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This blog is a behind the scenes look at the Roman Baths in Bath. We hope you enjoy reading our stories about life surrounding the Roman Baths.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A Matter of Mosaics

Working as an intern for a month at the Roman Baths, I was asked to put together a handling table for the Times Table event at the museum on Tuesday evenings. My mind immediately jumped to mosaics and I thought I’d share the information on the blog.

Mosaics are one of the first things that captured my imagination about the ancient world. I remember going to Fishbourne Roman Palace near Chichester when I was younger, where some of the best mosaics in the country are preserved. The Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic is perhaps one of the best known, and best preserved, mosaics from the site.

Cupid on a Dolphin
Not far from Fishbourne is Bignor Roman Villa, also containing some incredibly well- preserved mosaics. If you’re interested in such art work, I would definitely recommend a visit.

The technique of making mosaics was developed by the Greeks, around 400BC. They used small black and white pebbles to create mythological or other pictorial scenes. Soon, they started to use small pieces of marble, glass, pottery and stone, known as tesserae.

This technique was adopted by the Romans and spread with the empire. Local people would be trained in workshops, examples of which have been identified in London and Colchester. It is believed that there was a ‘handbook’ of common motifs used by artists, which would have presumably been cheaper than getting a unique design done, although no copies of such a book have been found.

Mosaics are often associated with bathing in Roman buildings and certainly many mosaics are found on the surface of the hypocaust heating systems. Unfortunately for us, this means they often collapse in on themselves – as has happened here at the East Baths.

East Bath Mosaic
The colours for the individual tesserae were found naturally in the raw materials selected for the mosaics. Glass was rarely used in Roman Britain but does feature in mosaics elsewhere in the empire.

For me, no discussion of mosaics would be complete without mention of my favourite - the Alexander mosaic. Dating from c. 100BC, it is from the House of the Faun, in Pompeii, the largest house uncovered in the town. The presence of this mosaic, as well as others throughout the house, indicates some very wealthy owners indeed…..

Alexander Mosaic
Measuring 5.82 x 3.13m, around 1.5 million tesserae were used. That is a lot of stone, and a very talented artist! The mosaic depicts the Battle of Issus (333 BC), between Alexander the Great and Darius, the Persian king. The one currently in Pompeii is a reconstruction, as the original has been moved to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Next time you’re looking at a mosaic, have a think about both the artist and whoever commissioned it – can you get a sense of how wealthy they were? What does the mosaic tell us about the building and its owner?

Have a look at this website for some excellent images and a brief description of some lovely examples: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/mosaics_gallery.shtml

For more information on Fishbourne: http://www.sussexpast.co.uk/property/site.php?site_id=11

For more information on Bignor: http://bignorromanvilla.co.uk/

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