The Association for the Study and Preservation of Roman Mosaics
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At the Annual General Meeting and Symposium, held at the Institute for Classical Studies in December last year, we celebrated ASPROM’s 25th anniversary. As well as wine and cake, the delegates enjoyed an interesting series of talks, mainly about the mosaics that came to light during 2003. Roger Wilson gave a lively presentation about the mosaics revealed in his excavations at Wymondham, and David Neal showed slides of his paintings of new mosaics which he drew from various sites; sadly Mark Corney, who was due to speak about the villa at Bradford-on-Avon, was unable to come because of family illness, and the secretary acted as substitute. Although Susan Walker also had other commitments, her paper about mosaics in Volubilis was read by her husband, John Wilkesan able and distinguished substitute indeed!
Marten Harris has once again asked me to remind any members who have not paid their subscription for 2004 to do so as soon as possible.
It was hoped that Volume II of the corpus of Romano-British mosaics would have been published during 2003, but this was not to be. Nevertheless, it should be out this year.
We must also congratulate Dr Patricia Witts on being elected to the committee of AIEMA.
2003 saw an incredible number of new mosaics being discovered, the most notable being the other half of the splendid mosaic from Bradford-on-Avon, Wilts, and the remarkable large apsed mosaic from Badminton, Glos; a few comments by Pat Witts on the latter will appear below. However, the discoveries did not stop with the publication of Newsletter no. 43! Two other mosaics were discovered in Gloucestershireone that is certainly a mosaic and one of more dubious existence. Both were the result of activities by metal detectorists, and therefore are not part of any systematic excavation. The first was found at Coberley, near Cheltenham, and comprised part of a pavement, almost certainly a grid of nine compartments, delineated by bands of tangent poised squares. The central one seems to have featured a cantharus, and stylised flowers occupy the corners. David Neal visited the site and was able to draw the mosaic in situ, before it was reburied. Although no archaeological dating evidence supports the view, the mosaic appears to be of second-century date on stylistic grounds. Evidence for the other mosaic was reported in the Gloucestershire Echo, Friday 16th January 2004; possible tesserae were found during the investigation of the battlefield site at Tewkesbury, and were presented to the Tewkesbury Museum.
Although not a new mosaic exactly, light was cast on the site at Whitestaunton, Somerset, known from a rather garbled account of a dig in the nineteenth century, mentioning a mosaic around an ‘atrium’. Research and an excavation by Channel Four’s Time Team in 2003 revealed that the ‘atrium’ was a large rectangular cold plunge bath (piscina) attached to the bath-suite, and floored in plain blue-grey tessellation; it is surrounded by an ambulatory where the mosaic mentioned above was located; but it is now lost except for traces of its outer border. The television programme was first transmitted in January this year.
Dominic Perring, ‘"Gnosticism" in fourth-century Britain’ Britannia 34 (2003) 97127. Many members will remember the fascinating paper that the author read at the ASPROM Symposium in December 2002 concerning his somewhat controversial interpretation of the mosaics at Frampton, Dorset.
R. J. A. Wilson, ‘The Rudston Venus mosaic revisited: a spear-bearing lion’, Britannia 34 (2003) 28891. The intriguing inscription beneath the lionpresumably naming the beasthas evoked much interest. and was also considered by Roger Ling in Mosaic 30 (2003) 1415. The authors of volume I of the mosaic corpus followed the reading F[R]AMMEFER given in RIB II. This translates as ‘spear-bearer’, which, on reflection, is an odd name to give a lion and was presumably influenced by the fact that it has just been impaled by a spear. Roger Wilson prefers the reading F[L]AMMEFER, meaning ‘Fiery’.
It is always a treat to see the modern mosaic work of our member, Bob Field, and his major exhibition this year gives such an opportunity. The exhibition is called InspirationsAn Exhibition of Mosaics by Robert Field. It runs at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Salisbury, from Saturday 3rd April until Saturday 26th June 2004 and then in the Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Devizes, from Saturday 2nd July until Saturday 28th Aug 2004 (this later part of the exhibition coincides with a display concerning the excavations at Bradford-on-Avon). The main part of Bob’s exhibition will be mosaics inspired by natureabstract and naturalisticbut there will also be a body of work derived from Roman sourcesreplicas and reconstructionsa series of dolphins, animals from the Newton St Loe pavement, Seasons from Colliton Park, Dorchester, town-house etc., and some geometric panels. Bob Field will himself be giving a lecture on Wednesday 2nd June on Modern Mosaic; and I have been asked to give an illustrated talk on Roman Mosaics of South-West Britain on Tuesday 13th April at the Museum.
As mentioned in the previous newsletter, the appeal for funds to refurbish and develop the cover-building and site museum at Fishbourne was launched last September. They need to raise about a million pounds of the total cost of four million pounds. So far £20,000 has been raised just from donations from the public and local businesses. One of the most popular schemes is to buy a brick by giving a minimum of £5. I hope that many of our members will contribute to this worthy cause to protect these important mosaics, of which some are the earliest examples to have survived in Britainand donors will receive a certificate to recognise their help. Donations can be made simply by ringing 01243 785859 or online at www.sussexpast.co.uk/appeal.
