Orpheus – the full story!

Elsewhere within the Virtual Museum is a lengthy piece about Keynsham and its Roman past. I mentioned a wonderful mosaic ‘pavement’ discovered at Newton St Loe during the construction of Brunel’s Great Western Railway. After being displayed at Keynsham Railway Station for some time it ended up in the care of the City Museum and Art Gallery at Bristol.

Anthony Beeson restoring Orpheus at Bristol Museum. © Anthony Beeson.
Anthony Beeson restoring Orpheus at Bristol Museum. © Anthony Beeson.

In fact my good friend Anthony Beeson spent a lengthy period putting this giant jig-saw-like puzzle together in the Museum and Art Gallery some years ago. I wondered what had happened to it since. I am grateful to Gail Boyle – who is Senior Curator of Archaeology at Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives for sending me a detailed history.

“A large Roman villa was discovered during the construction of the Great Western Railway in 1837 at Newton St. Low near Bath. One of these (mosaics discovered within the villa) shows Orpheus charming a circle of wild animals and may be the earliest of only nine such illustrations identified as such in Britain – dating from the late third to early fourth century AD.

The story of the mosaic discovery and recovery is as beguiling as the floor itself. Brunel entrusted a young trainee civil engineer, T.E.M.March, with the recording and lifting of two of the mosaics for a museum he had in mind – but which never materialised. The pavement was subsequently lifted and re-laid at Keynsham Railway Station.

It remained there until 1851 when, for some unknown reason, it was decided an unsuitable place for Roman relics and offered to the Bristol Institution, a forerunner of Bristol City Museum.

So began a series of events that led to the mosaic’s almost complete fragmentation. It’s possible that once collected the mosaic remained stored away. Museum premises changed several times and repeated moves to different stores may well have taken their toll. By 1899, the museum was full and much kept in store – especially antiquities. By 1906 it was thought completely lost. We have no idea as to the method used to lift the mosaic from the station but it appears to have been done without finesse!

In the 1930s, the assistant Curator of Archaeology, G.R.Stanton, recognised what he had found in store and laid it out in the basement. The mosaic was already highly fragmented. Stanton took record shots which, along with Marsh’s archive given to thew museum by a relative in 1936, proved invaluable to our project.

There is scant evidence as to what happened next. The war intervened and the mosaic appears to have been packed away…. again! During the 1960s its transfer to Bath was suggested but, at that time, Bristol was to have a brand new museum and the idea was refused. Orpheus was sent to several secondary stores eventually ending up in L-shed – stored in a far from ideal series of pallets and crates.

In 1992, members of the Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics (ASPROM), began the painstaking process of identifying fragments of the mosaic. Their work proved that more of it survived intact than anyone realised. The first opportunity to display one small part of the mosaic came in the mid 1990s when The British Archaeological Association held their meeting in Bristol. Two of the animal figures and some of Marsh’s archive was put on display.

In 1999, l suggested we try to display the whole mosaic providing we could get ASPROM to help us! This resulted in the mosaic being re-assembled in the public eye between July and December of 2000. The mosaic literally grew before everyone’s eyes.

(NB. This was the task Mr Anthony Beeson carried out!)

At the end of the display period it was easy to split the mosaic up into its constituent panels and they were transferred to a new permanent home, on shelves, in the basement. This now allows for continued easy access for all whilst keeping the individual pieces in their relative positions.

At some point we would obviously like to get the floor consolidated and on permanent display but, given the demands on our current resources, this will not be for the forseeable future (although it is possible that we will be able to display it as an adjunct to a major exhibition we are working on which opens this September.)

The mosaic is so fragmentary it would be impossible for us to send it anywhere without a huge and very expensive conservation programme but,if one could be found, we might be open to suggestions.’

Thanks for that Gail. Maybe B&NES would like to get a ‘developer’ to pay for it to be conserved and brought back and installed – with the other stored mosaics found in the Keynsham area – in the space being allocated alongside the new town Library!