Hull Museums explain how to move an ancient mosaic

Published: Wednesday 15th February 2017 by Rich Sutherland

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We’ve teamed up with Hull Museums to bring you a weekly series of historical facts and tales.

If you’ve visited the Hull and East Riding Museum, you may have spotted a mosaic or two.

The thing about mosaics is that they’re made of countless tiny pieces, and they’re usually very, very old. So the question is, how do the staff move them from original sites to the museums without causing any damage?

Well, here’s a little story for you.

In the sixties, staff at Hull Museums were given the task of transporting three mosaics from a Roman villa near Rudston. These were The Venus Mosaic, The Aquatic Mosaic and The Swastika Mosaic (the swastika was originally a symbol for peace and wellbeing).

Discovered in 1933 whilst the field was being ploughed, the trio of beautiful mosaics had been preserved in the ground for almost thirty years. It was now time for them to be shared with the world.

Not only that but the clock was ticking, as water and dirt were slowly taking their toll on the art works.

So, in 1962, the experts at Hull Museums developed a method to safely and efficiently move an ancient artefact from A to B, without bits falling off anywhere in-between.

Preparation

First off, the mosaics needed to be spick and span. However, it wasn’t a case of getting a sponge and some Fairy Liquid, as these centuries-old designs required professional care and attention.

They were then coated with three layers of a thick plastic solution combined with strips of material, and a fourth top coat of plastic solution to glue it all in place.

Whilst this may not sound too time-consuming, it actually took 200 hours.

Rolling

Believe it or not, the mosaic was then rolled into a special cardboard tube, strengthened by cable drums from the Hull Telephone Department.

This was an increasingly difficult task, as the mosaic became heavier with every roll. In the process, the tesserae (the pieces of the mosaic) were painstakingly cut away from the old Roman mortar.

Thanks to the plastic solution that had been applied beforehand, the individual tesserae remained in formation throughout the process.

Once rolled, The Venus Mosaic weighed about a ton, and the others weren’t much lighter. Needless to say, moving them to a lorry was a feat in itself.

The vehicle then had to travel at a cautious 10 miles per hour all the way back to Hull, so a simple 30-mile trip took three hours!

Disembarking

Once the team were back at the museum, the mosaic needed to be unrolled.

To achieve this without undoing all of their hard work, a spindle was slotted through the cable drums. Each mosaic was then slowly slid down to the ground and flattened out.

The last remaining chunks of Roman mortar were removed with a vacuum cleaner, although the team refrained from using any Shake ‘n’ Vac.

A layer of concrete was then applied as a new backing, along with a steel mesh reinforcement to keep each mosaic secure for generations to come.

Now that they were relatively easy to manoeuvre, the plastic coating had to be removed. This was done with an electric paint remover, which was fine for the limestone and brick areas, but the chalk elements needed some serious TLC.

Ta-da!

And so there we have it. The mosaic was placed on display for museum visitors to enjoy.

The process had worked so well that it was used again in 1971 to lift the Charioteer Mosaic from the same site.

So the next time you visit Hull Museums, make sure to admire the skill and dedication of the staff as well as the exhibits. Without the team’s ingenuity and patience, the public would never get to enjoy these incredible Roman mosaics and the stories behind them.

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Published: Wednesday 15th February 2017 by Rich Sutherland

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