Archive for January, 2018

Rare 14th-16th c. shipwrecks found in Stockholm

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the wrecks of two ships in the Baltic Sea off Stockholm. That’s not unusual because the Baltic is a) really cold, and b) so saline that shipworm (and other assorted wood-eating critters), which can devour a wooden wreck in a matter of months, find it distinctly inhospitable. There are at least 100 intact ships on the Baltic Sea bed around Stockholm.

What is unusual about the two that have just been discovered is their age. One is a medieval cog believed to date to the 14th or early 15th century. The other is from the 16th century. Most of the ships that sank in Stockholm’s waters date to the 17th and 18th centuries when Sweden’s naval fleet was in its fullest fulgor.

Swedish National Maritime Museums (SNMM) divers found the wrecks just before Christmas while photographing and surveying the seabed for a new museum dedicated to the maritime archaeology of the Baltic Sea.

The wreckage from the Middle Ages is mostly submerged in mud and its details indicate that it is a cog, most likely from the 14th or 15th century. The ship is 23–25 meters in length and seven meters wide. It is likely to have had a mast with a square rig. More shipbuilding details indicate it being from the Middle Ages, such as protruding deck beams with unusually high knees and a simple anchor wheel. When cog ships were introduced on the seas they were a brand new, large and powerful type of ship that came to dominate large parts of the trade around the Baltic Sea for centuries.

The other shipwreck is estimated to be from the 16th century and still stands with the mast straight up and fully equipped. Some of the discoveries onboard include 20 barrels of osmond iron, kitchen utensils and tools. The extent of the iron found is unprecedented in previous maritime findings. Osmond iron has largely built Sweden, but also supported countries around the Baltic Sea. Gustav Vasa wanted to ban the iron, and this happened later in 1604 when osmond iron was replaced with wrought iron.

The SNMM is working on a ground-breaking new approach to shipwreck archaeology and display: leaving them where they are. Instead of investing in the risky, time-consuming and prohibitively expensive recovery of shipwrecks as was done with the incomparable Vasa, known wrecks and ones still to be discovered will stay on the Baltic Sea floor where they will be explored by marine archaeologists. The new maritime archaeological museum, to be built next to the Vasa‘s museum home in Stockholm, will display artifacts and fragments of wrecks recovered in the dives rather than the ships themselves. Visitors will still get a chance to see them, not in person after decades of conservation and restoration (always precarious), but as if they had been part of the diving team. The wonders of computer graphics and virtual reality technology make it possible to experience marine archaeological remains in their original context, in virtual situ, if you will.

The Treasures of the Baltic Sea museum is scheduled to open in 2020.


2,500-year-old grave mutliple burial found in Mexico

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Archaeologists with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have discovered a 2,500-year-old grave containing the skeletal remains of at least 10 people during a salvage excavation in Tlalpan, a borough in the Federal District of Mexico City. The grave was found five feet below the surface under property belonging to the Pontifical University of Mexico. It is the first burial with so many individuals from the Preclassic period found in the Valley of Mexico. Previous finds have had two, at most three, individuals buried together.

The burial pit is modest in size, about 6.5 feet in diameter, considering how many bodies it contains. The skeletons found there were all buried at the same time. So far 10 individual skeletons have been identified. The sex of three of them has been determined — two female, one male — and archaeologists are working to identify the rest. Most of them were children at the time of death. There is one confirmed adult, one child between three and five years of age and the remains of an infant who died just one month old. Osteological analysis has found individuals with deliberate cranial deformation and some dental modifications as well. There are also evidence of wear on the teeth and bone spurs on the vertebrae, today more common in people older than 50.

The grave goods include earthenware bowls, pots and gourds of various sizes from large to tiny. There also stones and ceramic spheres placed in the hands of some of the deceased.

