Museum Home Research and Conservation An In-Depth Look at Conservation Partnerships Roman Mosaics from Tunisia

In 2006, the Getty Museum collaborated with the Institut National du Patrimoine (INP), Tunisia, to conserve three ancient Roman floor mosaics belonging to the Bardo Museum and the Sousse Archeological Museum. Museum conservators preserved and stabilized the 3rd-century Roman floor mosaics for an exhibition at the Getty Villa, Stories in Stone: Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa, and for permanent display in Tunisia. In addition, the Getty documented the prior conservation history of the works.

Unswept Floor (before conservation / Roman Unswept Floor (after conservation) / Roman

Initial Assessment
Upon arrival at the Getty Villa, the condition of the mosaics was determined to be fragile due to weak supports and old, deteriorating restoration material. An aged coating of beeswax gave the stones a discolored and dull appearance. Museum conservators identified the different stone and glass cubes or tesserae, and other materials that had been used to repair the three mosaics such as plaster, wood, iron wire mesh, cement mortars, jute, wool fibers, beeswax, and house paint.

Unswept Floor/ cleaned by Eduardo Sanchez
 

Unswept Floor Mosaic
This small mosaic depicts an "unswept floor" covered with food scraps including crustaceans, eggshells, fruit rinds, and bean sprouts.

Getty conservator Eduardo Sanchez removed overpaint, disfiguring white and blue fills, and a darkened beeswax coating. He then applied a synthetic-based material to fill the losses, and sanded the surface of the new coating smooth, to provide an even background. The new material was then painted with a flat coat of acrylic paint to unify the image.

Game Sponsors Feasting in the Arena Mosaic
This medium-size mosaic fragment depicts a banquet scene of revelers with bulls in the foreground.

Game Sponsors Feasting in the Arena (pre-conservation) / Roman Game Sponsors Feasting in the Arena (post-conservation) / Roman

Game Sponsors (detail) / Roman
 

The mosaic's surface was cleaned with a variety of wet and dry techniques to remove dust, grime, and a heavily applied beeswax coating that had become dark and opaque. The large, old fills were reduced and replaced with a synthetic-based fill material, and textured to mimic ancient mortar with missing tesserae. These areas were intentionally made to appear worn and deteriorated. The fills were then inpainted with watercolors to visually integrate the mosaic.

Basket of Fish / Roman
 

Basket of Fish Mosaic
This large mosaic fragment depicts fish spilling onto the floor from a woven basket.

The backing that had been constructed to support the mosaic when it was initially lifted from its original location was created with plaster, woolen fibers, iron wire mesh and wood, and had deteriorated significantly, jeopardizing the mosaic's structural integrity. Museum conservators re-backed the mosaic using new, stronger, lightweight, reversible (easily removed) materials to adequately bear the mosaic's weight. First, the entire mosaic surface was covered with a protective layer of cotton gauze and burlap, which was adhered with a synthetic acrylic adhesive. Once the adhesive had dried, the mosaic was placed facedown on a work table. The existing backing material was carefully removed until the back of the mosaic tesserae became visible. The exposed surface was sealed with a synthetic acrylic solution. Epoxy was distributed on the back of the mosaic and reinforced with a lightweight aluminum honeycomb panel and an aluminum frame. Once the support backing was complete, the mosaic was flipped and the facing material removed.

Basket of Fish / Marie Svoboda textures fills
 

A thick layer of darkened beeswax on the face of the mosaic was removed with solvents until the true color of the tesserae were revealed. Once fully cleaned of wax and grime, the old plaster fills were mechanically reduced to allow for the addition of a new, synthetic-based material. The new stable and reversible fill material was textured to mimic ancient mortar with missing tesserae, intentionally appearing worn and deteriorated. The losses were then inpainted with acrylic paint to give a unified appearance.

This collaborative project allowed Getty conservators to gain a better understanding of the construction techniques of Roman mosaics and the history of repair materials used in their restoration.