The Virtual Museum is carrying several stores about Roman mosaics discovered around Bath.This is the second account of the fabulous Orpheus Pavement found at Newton St Loe in 1837 by Brunel’s railway navvies. Elsewhere the current Curator of Archaeology at Bristol Museums, Gail Boyle, recounts her memories of its ‘journeys’ since being excavated. Meanwhile this story is told by a man who ‘lived’ with that mosaic – and its hundreds of pieces – for some months!
Anthony Beeson is an acknowledged Classical iconographer and an expert on Roman and Greek art and architecture. He is also the Hon Archivist of the Association for Roman Archaeology and a member of the Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics. He is a writer and former Art Librarian at Bristol City Libraries.
Thirteen years ago he was given the job – in the entrance hall of the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery – of trying to piece together the countless fragments of the Orpheus Mosaic. It is a Roman pavement – discovered near Bath – featuring Orpheus playing his lyre with a fox leaping up towards him and surrounded by a ring of seven animals. Anthony has sent me the following personal account of his involvement with the mosaic.
The mosaics were transferred in good condition to Bristol from Keynsham Station. The Orpheus Panel was sawn into the same segmental sections it is now conserved in and the geometric pavements into square or rectangular panels. Alas, I have no doubt that space was the problem in Bristol and lack of interest. They seem to have been left outside and collapsed under their own weight as frost got to them.
ASPROM (The Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics) had been trying to discover what had happened to the important Orpheus Mosaic from Newton St Loe for a long time. A previous curator told us it had been thrown out and so was lost. In some ways the mosaics had been. Stanton had had great trouble with the Museum authorities in the 1930s as they were not interested in the floor. After he left the pieces he reassembled were removed. They were sent to a corporation yard at Dovercourt Road.
Some sections were in a shed that burned down, I have been told, and others had had lorries drive over them in the yard. In the 1980s the mosaic was said to be lost and beyond repair. It took some time before we could track it down as, seemingly, nobody wanted to admit to having it.
Fortunately Sue Giles at the Museum said that they had the remains. They had been excavated and rescued by archaeologist John Bryant in the 1980s and they were in the stores at the Industrial Museum (now M-Shed). I have seen photographs of the mosaics looking like a small slag heap in the yard.
ASPROM arranged a Saturday viewing in 1993. We were faced with 10 palletts crammed with many hundreds of pieces. It soon became evident that all of the mosaics from Newton St Loe were present and mixed up in the crates, just jumbled in together.
Many of the pieces were literally quite black as they had been in a fire at Dovercourt Road. They had deteriorated seriously since Stanton laid out the main Orpheus Panel. The bull’s torso had been one very large piece in his day. Now it is in many pieces and some without any tesserae left. I later identified these pieces by the colour of the mortar.
I arranged two work party sessions with ASPROM members. First we had to clean the pieces. We had a couple of cleaning days with members to get the really filthy pieces clean. It was no good trying to identify pieces when one just had a totally black surfaces. As we cleaned them anything that looked like it was figurative work went on one side. One gets to know what is geometric and figurative work by the shape of the tesselation.
After that, because I was based in Bristol, I started working on my own sorting out and identifying figurative work from geometric work. Some pieces were only about three tesserae across. Others had lost all tesserae but the mortar gave the game away.
I would photograph pieces that looked interesting and then at home pour over copies of the black and white photographs Stanton took of the animals. By chasing oddly shaped tesserae with a jeweller’s eyeglass, I could often identify where a small piece had come from on a figure, and could identify where bits fitted in the jigsaw.
I worked a lot at home as it was sometimes a palarver to arrange a visit at first. Unfortunately I was not allowed to use the coloured Marsh tracing made before the pavement was lifted as it was too fragile, so my aids were all black and white.
The Museum had had a project getting the Marsh tracing copied in black and white by young people some time before but unfortunately when I came to try and use it it was too inaccurate in detail and scale to be of any use. It would have been better had they spent the money on a detailed coloured photographic copy. To my astonishment they didn’t have any coloured photographs of it at all when I asked and they took one of mine that I had made of part of it during the tracing.
Fortunately I also had a coloured postcard of the central figure that was issued in the 1930s. Then I started to identify which figures the figurative bits came from and sorted out pieces from the other floors. I managed to find most pieces of the bear and the stag early on and these were exhibited in the 1990s when we had a conference in Bristol from the British Archaeological Association.
In 1999 the Museum contacted ASPROM to ask for me to put the Orpheus Mosaic together for the Millenium, and liased with our Hon Secretary, Steve Cosh . Unfortunately Steve did not tell them about the geometric borders to this mosaic so, although I had these, they could not be shown. I gladly agreed to do the project when I was assured that the mosaic would be treasured afterwards and that it was not just an “event”.
I got transfered from the library for a couple of days a week to work on the pieces in the Industrial Museum. The Museum kindly made some wooden pallets with rough drawings of the animals inked on them so I could lay the bits out and then they could be transferred to the sandpit at the Museum when I went there in May. Thus l started to lay out the pieces on boards the Museum had had made.
In May the pieces were transfered to the Museum and I continued the work in public, first removing the pieces from the boards on to the sand. Unfortunately there were more pieces of the mosaics still at the Industrial Museum and just before the project closed in November I learned of more pieces in one of the Bond warehouses. Whether the pieces are still in these locations I am unsure. My chum Sheena Stoddard who was curator of Fine art arranged for some of the pieces still in the Industrial museum to be brought up for me by carrier.
As feared, the sand pit was not big enough to show the decorative border unfortunately, but this nearly all of this remains and certainly should be attached if the floor is ever seen again in public. My first great problem was that the museum had not provided a walkway to get to the centre of the sandpit. Fortunately Roger Vaughan from the Geology department arranged for a long ramp that I had seen hanging on the wall in the stores to be transferrred and it was ideal.
At the end of the season I discovered that Stanton had reversed the guilloche border by mistake, and following his photographs so had I. The border should be turned 180 degrees so the corner that is now at top left should actually be bottom right. The clue was in a couple of red tesserae but not having colour images of the tracing to work with I just did not spot it.
Most of the other mosaic floors from the villa also remain. I sorted the pieces out and labelled them and boxed them so that future workers will know what goes with what. I think that I placed between 85-90% of the main floor. I suspect that more pieces exist in the museum store but have come adrift from their fellows. The Museum dismantled the floor in November which was a pity but they needed the space for another do.
Fortunately the pieces of the Orpheus Pavement are now safe. The Museum arranged for special shelving for them. They are kept in the same sawn sections that they were originally brought from Keynsham in. The other mosaics from the site will one day pay for reassembling. Bristol has several mosaics in store including two still rolled up from Cirencester. One is a splendid mosaic from Brislington but only the central Cantharus panel is ever shown.
Freelance Journalist, broadcaster, columnist and local historian. Director of Bath Newseum. Married and lives in Bath.
Interested in local history, architecture and visual display in museums and urban spaces.
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