The Sixth Conference of the International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics (ICCM)—coorganized by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), the ICCM, the University of Cyprus, the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation, and ICCROM—was held in Nicosia, Cyprus, in October 1996. The goal of the conference was to encourage dialogue on the practical aspects of mosaic conservation in situ. Conservators, restorers, conservation scientists, archaeologists, curators, and historians from over 20 countries met to share information and experiences.

Two of the keynote addresses made at the conference are excerpted here. The first, by Roberto Nardi, examines the evolution in thinking regarding the treatment of mosaics. The second, by Catherine Sease, argues for conservation planning as part of archaeological excavations.

The Treatment of Mosaics
By Roberto Nardi

Conservation image

A review of the methods used in treating mosaics must proceed hand in hand with an analysis of the meaning history has given mosaics themselves. Technical solutions have always been the fruit of cultural choices. An example of this is the attitude of considering mosaics as simply "aesthetic" objects, detachable from their surroundings and turned into movable effects.

The 17th-century "discovery" of archaeological sites and their subsequent transformation into mines for treasure seekers was the beginning of the process of demolition that would continue for almost 200 years. In this period, the single option offered was to detach. The sites and their buildings were divested of their most important elements, which were moved to museums, palaces, storage, and dealers' shops. There was no documentation; contexts were destroyed; information regarding origins was ignored. The mosaic became only the image created by a layer of tesserae.

The first change came about thanks to the reevaluation of archaeological sites as they became increasingly appreciated in all their components. Public attention to the ancient world expanded from the objects in museums to their places of origin. Mosaics were still lifted, the layers beneath the tesserae destroyed, and surface irregularities flattened out. But floor pieces were occasionally replaced in their original positions on new supports that were fixed or movable.

Attention is still paid only to the tessellatum, but a new option is slowly asserting itself: to present mosaics in their site of provenience. The detachment procedures have not changed, with the exception of new options: roller detachment, for instance, or the lifting of very small sections at a time.

Slowly but finally, history is being viewed as a dynamic entity, stratified in time. Archaeological sites are the places were history has occurred, where the signs of life have been printed and preserved in layers. General attention is lent to these signs, toward what we can call the cultural valence of the site. Attention has slowly moved from the single object, the mosaic, to its context: the room, the building, the site. There is now a tendency to keep in their places all those elements that qualify and identify the site: mosaics in their original locations.

Conservation image

In situ treatment does not refer to the specific place where the work is physically dealt with—and it refers even less to whether or not the mosaic is replaced in its original position. Instead, the term means respecting and preserving all the cultural valences of the monument, including historical, technical, and material ones. The mosaic is kept in its original position within distinct structural systems. The layers that make up a floor must be saved. The signs or scars left in time—the changes, the tampering, the irregularities—must be studied, interpreted, preserved, and made understandable to the public.

Parallel to the new ethic, the technical ability to keep the mosaic in situ, with thorough respect for the work and its archaeological context, is growing. Increasingly important also, with regard to conservation problems, is the principle of not stopping at the mosaic but analyzing its surroundings, taking them as a whole together with the larger environment.

From dedicating the greatest care to the tessellatum while destroying its context—as was true in the 1800s (and in some instances even today)—we have shifted to giving minimal treatment to the tesserae layer and concentrating instead on context and surroundings.

Whereas once the mosaic was treated in a single intervention, we are trusting instead to future operations for any strengthening or supplementary steps, or even doing the very least possible, and depending upon good maintenance for the future preservation of the work.

Archaeological context and mosaics must be brought back into use, to live rather than be fossilized. As in ancient times, mosaics will meet their hope of survival in their daily practical significance. The difference is that today this significance will not be their residential, religious, or political use, but a cultural one instead.

Roberto Nardi is director of the Centro di Conservazione Archeologica, a private Italian company undertaking public commitments in the conservation of ancient monuments and archaeological sites. He has been in charge of conservation projects in Rome and abroad and is an associate professor at ICCROM.


Planning for Conservation, Before, During and After an Excavation
By Catherine Sease

A number of years ago, a colleague defined planning as "all that stands between a disaster and merely a bad day." At the time, I laughed and thought her words witty, but over the years, as they keep coming to mind, I realize how accurate they are, particularly for on-site conservation. Planning is not a new concept; everyone is familiar with it. In fact, it is so much a part of our everyday life that we do it without consciously thinking about it most of the time.

We plan what we are going to wear, what we will have for dinner, and what we will do after work. Of course, for large projects and undertakings, we devote considerable conscious thought, time, and energy to planning.

Archaeological investigations are no exception. The organizational phase for an excavation can—and frequently does—involve many years of planning and preparation. First, the research goals of the overall project need to be established: that is, what questions will the excavation attempt to answer? Once this is done, the archaeologist can then anticipate what is likely to be found in terms of architectural elements and artifacts and begin to determine a realistic time frame for the project, as well as start to assemble the personnel and resources needed to accomplish it.

This is generally where the planning stops. More often than not, the next step is to start excavating. Unfortunately, many archaeologists do not include conservation in the initial planning stages of their projects. A variety of reasons are given, perhaps the most frequent one being that it was not felt to be needed. "We weren't planning to find any mosaics" is the cry often heard. Or it was thought that conservation was too expensive, a frill, or an extra. Whatever the reason, conservation is all too often an afterthought. Too frequently, conservators are brought in only after problems have arisen, after a fragile artifact has been lifted or a mosaic completely uncovered—more important, after it has sustained some degree of damage.

Conservation image

In these instances, the measures that a conservator can take are limited. Conservators are not magicians and cannot reverse the deterioration of archaeological material once it has occurred. In such instances, they can only hope to salvage what remains of the artifact and the information that might be contained in it. Unfortunately, this approach to conservation results in damage to the artifact—damage that, while perhaps not completely preventable, might have been considerably less had a conservator been involved at the time of excavation or, even better, prior to excavation. In addition, such salvage efforts turn out to be much more expensive in terms of time, labor, and materials for the long-term preservation of the artifact than if conservators had been involved at the time of excavation.

Conservation image

For conservation to play an effective role in the excavation of sites in general and of mosaics in particular, it must be regarded as an integral part of the excavation process. Archaeological planning must be concerned not only with the research aspects of an excavation but also with identifying the objectives for preserving, presenting, and maintaining the site after excavation. Thus, conservation planning must be regarded as a critical component of the overall process of preserving an archaeological site and all its contents, both movable and immovable, and should be factored in at the initial planning stages of an excavation. Not only will this ensure that the budget, time, and resources allocated are appropriate, it will also ensure that from the outset, excavation is carried out with site preservation and perhaps presentation in mind. If conservation is involved in the daily excavation decisions and activities, damage to mosaics will be avoided and their deterioration kept to a minimum; more costly salvage repairs later will also be prevented.

It is crucial that sufficient time be allocated for conservation planning, even if it means delaying the start of work so as to assure an appropriate treatment plan with Sufficient personnel, materials, and funds to provide optimal working conditions. If all these elements are in place, the result will generally be the best possible long-term preservation of the mosaic.

Catherine Sease is head of Conservation and Collections Management at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. She has extensive experience as a field conservator on archaeological excavations in Great Britain, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. She is the author of A Conservation Manual for the Field Archaeologist.