Investigations into the cause of death are ongoing. There is no immediate evidence of them being related to each other or affiliated in any other way, but there is likely a ritual significance to their deaths because their remains were carefully arranged, the arms of one placed under the spine of the other in a sort of windmill pattern that is particularly pronounced in the center. They’re not in the same positions, however. Some are on their sides, others on their back or with their knees pulled up to their chest or their lower limbs hyperextended towards the hips. Their intricate placement is how the team knew they were buried together in a single event.

The area was first settled around 1200-1000 BC as a small farming community. It was one of the first settlements south of modern-day Mexico City. The civic center that developed is known as Cuicuilco and the archaeological site contains the remains of a conical pyramid on oval base, built around 800–600 B.C., likely modeled after one of several active volcanoes in the Valley of Mexico. The attempt to appease the local Pele was successful for centuries. Until it wasn’t. Cuicuilco was obliterated in the eruption of the Xitle volcano around 100-200 A.D. Subsequent eruptions buried the city and the valley in lava.

The village of Tlalpan was settled just east of Cuicuilco between the Zacatenco phases (700-400 B.C.) and Ticoman (400-200 B.C.) of the Middle and Late Formative period. It had come to some prominence, apparently, until the eruption depopulation the valley. There may have been a brief Post-Classic period resettlement (archaeologists are still debating this point) but by then the area was dominated by the nearby urban center of Teotihuacan which didn’t exist yet as a single community when Xitle destroyed Cuicuilco.

When archaeologists first came across the remains of basalt stone walls, they weren’t sure at first what period they came from. They thought they might be Post-Classic, but closer examination found that they were built using river stones, which is marker of Pre-Classic construction. INAH experts believe Tlalpan had areas used for residential, ritual or burial purposes, pieces of which have been found in this excavation and others over the past dozen years. The stone walls were from a private dwelling, archaeologists believe.

This Spanish language video released by INAH shows the burial pit once it’s fully excavated and includes commentary from the researchers on the arrangement of the bodies. Turn on the closed captioning if your Spanish is shaky or non-existent and use the auto-translator to get a hint of what they’re saying through the autogenerated weirdnesses.


Rare Arabic-inspired chess piece found in Norway

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Medieval chess piece of Arabic-inspired design. Photo by Lars Haugesten, NIKUArchaeologists have unearthed a rare medieval chess piece in the remains of a 13th century house in Tønsberg, Norway. It was discovered just before Christmas by a team from the Norwegian Institute of Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) who were excavating the Anders Madsens gate area of Tønsberg.

The cylindrical piece is 30 mm high (1.2 inches) and 26 mm in diameter (1 inch). There’s a wedge jutting out from the top front and it as well as the rest of the body are decorated all over with circles with dots inside. It was carved out of antler and archaeologists believe the maker inserted a piece of lead in the middle of the cylinder to ensure it would hold firm on the chessboard.

Its unusual design suggests it was at least inspired by Arabic art, but that doesn’t mean it was manufactured by Islamic artists or in an Islamic country.

“The design of the piece has an abstract shape, and is designed according to Islamic tradition, where no human figures are to be depicted,” says project manager for the excavation in NIKU Lars Haugesten. […]

“No previous archaeological finds from Tønsberg have such details, which emphasizes that this chess piece is a unique object,” says Haugesten.

Researchers determined that the this piece is a knight. The piece was called an “asb,” meaning horse in Persian in the early form of chess that spread throughout Europe after the Islamic conquest that ended the Sasanian Persian Empire in the 7th century. The game under its Arabic name, shatranj, was brought to Europe via Islamic Spain in the 10th century and from there spread to the far reaches of the continent over the next couple of centuries.

The oldest known chess piece in Scandinavia was found in Lund, Sweden, and dates to the 12th century. It too is of Arabic design and is not dissimilar to the one recently unearthed at Tønsberg. Similar pieces have been found in Bergen, Norway, as well, where more than a thousand game pieces have been discovered in multiple excavations. The Arabic-influenced abstract knight design is very rare. There are only six examples of them among the Bergen pieces, and they have different dimensions and decorative motifs.

