All roads lead to Rome,
………or so I’ve heard. Even the tracks used for railroad trains here in the USA are based off a common standard road design set way back in Roman Empire .
So it should probably be no surprise that my Roman Wine transitioned into a temporary interest in other things Roman. Case in Point: Over the years I’ve been collecting a large pile of various tiles in my shed which were used as a spring time side project. I’ve done a rather amateurish job of decorating the back steps of my deck with a new picture every year:
the design lasts most of the summer and fall, then winter destroys it and spring brings another design. Up until last August it was a temporary amusement. After my Roman Wine scored so well at Pennsic, I decided to take a short break from brewing and concentrate on some of my house issues. Something was nagging at the back of my brain. Ooooh! The Tile saw I got for Father’s Day was suddenly in need of attention.
It started to become quite the obsession over the Fall and Winter. Every day early in the morning and during lunch I’d run downstairs to slice the tiles into lengths and then used the nippers to chop them into the tiles (Tesserae)(1). The Romans would use whatever aggregate was available locally. Most of the time this was granite but hardened clay, various other stones, glass and precious gems were used in creating the patterns and designs wanted by wealthy house owners for their lavish parties.
To shape these stones to the proper size, Mosaic Floor Masons would have slaves and apprentices shaping the stones using a special Mosaic Hammer with a Hardie (metal spike mounted in a block of wood)(2).
The worker would break the materials down into small enough pieces using hammers and saws, then refine the shape and size using the hammer and hardie. The trick was that the tesserae were created by cutting the flat surface in half and half again until the proper size was met. These sizes varied depending on the complexity and the size of the mosaic design. Tiles could be as big as 4×4 inches in elaborate designs weaving colors together, or as small as a single dot (°) to get the kind of details which show depth and contour (3) on the characters.
As I was trying to do this on the cheap and these would be my first two pieces, I felt it was probably in my best interest to keep it fairly simple. As such, I chose two designs that would be easier to create using the tiles from the shed:
First was a Mosaic with a Peacock and Flowers
3rd–4th century Roman or Byzantine made in North Africa (approximately).
Many of the colors were already available to me except for the white background which I chose to replace with an electric blue color instead. I felt the bird would stand out more and where my tiles would look newer, the design would not be considered a forgery.
The technique used for this would be the “Forward Facing” method where a surface was created like a subfloor of stone upon which a layer of mortar was laid and the tiles would be applied to the surface before the mortar set. Any sections that weren’t complete would have to be scraped away due to the fact that the mason couldn’t guarantee the mortar mix would be the same.
The second piece I would do would be a much smaller piece and would be done using what is called “The Reverse” or “Blind” Method.
The Burnt Church in Hippos depicts a small bird as part of the floor pattern. “Reverse or Blind” technique later used by the Romans in the Hellenistic Age (4). This process was used to help make flat surfaces more even. Mosaic patterns would be done upside down so the facing of the tile/tesserae would be flush with the surface, and the mortar/grout would fill in from the backside creating a surface that was even and could be leveled by the addition of more or less mortar between the mosaic plate and the sub-flooring. This technique can be seen used in modern mosaic plating today.
The third method is the “Double Reverse/ Double Blind/ Ravenna Technique” (5) which we are not using here.
So back to our project. Now that I’ve chosen my originals, it was time to start working with the tiles. I wanted this to be transportable so it was quickly decided that using a piece of birch plywood would be the best option as a backer for the artwork. Thin and strong enough to support the tiles and grout but still light enough to transport.
It was brought to my attention that a skim layer or “thin coat” of mortar on the board would better secure the tiles to the board. So I did a little experiment. I took a scrap piece of the plywood and then cleared a spot where I left one part without the thin coat and the other with a thin coat applied. Then I adhered a tile to each spot with a bit of mortar and let it set overnight.
As you can imagine, the tile without the thin-coat layer under it was torn off the plywood with very little effort. The thin-coat layer mounted tile took a bit of effort to remove. Unfortunately this experiment didn’t seem to kick in when i was working my first part of the project.
