Conservation of Recovered Mosaic at Princeton University

While researching the conservation of the Antioch mosaics, I came across a very interesting case regarding a mosaic placed in the threshold of the Architecture Laboratory at Princeton University. Princeton was part of the excavation team that also included members from the Worcester Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, Harvard Art Museums, and Dumbarton Oaks. Around 300 ancient Roman floor mosaics were uncovered, and Princeton received a part of the find.

              The lifting process during excavation itself was extremely destructive. The mosaic was first stabilized with interior losses filled with cement and the surfaced was faced with animal glue and cloth. Then the bedding mortar was then disrupted while digging around the mosaic. Blocks were added for structural support. The backing mortar was then removed. A wooden frame was constructed to place iron rebar bars for stabilization, and the back was filled with cement for structural stability.

              The mosaic was rediscovered in 2011 in the vestibule of the Architecture Laboratory where it has been since 1949. It was installed here as part of the renovation of the building and had not been moved after. Being outdoors, the exposure of the mosaic to the elements has left it in poor shape. The conservator working with Princeton was Leslie Gat. The panel was part of a border of a larger piece that was excavated near the House of Phoenix (DH-256 Dig C). The mosaic consists of three heads, the heads on the corner are female and according to Princeton University they think they are possibly masks of maenads. The goal for the conservation was to lift the mosaic out of the ground successfully without inflicting further damage so that work could be done in the conservation studio.

              The concrete curb was removed and revealed that the mosaic was about two inches of concrete thick. Steel slides and Teflon sheets were installed to go under the mosaic to aid with transport onto the pallet where it was strapped down.

              The rebar in the cement corroded and expanded which cased many of the tesserae to be damaged and knocked off. When in the ground, areas that were lifting were covered with cement, which left areas of tough concrete. In areas where it was feasible, the cement was removed where tesserae were found underneath and reinstalled. A plaster fill was then used to cover the empty spaces left by the cement. After, conservation was completed it was reinstalled in one of Princeton University’s buildings.

Conservation of the Mosaics Amidst COVID-19

              Many workstreams on the project have been impacted by increasing measures put in place to stop the spread of coronavirus. Social distancing and travel restrictions have caused numerous public spaces to close as well as schools, universities, and workplaces. Museums have also been impacted by these initiatives which, ultimately, halts any in person interaction with art (and for our purposes the Antioch mosaics). It will also be interesting to see how museums and other art institutions adapt to a more virtual world. Where art museums were mostly a place of physical gathering to exhibit pieces, they must now create ways for visitors to interact digitally. There is also the looming question of how this pandemic will impact funding and focus on the humanities.

              Luckily, before I had to leave campus, I was able to meet with Angela Elliot at the Walters Art Museum. She is a conservator at the museum and had previously worked at the BMA with the Antioch mosaics. It was interesting to discuss her thoughts on the impact of coronavirus on museum visitation (this was before more strict measures regarding public gatherings were put in place).

              It was helpful to gain insight on the day to day work of a conservator and the roles they have within the museum.  Mosaics themselves are stable structures, however conservation projects are expensive. The size and weight of the Antioch mosaics make relocation difficult so they will most likely stay stagnant at the BMA.

              My current workstream is going to lead me to investigating past conservation work done on the mosaics. I have been digitally tracking conservation efforts done to the Antioch Mosaic in order to possibly document the work done on them. It is important to know the decisions conservators have made and the possible impact they have on the viewers’ experience with the mosaics.

Conservation of Antioch Mosaics

After looking at the mosaics presented at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I am interested in pursuing a workstream regarding the conservation of the mosaics. I am interested in understanding the different choices made by conservators as well as the impact it has on the public’s experience with the pieces. It would also be interesting to discuss the intersection between preservation and experience. Limiting the public’s interaction with the mosaics may lengthen their survival, yet it takes away from the intended purpose of the pieces.

The Baltimore Museum of Art currently has a conservator on hand. This provides a unique opportunity to see the mosaics as they are being restored. Currently, from my firsthand observation, I have noticed that there is a mix of many different conservation methods used on the mosaics. Some, such as Europa and the Bull and Peddler of Erotes,have tiles painted on to mimic tesserae.

Portion of mosaic from “Peddler of Erotes” that clearly shows painted on tesserae most visibly on the body of the Eros.
Portion of mosaic from “Europa and the Bull” that shows painted on fragment for conservation. This takes up the bottom half of the image which depicts the bottom half of the bull and the water.

This makes it seem as if the previous conservators were trying to hide or gloss over the fact that there are pieces of the work missing. However, viewers are not distracted by the missing fragments and are able to fully immerse themselves in the image without obstruction. Here also arise questions of how the artist intended for the mosaics to age, which alludes to the next method of conservation I have encountered.

Though not present at the BMA, some of the Antioch mosaics have been displayed in a manner that most resembles their ancient function. At the Worcester Art Museum there is mosaic embedded in the floor with only a small barrier. This allows for viewers to see the mosaic from its intended perspective; however, it limits the viewer’s interaction. There have also been cases where mosaics have been installed in floors where viewers can directly interact with the work by walking over them, such as at Dumbarton Oaks. This creates conflict between those who want to preserve the mosaics as much as possible versus those who believe viewers should be able to experience the works in a way that they would originally be displayed.

Going back to my observations at the BMA, I have also noticed one method distinct from the others. The missing tiles of on the Medallion with Bacchus were painted on, not to look like tesserae, but to look like a continuous image.

Medallion with Bacchus” mosaic with missing fragments painted in to continue the image without mimicking tesserae.

This is interesting because it clearly highlights the missing fragments due to the visible change in texture and color. However, the image is not obstructed, and the viewer can see the whole image without having to draw conclusions on the missing pieces. However, does this take away from the viewers experience with the mosaic and their understanding of its age, history, and imagery? Moving forward I would like to investigate the choices made by conservators and how it impacts the relationship between the works and the viewers. Having the mosaics on hand at the BMA and a current conservation initiative ongoing provides a great opportunity to understand the thought processes behind these choices. Having a background in science, also, spurs my interest in the chemical side of how different methods may lead to different degradation of the work. This is something that is more complex, which I would like to focus on later in my research