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Visiting a Roman mosaic restoration workshop in Corinth, Greece

Visiting a Roman mosaic restoration workshop in Corinth, Greece

mosaic workshop Corinth
Me (back, left) taking a closer look at the Roman mosaic

Sometimes I wish I wasn’t here. Here, in Greece, I mean. I miss my family and old friends back home. I miss casual conversations and little quips with strangers in queues. I get tired of living in rented houses with their pocket hankerchief kitchens and fake gold bathroom fittings. I long for a job with a desk and a salary and colleagues. I miss book shops, newspapers, cows in fields,  daffodils, and being able to vote.  I fantasise about online supermarket shopping and staying firmly wrapped up all year around instead of having to expose my pallid body on the beach in ungainly swimming costumes.

At other times (or even at the same time) I feel quite the opposite. I take delight in all manner of things here. My new friends, my new interests, walking the dog in the dawn light in the park, the flower soaked hillsides of spring, the fruit and vegetable street markets, unravelling the knotted frustrations of the language and of course sliding into the warm blue loveliness of the summer sea.

Summer sea, Pelion, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And when I think about mosaics I always skid to a halt in my fantasties about having a proper grown up kitchen and towel rails that dont look as if they were recycled from the Bold and Beautiful. I simply cannot imagine making mosaics without being here and I can’t imagine myself without making mosaics. Where else would I have a marble supplier just down the road, stumble across Roman mosaics behind a half collapsed wall or get the chance to visit a Roman mosaic restoration workshop?

Chipping off the old substrate in the Roman mosaic restoration workshop. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The visit to the workshop stems from a chance meeting a year or so ago with an American archeologist, B,  who has been working in Greece since the 1960s and who also, as it transpired, spends her Hogmanays a few miles away from the our small and utterly unremarkable village in Perthshire, Scotland. When my mother and cousin recently came to visit and I mentioned to B that we’d be coming over to Cornith, she very kindly offered to show us around the ancient sites. We met in Isthmia and had a tour around the museum, moved onto Kechries where the beach is littered with fragments of ancient pots and then headed over to Corinth itself.

Looking for ancient pot fragments, Kechries, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Now, as you might know, I visited Corinth not long ago and had a good long look at the mosaics in the small on-site museum. During that visit I had noticed a tatty photograph of a mosaic tacked up outside what I thought was a shed so you can imagine my reaction when B mentioned that the shed was in fact a Roman mosaic restoration workshop and wondered whether I might like to see it. Like? No, I’d love to.

Poster outside the Roman mosaic restoration workshop. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And there it was, the mosaic, cut into pieces and now only visible from the reverse side; some stacked in piles, others lying on the floor, one part on top of a high workbench and being chiselled at by a man in goggles. The method, in case you dont know, of raising ancient mosaics is to decide how to segment the work into manageable and logical pieces which follow the flow of the tesserae and the design. Then a layer or two of muslim is stuck on top of the mosaic with strong but water soluble glue before the restoration team cuts into the substrate underneath allowing it to be raised in chunks. Our mosaic, measuring perhaps 4.5 metres by 3 metres and dating from the 3rd to 4th century AD, was apparently laid on a thin substrate of only three layers making the task of lifting it relatively easy.

layers of substrate
The layers of substrate under the Roman mosaic. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Discovered in the 1930s, it’s a mosaic of Aphrodite/Venus holding a shield sitting with her ankles coyly crossed next to a naked Corinthian athelete. Framing the central motif are squares depicting birds and baskets of produce and then there is an outer layer of a simple diamond pattern intended, presumably, to be under loungers used by the Roman diners.

Venus and the athlete seen from the reverse side. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Diamond pattern around the edge of the Roman mosaic floor. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The Roman mosaic restoration work consists of painstakingly chipping away at the old substrate right down to the ‘naked’ tesserae, replacing stones that have been dislodged, damaged or lost and then creating a new, smooth substrate into which the complete mosaic can then be reset. The work is monotonous, repetitive and grindingly slow. The Corinthian mosaic is not expected to be ready for display for at least a year.

Close up of the tesserae after cleaning showing how some of the stones are shaped. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

There might be some of you who will find the photograph above entirely uninteresting but it was this, more than anything, that excited me about visiting the Roman mosaic restoration workshop. Here you can see the deliberately uneven underside of the stones. You can see how each one are different heights and some have been chisselled by the Roman craftsmen into a wedge shape to ensure that they would stay firmly embedded into the soft mortar. The tesserae are also (although the photo sadly doesn’t show you) much thicker than I would have supposed – some are up to two centimetres thick.

The athelete’s foot seen from the reverse side. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

When I started making mosaics in Greece I was taught by specialists in the Byzantine style who only worked in reverse. One of the things we were required to do was shape each and every one of the tesserae – not only it’s direct side which would be seen after the piece was cast, but also it’s reverse side, exactly like these tesserae above, to make sure the mortar would have plenty to grip onto. I was glad to see that the Romans were similarly fastidious.

Venus’ face from the reverse side. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

After the excitement of visiting the workshop, B took my mother and cousin to see the museum and it’s mosaics which I learnt were actually discovered in what is now B’s garden, but was once the site of a Roman villa. The garden not only produced stunning mosaics but now that it’s planted with olive and orange trees it also yielded the most amazing fruit for our lunch.

Garden which was once the site of a Roman villa. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Living with revolting towel rails seems a small sacrifice to pay for a day like that. Thank YOU, B!







  1. Guy Sanders

    The tatty photograph is actually a high resolution ortho-rectifed image of the mosaic before we started the project. The mosaic was tatty, the poster is not and with the text on the other side of the door explains what we are doing and why.

    Nicol, the head conservator and her assistants are not too happy that you posted these images of their work in progress without their permission. You probably should have asked “B” about the protocols – she would have told you to drop me a line.


    1. I was very sorry to receive your message as no harm was intended and I am chastened to realise that I have caused offense. I write the blog for my own reference and pleasure and it has a very small readership (about 20 people, mostly family, last time I checked) and I had no idea that writing about the mosaic restoration would cause difficulties. Naturally, I would not have done so had I known and so I do hope you will accept my apologies.
      Kind regards, Helen.

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