The Anders Madsens dig started in the fall and has so far discovered the remains of streets and houses from the Middle Ages. Artifacts found include a panoply of daily use objects like combs, pottery and antlers. The excavation has been the subject of much interest because Tønsberg is the oldest city in Norway, its founding traditionally dated to 871 A.D. based on the account of 13th century chronicler Snorri Sturluson, and the dig site is located in a key position near Slottsfjell Castle, the royal estate and St. Laurence Church, now no longer standing.


World War I propaganda at the Bruce Museum

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

After the digitization of the World War I memorabilia, we went to the room next door where the Bruce Museum had its small but impeccable collection of World War I propaganda posters on display. About 3 dozen posters were on display, almost all of them in flawless condition with color lithography still vibrant. They were arranged in thematically-related groups, which illustrated how many angles artists used to approach the same subjects.

Perhaps the most compelling grouping from my perspective were the violent, disturbing ones that demonized the enemy as blood-thirsty barbarians. Some are a shock to the system, and would have doubtless been even more so in 1917-1918.

Another group of posters was dedicated to the mobilization of women as Red Cross volunteers, nurses and in the ubiquitous sale of bonds, stamps and other products devised to help finance the war. One poster stood out for me the most with its saturated color and detailed design:

Joan of Arc Mobilizing women

Meanwhile, over in the section where recruitment posters reached out to American men to volunteer for the services if at all possible, I was struck by a rather happy piece with a Village People sort of vibe. It calls for men to join the US Navy by showing them in cheerful comraderie with sailors from around the world.

Posters were not the only things on display in the exhibition. There were some artifacts and two multimedia stations playing propaganda films on a loop. The first was an extraordinary piece of artwork by cartoonist and animation pioneer Winsor McCay. His most famous animated movie, Gertie the Dinosaur, released in 1914, was the first moving picture to have a dinosaur in it and while it wasn’t the first animated feature ever made, it stands out for its artistry and theme and has been studied and copied extensively.

In 1918, McCay created a masterpiece of animated innovation by way of propaganda: The Sinking of the Lusitania, as 12-minute animated recreation of the torpedoing of the RMS Lusitania. The tragedy was not filmed or photographed, so McCay relied on detailed descriptions from the Hearst Corporation’s Berlin correspondent August F. Beach to create his short film. It took him just shy of two years to finish the incredibly huge amount of drawing required to make this serious, dramatic subject come alive for 12 minutes. It was the longest animated feature ever made up until that point. The picture was not a box office hit, but it did fulfill its political purpose of making the sinking of the Lusitania a rallying cry for Americans, 123 of whose countrymen died on that ship.

The second film is lighter fare, starring a characteristically sweet, insouciant Mary Pickford learning how to rein in her profligacy so she can “do her bit” and buy a Liberty Bond. It’s a propaganda film, complete with her appeal straight to the audience in the end, but it also ties in with other propaganda media covered by the Bruce’s exhibition. There’s a “Hun” poster that shames her out of buying an ice cream sundae, and the title of the short is 100% American, a common motif in the recruiting and bond drive posters.


Fun with World War I digitization

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

Quick summary of the day: digitization was a blast and the exhibition of World War I propaganda posters at the Bruce Museum was a gem.

The first thing we did was register with the immensely courteous, enthusiastic and efficient digitization crew from the Connecticut State Library. We sat for a few minutes waiting for a specialist to become available, enjoying a variety of quality cookies and coffee. The wait was minimal. I don’t think I got 3 sips down before our digitization pro was ready for us.

A veteran himself, he was very interested in the medals from France and the Red Cross that the formidable ladies had been awarded in 1919. He asked my relative everything she knew about them and she filled in all the information she could while we looked up the online census data for details like date of birth and death. He was particularly fascinated with the certificate that accompanied one of the awarded medals. It was in Cyrillic letters, but a variant, not the standard ones you see today.

