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Running a Roman mosaic workshop in a museum

Lawrence Payne (UK)

To run a ‘Roman’ mosaic workshop you need to understand about the rules. The original mosaicists of Greece and Rome set the tesserae (tiles) in certain ways to create a more ‘flowing’ effect and this has resulted in a set of 8 Rules to work to. These Rules are what separate a Roman mosaic, regardless of when it is made, from a Modern mosaic. Modern mosaics have no Rules therefore they cannot be criticised. In a Roman mosaic if you do not know The Rules then chances are you won’t see them. Leave them out of the mosaic and it can be spotted by anyone familiar with them.

Tesserae (tiles) – pre cut marble is the best but also look for ceramic tiles. The colours needed are; black, off white, light red and yellow. These will start you off; if you can also get dark red and green then you have plenty to work with. The original tesserae were in the range of 8mm – 12mm along each side.
Cutting tools – standard tile nippers are fine for stone which is less then 7mm thickness. Ceramics are harder to cut but can also be done with tile nippers. Just make sure they are the ‘drop forged, carbide tipped’ variety.
Safety glasses – to protect against any flying shards from the nippers.
Baseboards – MDF or plywood is good to start off with.
Glue – PVA craft glue in small bottles.
Grout – Standard tile grout. Grey is the best colour as this shows up the pattern best. Ivory or white grout tends to disrupt the pattern. N.B. some people can be sensitive to the cement in grout, to be on the safe side supply gloves for anyone using it.
Grouting equipment – bowl, spreader, sponge.

Look at any Roman mosaic of a figure, human, animal or fish it doesn’t matter. Notice how there is a line of the background colour tesserae, (usually off white) around the outside of the figure. This is known as the Borderline Rule and is the best and easiest one to spot.
Familiarity with these Rules will not only ensure that you will be teaching your clients how to create an authentic Roman mosaic. It will also enhance their enjoyment of their time spent as they will be able to see these Rules whenever they see any ancient mosaics.

The classic pattern seen in floor mosaics all over the Roman Empire is what is known as the Double Strand Guilloche. Another good one to use is the Wave pattern. These are fairly simple yet they do require the student to apply the Rules and to think in the same way as the original mosaicists in respect of being able to follow a pattern.
You can transfer the patterns onto the baseboards using carbon copy paper under the pattern.
A 22cm by 14cm section is fine for a morning session.

The Direct method is the most common and easiest to work with. You spread a line of glue along the pattern and then place the tesserae on the glue. You can introduce more complex geometric patterns, demonstrate how the patterns are made up and then have your students set their patterns out themselves instead of tracing them. Offer simple figural mosaics, birds or fish work well.

For additional reading: 

DUNBABIN, Katherine, 2011. Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World, Cambridge Univ. Press. The definitive textbook on Roman mosaics.

LING, Roger, 1998. Ancient Mosaics, British Museum Press. Out of print but used copies easy to get hold of. Good, concise history.

PAYNE, Lawrence, 2012. Roman Mosaics, The Workshop Manuals Vol I & II (currently PDF plus hard copies of all patterns). Available only via the website. History, The Rules, methods, patterns. Vol II covers how to work out Geometric floor mosaics.

REEVES, Donna, 2001. Roman Style (The Mosaic Project Book) Murdoch Books. Not academic but does have patterns and basic instructions for craft projects.



Modern replica of a geometric black and...
240 AD. Geometric floor mosaic, German style...
Mosaic of a woman, Pompeii, 1st century
Example of a Roman hammer and hardy
Detail floor mosaic
Learning to space the lines of tesserae...
Applying the glue in thin lines
Finished mosaic copy prior to grouting
H & H close up plus cut pieces.
H & H cutting side view