Lifting the Monochrome Mosaic

Room VI of the Roman Bath was the large central meeting hall. The features that distinguish this room are the large statue base along the west wall, and the large patterned monochrome mosaic that adorned the floor. The mosaic, accompanied by the statue bases and remnants of sculpture, clearly identifies room VI as the great hall of the Roman Bath complex. Such a great hall was the central location in a Roman bath, and it would have served as the main gathering place.

Originally unearthed in 1976, the mosaic consisted of many small tesserae which, when placed together in the correct order, formed many different designs. The mosaic is a monochrome work of the Italian style, and measures 20.2 meters by 7.6 meters. Around the circumference of the mosaic, are many panels with geometric designs; and the large, center panels depict a triton with a neriad riding on its back, surrounded by various sea creatures.

Dolphin Panel
Dolphin panel

When unearthed in 1976 the mosaic was in relatively good condition, but it was cracking in several spots and had sunk as much as 0.30 meters below the original surface. The unearthing of the mosaic and subsequent exposure to the elements led to even further deterioration. Due to its increasing deterioration, it had become obvious that in order to save the mosaic for future generations, it would have to be restored. That is, it would have to be lifted from its current foundation, pieced back together, and then placed on a new, stronger foundation of concrete. Paul Clement initiated this process in 1980, however, full-scale restoration did not really begin for another ten years.

Central panels before restoration
Central panels before restoration

In 1990, the process of lifting and preserving the mosaic began. This was an extremely expensive and time-consuming process requiring a great deal of resources. There are generally two ways of removing mosaics for restoration: 1) the "sectional" method that cuts the mosaic into sections and then removes the parts separately; and 2) the "rolling" method which rolls up the mosaic like a layer of carpet. Because the mosaic was already broken in spots, Isthmia staff opted with the sectional method.

 Monochrome Mosaic
Preparing for the conservation of the monochrome mosaic

After the entire mosaic was documented, mapped, and photographed the work of lifting the mosaic began. Each panel lifted from its context was restored and the tesserae were scrubbed and cleaned of the ancient mortar.

Once the monochrome mosaic was completely lifted, excavation was conducted below the area which led to further discoveries concerning the Greek Pool. More importantly, the ceramics found below the mosaic floor date the fill (a sealed deposit) to the mid-second century. This provides a construction date of about 150-170 AD.

After this excavation was completed, the area under the mosaic was filled with debris; additionally, certain items such as plastic and modern coins were placed in the debris. This seemingly bizarre activity of placing modern material in an excavated context is actually commonplace in archaeological excavations as a way of ensuring that future archaeologists will realize that this area had been previously excavated. After the pool had been refilled, a new concrete bedding was poured and the mosaic, which had been restored, was placed back into its original position.

Central panel after restoration
Central panels after restoration

In all, a total of 148 sections were restored and replaced to their original locations. The project took four years to complete, with a few more years needed to completely replace all the individual tesserae. Today, the fully restored monochrome mosaic rests comfortably as the floor to room VI in the Roman Bath at Isthmia.

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