The certificate was cracked and torn and in very delicate condition, taped to white poster paper in a most precarious way. Project manager Christine Pittsley came over and was so intrigued by the certificate that she took a photo and uploaded it to Instagram in the hope of enlisting the power of the web to identify and translate the wording.

No answers so far on what the certificate is saying. We were able to identify the medal and language as Serbian — talk about being in the thick of things — but it would be so great to know the reason for the medal. We know she and her sister volunteered for the Red Cross and worked building orphanages during the war. They were also in France at some point.

The certificate and all of the medals were scanned in a high-resolution tiff scanner and professionally photographed with one of those cool blazing lights-black umbrellas setups. The staff were so conscientious and careful with these treasures, making sure there would be no harm done in the process of documenting World War I family memories.

I asked the person at the registration desk how the day had gone and she said there was a great turnout, with people coming in a brisk pace as soon as the event began at noon. We were at the museum checking out the exhibitions until it closed at 5:00, and the staff were still packing up even though the scanning period ended at 4:00. It was a real joy to see people so dedicated to preserving memorabilia and memories and residents so enthusiastic about keeping their family histories alive.

Coming up tomorrow, the Bruce Museum’s small but impeccable World War I poster collection.


83-ton Ramses II collossus moved to new home

Friday, January 26th, 2018

Rameses in the main entrance of the Grand Egyptian Museum. Photo by AFP.An 83-ton colossus of Pharaoh Ramses II wended its way at a snail’s pace from a Cairo storage facility to the atrium of the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. Moving the 3,200-year-old statue 1,200 feet from the warehouse to the shiny new museum was a logistical challenge because of its massive weight and its towering 30 feet of height. The solid granite monument required the construction of a custom rig to make the move possible while minimizing risk of damage. It was locked into a metal cage on two trailer beds and then slowly, slowly driven to its final destination accompanied by a phalanx of army engineers and contractors. The total cost for the move was an estimated $770,000.

Ramses on the move in custom rig. Photo by AFP.When it arrived, the statue was welcomed by a cheering crowds, government officials, press, assorted dignitaries and a military mounted escort and marching band. This video captures the sloooow movement of the great pharaoh’s colossus and its arrival at the new museum where he is welcomed by the military band. Our old friend Zahi Hawass is there too, declaring the transfer of the colossus “the most important cultural event in the world.”

Rameses stares down Cairo traffic. Photo by AFP.After his ouster as Antiquities Minister in the wake of the toppling of the Mubarak regime, Hawass had to lie low for a while (well, as low as he can) and had no involvement in any of Egypt’s many archaeological projects and missions that he once ruled with the kind of unquestioned control that Ramses II himself would recognize. Now he’s back in the game, charged with a high-profile Antiquities Ministry mission to look for the tomb of an 18th Dynasty pharaoh known as Ay who was King Tutankhamun’s successor.

The Grand Egyptian Museum is still under construction. The scheduled completion date is 2020, and Ramses II’s red granite colossus will be one of 100,000 Egyptian artifacts that will be on display in the 650,000-square-foot building in the shadow of the pyramids of Giza.


World War I Digitization Day + posters

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

Saturday, January 27th, is World War I Digitization Day in Greenwich, Connecticut. An initiative of the Connecticut State Library, the Digitization Days program gives state residents the opportunity to memorialize people who played a role in the War to End All Wars by digitizing their images, documents, letters and medals and sharing the stories handed down from generation to generation over the course of the last 100 years. Local museums have been opening their doors to the public so that they can contribute their objects and lore to build a digital archive of World War I.

The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, is hosting a Digitization Day event from 12:00-4:00 PM this Saturday in conjunction with its newly opened exhibition Patriotic Persuasion: American Posters of the First World War. Visitors are welcome to bring their photos, papers and keepsakes from WWI to the museum where they will meet with a digitization specialist who will gather all information known about the loved one connected to the objects and scan up to five items on the spot. No need to fear that your family treasures will disappear down the rabbit hole or be out of your hands for months. Everything is done using portable equipment in front of your very eyes. Once the scanning is done, you get your stuff back and a link to where the scans have been uploaded online. All of the digitized material will be added to the Connecticut State Library’s digital collection where it is freely available to the public.

