How do you move a 2000-year-old mosaic without breaking it?

Moving an historic, 2000-year-old, fragile mosaic is not for the faint hearted but when it stands in the way of the Dorset County Museum’s £14.9 million redevelopment programme – needs must!

The team from Cliveden Conservation begins moving the Fordington Roman pavement
The team from Cliveden Conservation begins moving the Fordington Roman pavement

Originally discovered in 1903, the mosaic – a design which consists of a head of Neptune, two dolphins and red finned fish – was repositioned and laid in the Museum with the help of Thomas Hardy in December 1927 and has for the past 91 years been a firm favourite with visitors.

To help preserve the mosaic for future generations and to allow the Museum to proceed with its expansion, this precious artefact has been painstakingly excavated, dismantled and removed by specialist conservators, Cliveden Conservation.

Leading experts for the conservation in decorative arts, Berenice Humphreys, Senior Projects Manager, Cliveden Conservation said:

“We were delighted to be given the opportunity to work on this mosaic with such a fascinating history behind it. It’s quite rare to work on a mosaic laid at such an early date rolled out as a carpet and set on a concrete screed. This presented a number of challenges to the team.

We began with trials to further understand the construction, having looked through all the documentary evidence. We put together a methodology which combined careful numbering of the tesserae along the geometry to ‘break’ the mosaic into manageable sections; followed by the delicate chiselling out of this line of tesserae. These works were then followed by the use of heavy-duty metre long drill bits to separate the defined panels, supported on their own concrete rafts, from the coarse substrate below. The smallest section thus lifted weighed around 60kg, and the largest nearly 300kg.

The museum environment was a pleasure to work in and we were made to feel very welcome. We look forward to being involved in the next stage of this mosaic’s journey.”

Measuring 13ft, 7in. this Romano-British Pavement will now be preserved and repositioned in the new Museum prior to its re-opening in 2020 where it will once again take its place amongst the Museum’s exquisite collection of local, national and internationally recognised artefacts.

To document this momentous occasion, the Museum has digitally recorded this event for posterity and is pleased to make this unique time-lapse recording available to the general public.

From 19 January to 2 February, the Museum are inviting families to join them for fun and free mosaic themed activities at Brewery Square. Children and adults can learn and be inspired by the Museum’s Roman mosaics and have go at creating their own.

Picture: Fordington Roman Pavement drawing by Mrs Kathleen Falkner (nee Vidler) Dorset County Museum © 2018