By Thomas Roby

In November 2005 in Hammamet, Tunisia, the International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics (ICCM) held its ninth conference since its founding in 1977. The ICCM has its roots in the Association Internationale pour l'Etude de la Mosaïque Antique (AIEMA), which has focused on the study and understanding of mosaics—rather than on their conservation—since its inception in 1963. The 1977 meeting, which gave birth to the ICCM, was organized by ICCROM and included members of AIEMA. That meeting in Rome was a significant example of collaboration between archaeologists and conservation professionals concerned about the deterioration and loss of mosaics on archaeological sites.

The latest ICCM conference was a collaborative effort hosted by the Institut National du Patrimoine (INP) of Tunisia and its director of sites and monuments, Aïcha Ben Abed, with the professional and organizational support of the Getty Conservation Institute and under the guidance of the ICCM board—particularly its president, Demetrios Michaelides. The theme of the conference was "Lessons Learned: Reflecting on the Theory and Practice of Mosaic Conservation." It seemed appropriate that after almost thirty years of ICCM conferences, the mosaic conservation field should look back on its experiences and draw conclusions about what has been accomplished and where the field needs to go. The location of the 2005 conference provided an opportunity to attract participants from Arab countries and from Turkey, which are usually poorly represented at ICCM conferences. To capitalize on this opportunity, the Getty Foundation provided a grant that enabled the participation of forty-nine professionals from ten Arab countries and Turkey. Two members from Arab countries were elected to the ICCM board at the end of the conference—a significant widening of the board's geographical representation.

The four days of conference papers were organized into different sessions with their own themes: evaluating mosaic practice, caring for mosaics in museums, documenting and assessing sites at risk, managing sites with mosaics, sheltering mosaics, and training conservation practitioners. In addition, there was a session on case studies in which papers illustrating recent conservation projects were grouped. Conclusions drawn from the various sessions were summarized at the end of the conference (see sidebar). Publication of the proceedings will be undertaken by the GCI.

In the closing session of the conference, the ICCM board put forth two general recommendations:

  1. Taking into consideration the great need for the maintenance of mosaics left in situ in the open air or under shelters, the ICCM encourages the managers of archaeological sites to systematically measure during the next three years the cost to maintain the mosaics in good condition while presenting them to the public.

  2. Recognizing that numerous training programs, without any connection between them, have been launched in various countries during the last years, the ICCM encourages the undertaking of an assessment of needs for training in Mediterranean countries in order to eventually launch a coordinated effort to improve the level of knowledge and intervention of the professional staff of these countries.

It is interesting to compare these recommendations with those that came out of the 1977 meeting. Both meetings addressed the need for training in mosaic conservation, although more training initiatives have been organized in the nearly three decades since 1977. The focus now is more on the quality and sustainability of the training than on making it available. Whereas in 1977 the concern was for the loss of information resulting from the detachment or other interventions on mosaics, now that in situ conservation is more commonly practiced, there is a need for documentation regarding the costs of in situ conservation, so that mosaics, along with the rest of the site, can be better managed.

The recommendations of previous ICCM conferences called for the conservation in situ of mosaics through protection or reburial and through maintenance—with detachment considered an intervention of last resort. They also called for research by scientists, conservators, and archaeologists to improve the methods of preserving and maintaining mosaics (1986). Past conferences have specifically recommended the use of conservation materials compatible with the original lime-based materials of mosaics (i.e., not cement), and the provision by site directors of the financial resources necessary for in situ mosaic conservation (1996). More recently the ICCM has advocated that programs for conserving and presenting mosaics should be part of an overall site conservation plan that is based on the collaboration of archaeologists, conservators, architects, administrators, and the general public (1999). The importance of the public in the conservation of mosaics and in issues of presentation has been increasingly recognized at ICCM conferences.

Over the past thirty years, ICCM conferences have managed to effect a shift from the detachment of mosaics to their conservation in situ. These conferences have also increased the awareness of those in the mosaic conservation field regarding the essential role of preventive conservation, as well as the importance of monitoring and maintenance for successful in situ conservation. But how much of this message is reaching archaeologists and site directors who do not have a specialist interest in mosaics? Discussion at the conference suggested that it was very difficult to find ICCM conference proceedings in libraries. Relatively few copies of the proceedings are printed, and little effort is made to distribute them to major libraries. To reach more people outside the field, the director of iccrom at the time of the conference, Nicholas Stanley-Price, proposed the production of a short publication of principles and guidelines for mosaic conservation for nonconservation audiences. While this would be outside the usual activities of the ICCM, such initiatives could help improve the level of collaboration between it and archaeological organizations such as AIEMA, thereby advancing the practice of mosaic conservation.