Everyone who comes to the museum with materials to digitize will be given free admission (tickets usually cost $10), so once you’ve chipped in your family history to the wider story of the state and country’s participation in the Great War, you can enjoy a gratis view of the Bruce Museum’s collection of World War I propaganda posters donated to the museum by Beverly and John W. Watling III in 2008.

The United States’ involvement in World War I lasted only 20 months, from April 1917 to November 1918, but the nation’s military and propaganda strategies were of enormous consequence. In the era of radio and film’s infancy, posters were an essential medium; there were more than 20 million posters printed from about 2,500 designs.

Many of the posters on display in Patriotic Persuasion were originally collected by Mr. Watling’s stepfather, Charles B. Warren, Jr., and his brother, Wetmore Warren, in Washington, D.C., where their father, Charles B. Warren, served on the staff of the Judge Advocate General during the war.

The variety of approaches that government agencies used to encourage widespread participation in the war effort was impressive, from the allure of artist Howard Chandler Christy’s young woman who, in a 1917 poster, seductively proclaimed, “I Want You for the Navy,” to the inquisitional tone of a war loan poster of the next year: “Are you 100% American? Prove it! Buy U.S. Government Bonds.”

Other posters combine image and text in ingenious, surprising, and sometimes disturbing combinations. In one of the iconic wartime posters from 1918, artist Joseph Pennell powerfully imagined a partially destroyed Statute of Liberty and New York City aflame in the background, with the plea, “That Liberty Shall Not Perish from the Earth / Buy Liberty Bonds / Fourth Liberty Loan.”

“This show represents a hallmark of the Bruce — to develop creative ways to showcase our collection in meaningful exhibitions that link artistic works with human history on a global and local scale,” says Kirsten Reinhardt, museum registrar. “These posters were displayed all over the country, including in Greenwich, and the power of their message remains strong today.”

I will be traveling to the Digitization Days event with a relative who has an extraordinary group of medals and medallions, including several that were given to women who were recognized for their bravery and humanitarian contributions when the war was its most bloody. I am honored to see the objects and the stories behind them become part of the archive and hope we can learn more about them than the very little we know now. The medals are somewhat obscure and one of the diplomas that came with them has survived. After all these years blogging about digitization projects and crowdsourced data and archive collections, finally I get to see it happen live, and to help a family member find out all she can about these fascinating pieces to boot.


Mystery lady, not Fraser chief, buried in clan’s tomb

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, was the last man to be beheaded in Britain. Fraser, Chief of Clan Fraser, was known as a wily wheeler-dealer, hence his nickname “The Old Fox.” He tried to play both sides throughout the conflicts of the 18th century and while he was nominally on the Jacobite side during the 1745 uprising, he told the English he wasn’t just to keep his options open (i.e., cover his ass in case it all went to hell in a handbasket, as it did). His clan was on the front lines at the Battle of Culloden on April 16th, 1746, bearing the brunt of the Hanoverian assault. Lord Lovat himself was not among them. He was 80 years old, morbidly obese and afflicted with, among other ailments, gout and arthritis, so he wasn’t exactly fighting fit, but he was also playing the odds. He told the English that his son Simon had fought with the Jacobites against his wishes.

He was still trying to hide behind that dodge after the Battle of Culloden ended in disaster for the pro-Stuart Highlanders. It didn’t work then either. The Old Fox was captured a few months later and taken to the Tower of London. In March of 1747, he was put on trial for treason. The outcome was unsurprising: he was convicted and sentenced to decapitation. On April 9th, 1747, he was led to the gallows, laughed when he saw nine people killed when one of the wooden bleachers collapsed, quoted Horace’s Odes and took leave of his head.

