends by cable drums from the Hull Telephone Department acted as a column around which the mosaic could be rolled. This was a slow process which involved slowly rolling the increasingly heavy drum onto the tube while cutting away the Roman mortar beneath the tesserae. All the while the tesserae were being securely held in place by the coats of material and glue already applied to the top surface.

When completely rolled a large mosaic such as the Venus Mosaic weighed about a ton! The drum was then man-handled onto a low-loader lorry (at 10mph!) to Hull. It was obviously a difficult task as a crane was used when they came to lift the Charioteer Mosaic and its drum in the following decade!

Roll On: Roll Off


Once safely arrived at the museum the mosaic had to be unrolled. This was done by putting a spindle through the cable drums supporting the huge cardboard roll and sliding the pavement as it came off the top down a ramp. The team could then work on the underside of the pavement, removing the remains of the Roman mortar with 'the liberal use of a vacuum cleaner'. A layer of concrete was then applied as a backing, together with a specially prepared steel wire-mesh reinforcement. When it came to backing the Charioteer mosaic in the 1970's the stainless steel grid was strengthened with a fibre-glass and Araldite mixture.

The mosaic could then be turned over. The final stage consisted of removing the layers of plastic coating and material. This was carried out with an electric paint remover. Most of the limestone and brick tesserae were tough, but the chalk ones had to be treated very carefully.