Another issue raised was mosaic reburial. At least one participant was convinced that this was not an effective technique for preserving mosaics in the long term, while others favored it. At past conferences as well, papers that addressed the reburial of mosaics sometimes provoked divergent opinions. During the 2005 conference, it was proposed that reburial be a session topic at the next ICCM conference, as a way of achieving more informed opinions and consensus about this important mosaic and site conservation option.

This conference, which invited participants to reflect on the history of the mosaic conservation field, did not always reach the hoped-for level of self-analysis, but it did lead to the realization among many that a flexible approach to mosaic conservation is needed. At past ICCM conferences there was a greater division, if not antagonism, between those who practiced conservation through the lifting of mosaics and those who practiced in situ conservation. At the Tunisia conference, various participants acknowledged that lifting should happen much less often than it still does, but that in certain instances it is the last and only option for the conservation of a mosaic.

A common opinion expressed at the conference was that the field needs to take a much broader view of mosaic conservation and address it as an element of overall site management, while also taking a long-term approach, which requires maintenance and monitoring to ensure the sustainability of conservation interventions. However, for this approach to be successful, the development of new categories of staffing and a greater financial commitment of governments responsible for sites are required.

The next ICCM conference will take place in Palermo in 2008; it will be hosted by the Sicilian Regional Center for Conservation (Centro Regionale per la Progettazione e il Restauro). This event promises to showcase the efforts of Sicilian authorities to take a broader, long-term approach to mosaic conservation at its sites, including the famous Villa Romana del Casale at Piazza Armerina—just as Tunisia has begun to do by training conservation technicians, as well as future conservators and site managers.

Thomas Roby is a senior project specialist with GCI Field Projects and manager of the Institute's collaborative project with the Institut National du Patrimoine in Tunisia that is providing training in the care and maintenance of in situ archaeological mosaics.

For additional information regarding the ICCM, please visit its Web site.

Site Visits in Tunisia

The ICCM conference included visits to the ancient sites of Thuburbo Majus, Jebel Oust, Neapolis (Nabeul), and Carthage, as well as a visit to the Bardo Museum in Tunis, which houses the world's largest collection of ancient mosaics. The visits to Thuburbo Majus and Jebel Oust provided the opportunity not only to see the extensive mosaics of those sites but also to meet and to view the work of the mosaic maintenance technicians. During three different recent fourteen-week courses, these INP technicians were trained for the maintenance of in situ mosaics by a team of GCI staff and consultants. The maintenance technicians have already had a dramatic effect on a number of sites with mosaics. But they need the supervision of Tunisian conservators (which do not yet exist), as well as of site managers, to support and direct their work. The INP is working to develop these new site personnel profiles, with the assistance of the GCI. At Neapolis, a site newly opened to the public, the in situ mosaics of the House of the Nymphs were visited, and the regional archeaological museum in the modern town offered the opportunity to view the figurative mosaics of the house, which had been removed from the nearby site many years ago, following its excavation.

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Site Visits in Libya

The ICCM conference ended with an optional three-day post-conference tour to Libya, which included visits to the Archaeological Museum in Tripoli and to the ancient cities of Sabrata and Leptis Magna, as well as to Villa Silene and several other smaller sites normally closed to the public. At the sites of Sabrata and Leptis Magna, in particular, one could see—beyond the scale and extraordinary artistic and historic significance of their architectural remains—the long-term effects of insufficient site maintenance and management. The tour included visits to the site museums of Sabrata and Leptis Magna, where the major Roman and Byzantine mosaic discoveries from the past century could be viewed, including the spectacular gladiator scenes from a recently excavated villa outside Leptis Magna.

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2005 ICCM Conference Session Conclusions

On the final afternoon of the 2005 ICCM Conference, an overview was presented of the main messages that emerged during the thematic sessions. This overview was based on summary points—reproduced here—which were distilled from each session by conference rapporteurs.