The story takes a bit of a turn after that. Although the chief had asked that his body be returned to his family cemetery and the authorities had agreed, they thought better of it after the beheading. Figuring his remains and tomb would become a focal point for Jacobite Scots to plot rebellion, they buried the body of Simon Fraser under the Tower chapel floor. There was a gap, though, a full nine days between his execution and his burial to allow for viewing of the body. According to Clan Fraser lore, his body was purloined during those nine days and smuggled back to Scotland where it was secretly buried at Wardlaw Mausoleum, the Fraser family cemetery in Kirkhill, near Inverness.

The contradictory stories came to the forefront again in the 19th century when the coffins under the Tower chapel were disinterred and one of them had Lord Lovat’s name on it. More recently, however, there was a stirring on the other side of the Force when a headless body was discovered in an expensive double lead casket at the cemetery. Could the tales be true? Were these The Old Fox’s remains, snatched out from under England’s very nose?

Science’s representative in this matter was forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black who was engaged to study the remains thoroughly, from osteological analysis to DNA testing, to answer conclusively whether this headless body was THE headless body of the 11th Lord Lovat. The answer is no. The remains are of a young woman in her late 20s or early 30s at the time of her death.

Professor Black, Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, said: “We can say with absolute certainty that these are not the remains of The Old Fox.

“The remains were in poor condition, very wet, in common with remains that have been a long time in a wooden or lead coffin, so in line with what we expected.

“The area of the body most indicative of whether remains are male or female is the shape of the pelvis, and two areas of the pelvis in particular. In both areas, these remains are very feminine. There is no way that these were the remains of an 80-year-old six-foot man who suffered from gout and arthritis.

“We estimate these are the remains of a young woman, probably aged 25–35. We understand that there are some possibilities that she might be a member of the Fraser family, and further DNA testing is being carried out.” […]

Professor Black added: “We simply don’t know what happened to the head, but it may be that it has been taken as a trophy many years ago. The DNA testing should confirm whether the remains are those of a member of the Fraser family, in which case the casket may well have simply been put to use. But if the remains are not a member of the family, then we are faced with more of a poser as to how she came to be buried in the casket.”


Vesuvius’ lesser known victims in 3D

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

Vesuvius took thousands of lives when it erupted on August 24th, 79 A.D., burying entire cities in layers of pumice, ash and mud. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are the most famous of its victims, thanks to the extraordinary state of preservation in which they were found and the profound emotional impact of the plaster casts made from body cavities developed in the 19th century by pioneer archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli. Now the smaller, lesser known site of Oplontis is getting some high-tech attention.

Oplontis isn’t a city. It’s a multi-use villa complex composed of Villa A, a large luxury estate believed to have belonged to Poppaea, Nero’s second wife, and Oplontis B, an industrial structure that housed an active wine import-export concern. Villa A was, thankfully, not inhabited at the time of the eruption. The wine business, on the other hand, was hopping. Archaeologists have unearthed the skeletal remains of more than 50 people from a single room of Oplontis B. Thus far, they are the only human remains found at the site.

The Faces of Oplontis research project has taken a new approach to some of the unanalyzed skeletons from Oplontis B. Starting last summer, a team of archaeologists finished excavating the skeletons in Room 10 that hadn’t been fully unearthed yet and examined the remains in situ using photogrammetry (a technology that deploys high resolution photography to calculate measurements and proportions). Complete skulls were 3D scanned. All of the remains were osteologically analyzed and will be subject to mitochondrial DNA testing, stable isotope, trace element, parasitological and pathogen DNA analysis. The comprehensive study will shed light on working class Romans, their diets, health, geographical origins and, one hopes, cause of death.

