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Conservation of mosaics in Roman North Africa

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(soft flutey music playing) Voiceover: The rich cultural heritage of Tunisia extends back thousands of years. Situated on the northern coast of Africa, Tunisia's history and heritage have been shaped by many of the great civilizations that were centered on the Mediterranean sea. Its coastline was inhabited long before the Roman's conquered the region. The Phoenician's had previously settled in North Africa and established their great capital city of Carthage. The resulting Punic civilization, a melding of the indigenous peoples and the Phoenician's reigned for many centuries. In 146 BC Carthage was destroyed by the Romans who then laid claim to the lands along the African coast of the Mediterranean, including what is now northern Tunisia. From the first to fifth centuries AD, the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis was a major economic force in the Roman Empire. Its fertile lands produced an agricultural bounty. Wheat and olives were exported throughout the empire bringing great wealth to the province. Luxurious houses and public buildings were embellished with elaborate mosaic paintings. Many of these mosaics are now housed in the collections of the National Museums of Tunisia. Centuries after their creation, they provide us with a window into the life of Roman North Africa. Mohamed: [foreign language] Voiceover: The tradition of paved floors in North Africa predates the Roman conquest. Pavements, made of mortar, mixed with crushed ceramics and sometimes embellished with pieces of white stone were common in Punic houses, which also featured private bathrooms and complex plumbing systems. In Roman Tunisia, mosaic pavements were a ubiquitous part of the architectural decoration in both public and private buildings. Their use demonstrated the wealth and status of the individual and of the state. Elaborate floors made of precisely shaped pieces of colored marble and stone, inlaid into simple or complex designs, were the most costly and prestigious types of pavements, found only in very wealthy homes or important public buildings. In private houses, the most elaborately designed floors, usually with figurative scenes, adorned rooms used for entertaining, where they would be certain to impress. Mosaic pavements depicting food and drink were often found in the triclinium, or dining room, a virtual menu spread out at the feet of the guests. Simpler geometric or floral designs were used as borders for figurative mosaics and in less important ones. Jerry: The images on many mosaics actually play with the idea of their position related to the architecture, so a floor may have things spread out on the floor. For example, in this mosaic a basket has tilted over and the fish are spilling out onto the floor. Of course the problem is once the mosaic is lifted and hung on the wall of a museum, the fish either fly up into the air or swim across the wall. So, the image itself has changed, the intent of the image has changed. Lifting mosaics from archaeological sites, that is removing them from their original context, the original place that they were installed and manufactured has been going on for a very, very long time and it's had good effects and its had disastrous effects at the same time. The good part of lifting is that, in many cases, these pieces of art that were removed from their original context survive today only because they were lifted and brought into the protective environment of a museum. However, they lost their context, they lost the place they belong to. They're no longer a part of a building, they're no longer a floor of a building. They're now more like works of art on the wall of the museum itself, framed like a painting, but have lost all of that aspect of being part of a building. Voiceover: In the same way that a mosaic hung on a museum wall no longer tells a complete story, an archaeological site from which the mosaics have been lifted is also incomplete. The unique relationship between the mosaics and the architecture is lost. Figurative mosaics, with their rich visual narratives were especially valued and were frequent removed and taken to museums or put in storage for safe keeping. What is generally left at archaeological sites in Tunisia today are geometric or floral mosaics. Thomas: In more recent decades there's been a change of approach favoring in situ conservation, which means it's simply conserving mosaics in their architectural context within the site itself. Leaving the mosaics at archaeological sites poses conservation challenges different from that of mosaics in a museum. The most critical problem is that mosaics are exposed to the outdoor environment as they were never intended to be and are at risk of being lost completely. Aicha: The process of decay of the mosaics is going very fast, so our idea at that time was to create a profile of people who can face this problem very quickly and work in situ on the mosaics. So, we looked through these young people who are working at INP, Institut National du Patrimoine, and we give them the opportunity of being trained in the process of maintenance, to document the mosaics, and then to do some works, stabilization of these mosaics. Voiceover: In 1998 the Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunisia joined with the Getty Conservation Institute to create a program to save the nation's mosaics at archaeological sites from further deterioration. A hands-on training project is helping to create groups of regional mosaic technicians who can address the basic maintenance and stabilization needs of in situ mosaics. Thomas: The training that we've been carrying out here in Tunisia since 1998 has already had quite an impact on several sites. Mosaics that were completely invisible because they were covered with microorganisms, such as lichens, algae and moss, are now visible again. Cleaning is only the first step in carrying out urgently needed stabilization treatments before additional loss of mosaic material occurs. Voiceover: Before learning maintenance treatment techniques, trainees learn how to document a mosaic, both its current condition and its previous treatments, creating a graphic and photographic record that enables them to better plan and prepare their work. All maintenance activities, from removal of vegetation to resetting of loose tesserae are carefully documented. Even an unanticipated rain storm during the training campaign can provide an opportunity to monitor conditions. Livia: [foreign language] Thomas: Maintenance is really the most important part of conserving mosaics. Without a roof or the layers of soil that have accumulated over the centuries to protect them from the environment, excavated mosaics will rapidly deteriorate. The only hope for their long-term survival in the open is frequent inspections and minor operations of stabilization and removal of weeds and dirt as needed. Voiceover: Trainees receive instruction in a range of repair and stabilization techniques, using lime-based mortars similar to those used during the Roman era. In the recent past, many mosaics were repaired with cement. Cement repairs, besides being very noticeable, can accelerate deterioration because cement is not compatible with the original mosaic materials and is very difficult to remove without damaging the mosaic. Livia: A very important part of this work is to find the right mortar to use for the different purpose. We try to prepare a mixture that has the right color and the right hardness for each situation we find. Thomas: In carrying out our mortar repairs on mosaics, we do pay attention to the aesthetic aspect of the work by using gravels similar in color to the stone and tesserae found in the mosaic and in the mortars used for filling areas of loss, the work becomes less evident and you see the mosaic rather than the repair material. Voiceover: Trainees also receive instruction on how to re-bury mosaics. This can protect them from environmental conditions and human activity. The relatively stable environment of unexcavated mosaics has helped preserve them for many centuries. Another simple, but effective way to protect mosaics is to keep the public from walking on them. Aricha: After 10 years of training of collaboration between the INP, Institut National du Patrimoine of Tunisia and the Getty Institute of Conservation, we have twenty people on the field working on the sites using the material and the funds from the INP. We are proud of this and I think it's very important that we did this. 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