Beauty in the eye of the beholder at Badminton
Last summer I was fortunate to visit the Badminton excavation with Anthony Beeson. Our reaction to the mosaic was one of great enthusiasm. Not only was it large and substantially preserved, but it was decorated with unusual motifs and had an interesting apse with a plain border large enough for reclining. Shortly afterwards, I showed my photographs to Bob Field who positively quivered with excitement and immediately called for pencil and paper to sketch out the innovative geometry.
Given that three of us had been enraptured by this mosaic, it was puzzling that it did not receive the same degree of enthusiasm from Steve Cosh in the last ASPROM Newsletter or from David Neal at the last AGM and Symposium. It therefore seems appropriate to highlight its merits.
The whole concept of the mosaic, from its geometry, the radial design in the apse and its various motifs, suggests an artist thoroughly familiar with the standard repertoire but keen to expand the possibilities and to express his individualism. The radiating lines in the apse are neither conventional rays nor shells but form a pleasing rhythmic decoration in their own right. In the rectangular part of the room, the mosaicist has taken a standard geometric scheme based on interlaced squares but tilted those in the corners to enliven the design.
Among the individual motifs is one perhaps inspired by a swastika but resembling a thunderbolt, as Anthony remarked to me on our visit and as David independently commented at the Symposium. Most exciting of all is the floral design in the circle on which the radial lines converge; this is repeated in a semicircle in the chord of the apse. The ubiquitous stylised flower has been given a novel twist: the ‘petals’ are leaves whose arching stalks form part of the design. I am not aware of any parallel for this flower, either from Britain or abroad. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that it was not mentioned in Steve’s brief report or David’s round-up.
A crude and debased piece of work or exciting evidence of an experienced and expressive mosaicist? By drawing greater attention to the mosaic and publishing pictures of it, I hope that ASPROM members will be able to come to their own conclusions.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Richard Osgood of South Gloucestershire Council for Figs 1 and 2, and for allowing me to reproduce my own photograph in Fig. 3.
Hon. Secretary’s reply: I was rather surprised that at least one reader should infer that I think of the mosaic at Badminton as ‘crude and debased’ from what I had written in Newsletter 43; this is not the case. Both words have been taken out of context‘crude’ (actually ‘relatively crude in execution’) refers, of course, to the workmanship (the ‘looseness’ of the guilloche, larger-than-usual size of tesserae, limited colours without white, etc), and ‘debased’ (actually ‘debased swastikas’) refers to the form of a motif only. In the same newsletter I described this mosaic, as ‘exciting’, ‘exceptionally large and well preserved’, and aspects of it as ‘ambitious’, ‘unusual’ and ‘accurate’. I was not that effusive in my ‘brief reports’ on any of the other mosaics found in 2003not even those at Bradford-on-Avon and Swalcliffe! I did not mention the flower in detail because I did not see the mosaic myself and at the time did not have full photographic coverage. (I had mistakenly assumed that the small part which I could see of the unusual floral motif, was from a semicircle.) As I have stated on more than one occasion, the Newsletter merely gives notice of newly-discovered mosaics, often soon after their exposure (in one case, the same morning as the newsletter was dispatched to be typeset!)a more measured and informed summary of new mosaics, including interesting details and illustration, appears in our journal Mosaic in the year following their discovery.
It is great to have a mosaic which can generate debate. Both Bradford-on-Avon and Swalcliffe have fine pavements, but, for all their skill and elegance, neither have any motif or scheme that cannot be found elsewhere. I would have preferred to pose the question about the Badminton mosaic: Is this the valiant but flawed attempt of a relatively inexperienced mosaicist to imitate standard repertoire, or exciting evidence of an experienced and expressive mosaicist? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. We welcome your views.
Although the December meeting celebrated 25 years of ASPROM and Peter Johnson gave an amusing illustrated presentation of highlights of that time, there was also a tinge of sadness as Peter Johnson himself has stepped down as Vice Chairman, passing the reins to David Neal.
Peter has been the mainstay of ASPROM right from its very inception in 1978. For the first fifteen years he acted as secretary, and, for most of that time, treasurer as well. Many will remember that Peter was involved with the excavations at Littlecote in Wiltshire and other sites in the county, and all communications were sent to the Coach-house at Littlecote (and very occasionally still are!). With a change in career, which involved not only full-time employment but also the necessity to study for examinations in law, Peter has had less time to devote to his passion for Roman mosaics. I think Peter would agree that the highlight of his time as Secretary was the organisation of the AIEMA Colloquium in Batha massive undertaking and hugely successful. I took over the role of secretary ten years ago and Peter was generous with his help and advice to this new rookie. I hasten to add that many of the tasks that Peter performed have gradually been delegated and we now have a Membership Secretary, Events Secretary and Publicity Officer to help out. Since his retirement as Secretary, which was marked by a special presentation in the Corinium Museum, Peter has continued to be an invaluable member of the committee, especially with his wealth of knowledge and experience. Although no longer a committee member, we will still see Peter at our meetings. It is true to say that there would be no ASPROM without Peter’s tireless efforts.
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|Newsletter 44 was written by Stephen R. Cosh.|