Photogrammetry was also used before the excavation to record Room 10, making it a possible to create 3D model that shows were the people died (all the skeletons except for two which have been cast and moved to the front are still in their original locations at the time of death). The model gives researchers the ability to navigate the site without disturbing the remains, figuring out the stratigraphic data, which ones of them died first, by what means and how their bodies may have shifted. It’s of particular importance in Oplontis because it’s not clear what kind of volcanic fallout the site experience. Pompeii got the pumice rain. Herculaneum got the superheated mud. What took out Oplontis, which is very close to Pompeii, remains in question. The new research may help answer this once and for all.

Faces of Oplontis has created a dedicated website and have made their 3D models available to the Internet-going public. They are annotated to highlight and explain the main points of interest. I recommend clicking on the notes, especially for the skulls, because they contain a lot of information we civilians would not recognize from just looking.

Here is Room 10, the skeletons in situ before excavation:

Skull 2, an adult male of middle age (with an very cool unfused metopic suture):

Skull M, a young woman (25-30 years old) whose unborn baby was also a victim of Vulcan’s ire:

Check out the rest on the Faces of Oplontis Sketchfab channel and give them a follow to see more as the study progresses.


Lifting and conserving a Roman mosaic floor

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

Last winter, University of Leicester archaeologists unearthed a mosaic floor from the Roman era that is one of the largest found in Leicester in three decades. In the winter of 2016/2017, a site on the corner of Highcross Street and Vaughan Way was slated for development, so the ULAS team was engaged by to survey it before construction of new apartment blocks began to perform any necessary salvage of archaeological remains. When they found the remains of a Roman house with a big fragment of a late 3rd or early 4th century A.D. mosaic surviving, they realized they’d have to remove it to save it.

This was not a simple proposition. At two by three meters (6.6 x 9.8 feet) in size, it is impressively large even though it’s just a fragment of the original floor which would have been three times larger and covered the entire square room. The tesserae are small cubes of stone and brick arranged in a square of grey tiles surrounded by border of red. With the central square are red accents, among them a floral motif, leaves and a Swastika meander border.

It’s handsome, but it’s not a glamorous floor like one of Leicester’s best known Roman remains, the Blackfriars Mosaic which is one the largest and most elaborate mosaic floors ever discovered in Britain. This is the type of floor most houses in Leicester would have during the Roman era.

Because it wasn’t the highest quality mosaic like you’d find in the villas of the very wealthy elite, the tesserae were fragile and after 1,500 years or so underground, the mortar that adhered them to the floor and each other was long gone. This made the job of lifting the mosaic a difficult one for the ULAS archaeologists. Archaeological conservator Theo Sturge, who was part of the team who lifted the Blackfriars Mosaic in the 1970s, contributed his extensive expertise to the challenging logistics of lifting a large, barely held-together mosaic in snowy, rainy, cold winter weather.

Thousands of tesserae had to be lifted in such a way to ensure none of them would be displaced and the pattern disrupted. To make this happen, especially in the atrocious weather conditions, ULAS had to glue Hessian fabric to the surface of the mosaic. Whatever remained of the mortar grout between the tesserae and the mortar base onto which the tiles had been set were cut away and thin boards placed underneath sections of the mosaic. The boards were then lifted and the mosaic was moved, section by section, to Theo Sturges’ laboratory for conservation.

[ULAS Project Officer] Mathew Morris added: “The finished mosaic looks fantastic, Theo has done an amazing job putting it back together. In some ways it’s quite unusual to go to this level of effort and cost to conserve a mosaic of this quality, but actually because of its poorer quality you can see the craftsmanship behind it. You can see the direction the Roman workers were laying the stones in, you can see at one point one of the lines started to bend off and so they’ve had to turn one line into three to create a straight edge again. It’s these little human touches and errors that you can see in it that are important because they give you those glimpses into how it was made, who made it and their attitude to work, that gives you that real insight into the people of Roman Leicester.”

Its conservation complete, the mosaic is back in Leicester where it will go on display at a future date and location yet to be determined. In anticipation of the upcoming exhibition, ULAS has just released a very cool video describing the lifting and conservation of the mosaic.






Add to Technorati Favorites