Term three in the conservation lab started off with an expedition outside of its familiar rooms. On April 26, the UCL MSc Year 1 students made their annual visit to the Chedworth Roman Villa. The villa is one of the largest Roman villas in Britain and is currently managed by the National Trust. The day began with a brief tour of the site, led by Lauren, which provided an overview of the site and some idea of the work that goes into maintaining it during the year and the issues that crop up.
Although the forecast looked a bit dreary in the morning, the day certainly had its lovely bits. The villa is situated in a sheltered area where it looks out over the River Coln in the Cotswalds. Although Chedworth villa is prominent for its discovery by the Victorians, its preservation and its status as a National Trust property, it is only one of some 50 villas in the area.
The villa has had a very interesting history, as it was uncovered nearly 150 years ago by the Victorians, who did their own work on the site to help preserve it and make it accessible to visitors. Their reconstruction and preservation efforts can still be seen around the site today, including the building that today houses the museum.
Chedworth Villa is best known for its beautiful mosaics, which can be seen in the triclinium, West Bath House, North Bath House and corridor (also known as the ambulatorium). Unfortunately, such treasures also come with preservation challenges. One of which is the fact that all the mosaics save for that in the corridor are built on pilae, i.e. small columns, that support the floor and allow for a hypocaust system beneath it. A fire would be set at the entrance to this system, and the heat would run under the spaces to heat the rooms and floor. However, deterioration of this system over time has also caused some loss due to collapsed floors.
UCL conservation students have been making annual visits to Chedworth Roman villa for many years in order to help manage the unique environmental situation that impacts the mosaic floors. The villa is situated slightly downhill from a natural spring, which causes a lot of moisture to be present in the soil. Because the mosaics are situated on the ground in some areas, as in the long corridor, they also take up salts from the ground. If the rooms become too wet, microbiological growth appears, causing damage to the surface of the stones and walls, but when they are too dry the salts crystallize out of the mosaics, also causing damage.
Over the years improved shelter buildings and the introduction of drains and conservation-grade environmental controls have helped to regulate the environment around the mosaics, thanks to an HLF-funded project. A UV eradication program has also been implemented to control microbiological growth on the mosaics. Some areas, however, still need to have heavy growth removed manually so that this system can be used.
And that is where this year’s UCL students came in. Aside from assessing the condition of the main mosaics and rooms in the villa, students tackled the removal of heavy microbiological growth in the North Bath House. Plant growth causes deterioration due to the creep of their anchoring systems beneath the surfaces of mortar and tiles, which then pop off as the plants grow larger.
Because the UV removal system is only effective when the plant and microbiological growth is thin enough to be eradicated, removing and thinning out thick growth by hand is necessary before it can be implemented in the North Bath House. With the use of brushes, scalpels, and various hand tools, students tackled the thick patches of greenery.
Although it is task that takes more than a day to complete, we nevertheless managed to make a dent in the green growth in the North Bath House, which in turn will help keep the stones and mortar intact until further cleaning. In the end, this will allow future visitors, like you, to be able to appreciate these remarkable Roman finds in the depths of the Cotswolds.
Keep an eye out for more posts, coming soon!