Program Works Toward Safeguarding One of the Worlds Richest Collections of Roman Mosaics
September 12, 2006
LOS ANGELES—In 146 B.C., the Roman Empire claimed and conquered a wide strip of North Africa, including what is now the nation of Tunisia. During the Roman period in Tunisia, particularly between the second and fifth centuries A.D., mosaic art flourished. Mosaic pavements were designed as colorful “stone carpets” to adorn large villas, country estates and public buildings. For this reason, today Tunisia holds one of the world’s richest repositories of these works.
With thousands of examples, Tunisia offers a world-class environment for studying and conserving ancient Roman mosaics. As a result, in 1998, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), in partnership with the Institut National du Patrimonie, Tunisia, established the Technician Training Program. The program educates a local workforce of technicians to conserve ancient mosaics “in situ,” within their original structures.
The Need For In-Situ Conservation
From the first archeological excavations in Tunisia in the early 1800’s to recent times, mosaics were often removed from their original locations for display in museums or for storage. This practice of “lifting” mosaics has been commonplace in a variety of countries throughout the world.
Some instances of mosaic “lifting” facilitated the protection of notable works. Fragile mosaics could be removed from exposure to outdoor elements to an indoor setting for care.
Yet, such removal can deprive mosaics of important context. Many ancient mosaic pavements have been excavated in piecemeal fashion, with sometimes only the center figural panel removed. Such a practice can irrevocably alter the aesthetic of ancient mosaics and the story told by their complete composition. The practice of “lifting” also separates mosaics from the important historical and architectural context of the original buildings they were designed to embellish.
“Mosaic floors were created for their environments,” says Tim Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute. “Many times, they told stories that spoke to the rooms they inhabited. If a piece of one of these floors is removed, both the context for appreciating the mosaic and its original intent, and the context for understanding the room and its structure are lost.”
The GCI Technician Training Program in Tunisia helps to conserve ancient mosaics in two key ways. First, the program raises awareness of the importance of keeping mosaics within their original site locations. Second, the program provides the education for Tunisians to protect and care for their country’s thousands of mosaics that are already unearthed and exposed to environmental risks.
Components of the Technician Training Program
The GCI’s program is being taught and implemented throughout Tunisia. Each “trainee” completes a two-year curriculum taught by GCI staff and consultants. The curriculum is divided into four campaigns, which build on each other. After each campaign, the technicians spend several months at archaeological sites practicing the techniques they have learned.
In the first campaign, technicians start their education by learning techniques for documenting mosaics. This course encompasses graphic, written and photographic documentation. The second campaign introduces techniques to stabilize ancient mosaics, starting with proper cleaning procedures. Cleaning is a particularly important step because the growth of mosses and small plants on mosaics can damage the tesserae, the small pieces of stone of which mosaics are composed. Stabilization training also includes instruction in the use of lime-based mortars to fill in gaps and areas of damage.
During the program’s third campaign, students are taught more advanced stabilization techniques, including the option of “re-burying” a mosaic as a means of conserving very fragile pavements. This campaign also offers an introduction to conserving additional types of pavements found in Tunisia, including Roman works utilizing marble pieces.
In the fourth campaign, students receive instruction in methods of conserving the walls and wall plasters that surround mosaics, as well as a comprehensive review of the entire four-campaign curriculum.
“The training program is already providing very measurable results,” says Whalen. “Nearly a decade of program implementation has provided trained technicians now at work conserving mosaics in their original sites. Our goal for the program is that it become self-perpetuating. We train technicians, and then they train future technicians.”
He adds, “We can see the marked improvement of in-situ conservation within Tunisia through these efforts and hope that the program will be noted by other Mediterranean countries as well.”
Visitors to the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Villa can learn more about the work of the GCI in Tunisia through the exhibition entitled “Stories in Stone: Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa, Masterpieces From the National Museums of Tunisia.” The exhibition, which will run from October 26, 2006 through April 30, 2007, will provide extensive material and displays on the conservation of mosaics.
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