Evaluating Mosaic Practice

  • Evaluation of past interventions and practices is essential to improving current and future practices but is largely dependent on accurate and accessible documentation.
  • The practice of mosaic conservation has evolved from one of limited options (detachment), materials (cement), values (aesthetic), and stakeholders (professionals), to one involving complex decision making and planning with a range of viable in situ options (both temporary and long term), the use of scientific methods and compatible materials, and the recognition of multiple values and varied stakeholders.
  • Conservation interventions are sustainable only when there is a clear vision, an effective management structure and planning process in place, trained personnel, and regular maintenance and monitoring.
  • Decisions about how to treat a mosaic must be made on a case-by-case basis (there is no single formula that can be applied to all mosaics on a site). They are the result of thorough assessment and need to be based on defined criteria and guidelines.
  • An understanding of causes of deterioration to in situ mosaics requires recognition of unsolved problems, implementation of long-term and in-depth investigations, and wide dissemination of their results.

Caring for Mosaics in Museums

  • Decisions need to be shared by curators and conservators in order to achieve successful and sustainable conservation solutions.
  • Previous conservation interventions can sometimes be detrimental to the condition of mosaics in museums; negative effects of past treatments (such as embedded iron rods) can often be mitigated or slowed through preventive conservation measures, such as the control of temperature and relative humidity in both gallery and storage conditions.
  • It is important to consider both the objects and the building envelope in making conservation decisions about mosaics displayed in museums; poor storage conditions is a subject of increasing concern.
  • Where adequate documentation does not exist, analysis of past treatments and treatment materials may be necessary in order to develop appropriate conservation measures; historic photographs can also be useful in understanding the change in an object's condition over time.
  • In some cases, past interventions have become important to the history of the object and merit conservation in their own right.
  • Interpretation and presentation to the public are important values in museum conservation; treatments carried out in full view of the public can be useful in increasing understanding of and support for conservation.

Documenting and Assessing Sites at Risk

  • Mosaic corpora that include conservation information and risk assessment strategies undertaken at national or regional levels can be significant tools for the conservation and management of the mosaic heritage.
  • It is important to establish systematic documentation standards and protocols to facilitate decision making and to improve practice.
  • Attention should be given to the development of documentation strategies that permit improved sharing of information, perhaps through more effective use of digital technologies and the Web.
  • Archaeologists and conservators must work together effectively on rescue excavations to ensure that decisions made are those that are best for the heritage at risk.

Managing Sites with Mosaics

  • There is a clear trend emerging to look at sites holistically and to undertake more systematic assessment and planning before arriving at decisions regarding conservation and management of sites.
  • Stakeholder participation is crucial in gaining support for in situ preservation and in the prevention of looting.
  • Techniques like geographic information systems (GISs) may be useful in documenting, monitoring, and managing the mosaic heritage.
  • There are multiple options for mosaic conservation that include conservation in situ, detachment and replacement in situ, detachment and replacement in a museum, and reburial. These choices should be made through a systematic study of the entire site that considers the condition of each mosaic and its treatment history, the environment, the desirability of presentation to the public, and the cost.
  • Better and more comparable information is needed regarding the relative costs of various types of treatment in order to make informed decisions regarding site conservation.
  • Further research may be required regarding reburial methods and the nature of the reburial environment.

Sheltering Mosaics

  • The assessment of existing shelters, with regard to protection, cost, and maintenance, for example, can lead to a better understanding of the criteria that affect shelter performance and provide valuable information for the design of new shelters.
  • Shelter evaluation should be based on a study of the nature and rate of deterioration in relationship to environmental conditions in the sheltered space. Various types of monitoring strategies may be used to better understand conditions and to assess risks in the sheltered environment.
  • Decision making regarding the design of a shelter must be informed by a number of factors, including performance criteria, stakeholder concerns, interpretation and presentation issues, and cost.
  • The real cost of a shelter includes not just the initial cost but that of "cost in use," i.e., the cost over the life of a shelter to maintain it in good condition. Too often the need to maintain a shelter is overlooked.
  • Shelters cannot be considered in isolation. A shelter affects the entire site, including its condition, appearance, and use. Long-term planning can prevent unintended consequences.

Training of Conservation Practitioners

  • Training is needed at all levels, from that of mosaic technician to conservator and site manager.
  • The sustainability of a training initiative will be based on a number of factors. These include:
    • the use of tools, materials, and techniques appropriate to the resources and skills in the local environment;
    • a training effort that is not confined to a single experience but involves a continuous effort over time; and
    • the existence of a management context in which those trained will find employment and support once their training is complete.
  • Regional, international, and institutional partnerships can be of great value in training initiatives. Partnering can take many forms, including collaboration in national or regional training initiatives as well as the exchange of personnel or periods of supervised work in centers of expertise.
  • The coordination of training activity for mosaic conservation and the larger issues of site management is increasingly important. This will allow for the better use of resources, will prevent duplication of effort, and will facilitate the sharing of didactic materials and strategies.