Tiles assembled, I started the design of the Peacock mostly by comparison of the original picture and counting the number of tiles used in each section of the bird until I got my final design:
After the initial design was laid out, I went back through and tweaked the picture so that it would be a bit thinner. For some reason my peacock looked more like a Thanksgiving Turkey, but removing a couple lines of tile thinned it right back out again and I went through and applied mortar to the back of each tile “buttering” the tiles, gluing it to the board (This is why the thin-coat option didn’t happen). The design was completed and a layer of thin-coat was used to cover the rest of the board so the remaining blue tiles would have a better grip. After the background tiles are adhered, the grout will be applied.
Another thing that has played a big part in this project is tesserae thickness. When you see a display of mosaic floors they give you a scale of width and length but height of the tile is a huge part of the creation. It’s especially noticeable when doing “Forward Facing” pieces.
As I mentioned before the Peacock was done doing the “Forward Facing” method. Flat surfaces benefited more with the “Reverse” or “Blind” method but you can’t use that technique when you have curved surfaces such as this Baptismal Font
These kinds of surfaces required a supply of loose tesserae of a variety of colors, lots of mortar and a great deal of patience for creating all the designs incorporated into the surface. The Forward Method can work around angles and curves and several individuals would have been cutting tiles to fit the shapes around the edges. Height or thickness of the tesserae make the surface uneven and harder to grout without lumps in the picture.
Due to the fact I was now at a stopping point before it’s showing at Birka, I decided for comparison I would do the smaller bird using the “Reverse” or “Blind” method. It started off fairly easy. I did the same thing with the tiles as I did for the peacock where I created the design by counting tiles by color and displaying the pattern forward so I could see all the pieces before they were reversed.
Being a smaller pattern, I only needed about a third the tiles and after the designed was laidd out I was able to take some special glue mesh cloth that I had from a previous job and adhere the parts directly to the mesh. In period they would have used cloth with bees wax to obtain the same results. The tiles were adhered by pressing through the wax paper backing. It was flipped over and I created a frame border so that the mortar could be applied over the tiles and let dry for 36 hrs.
Then Tragedy struck. It appears the mortar, which I had left in the shed for over 2 years, did not retain it’s solidifying capability over that time. I can only imagine that moisture and cold first solidified and then broke the mortar powder so it was virtually useless. The mosaic was flipped, the glue mesh was removed and the parts began to crumble. You couldn’t even grab a corner of the mosaic without it crumbling in your hands.
Strangely enough Baroness Megan had posted a thought provoking article about knowing when to destroy your work and start over again. Timing is Everything. I took this as a guiding message and went back and separated all the tiles from the rotten cement, cleaning them and reassembling the entire picture row by row. I think my form of “Reverse” method was probably more true this time because the process was far more time consuming. The first attempt took only a couple days (about 4 hrs) up to the point where it was back on the glue mesh paper. Second time was across 2 week (20 hrs) between examining the pattern, scraping the tile clean of old mortar, placing it in the new framework along with all the filler tiles. Fresh mortar and 36 hrs later:
The new mixture made a much stronger backing and it was fairly easy to flip, clean and then mount onto a smaller backing board to guarantee it wouldn’t break if too much pressure was put directly against the surface.
So now, when you run your hand across the mosaic, except for the edge, there’s a fairly level, even surface. This “Plate” would be put in place on the floor by backing it with a thick layer of mortar that gets squeezed out the edges and scraped away so it becomes a permanent part of the floor in one level surface.
Today is the Birka event here in the Barony of Stonemarche. The “Reverse” method picture is displayed as an example of a newer technique while I work on placing the background onto the peacock picture. I’ve got mostly the electric blue tesserae which I’m “buttering” (applying adhesive/mortar) to the backside of each tile and affixing them to the previously thin-coated surface. I’m going to try and avoid the grid style I used on the “Reverse” method piece. I want a more random direction similar to the original piece.
More details after the event will be added to this post. Wish me luck.