Hypothesise about how the floors were damaged

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At the site of Fishbourne Roman Palace, there are over 100 beautifully crafted mosaics. These are a very elaborate type of flooring made from 1000s of multicoloured ceramic squares. Only very wealthy people with lots of status could afford to have them in their homes, let alone over 100 as there are on the Fishbourne site.

Over hundreds of years, the mosaics have been subject to wear and tear from general use through to ploughing in medieval times. In this extended answer I will look at and explore the reasons of the damage to the beautiful mosaics.

Firstly some of the natural damage was caused by tree roots coming through the ground then up through the mosaics. Weed roots although do little damage on their own would also have caused some damage is there was lots of them. These roots coming up through would have probably been the cause to cracks and breaks in some of the mosaics. This would have caused damage such as round holes and small cracks along the cement on the mosaics.

The mud and the grass which had been sitting on top of the mosaics for hundreds of years putting lots of pressure onto them would have got in-between the ceramic pieces and done a bit of damage but would have preserved them more than done damage to them. One of the key facts that one of the most detailed mosaics; the dolphin mosaic, is sunk is that part of the Fishbourne site was built on top of a pre-roman rubbish dump so after a few years when the rubbish under the foundations began to decompose, a large gap where the rubbish was formed and so the heavy concrete foundations partially sunk into the hole beneath it.

This is a great shame that this damage has been caused to this mosaic in particular as otherwise the dolphin mosaic (below), would be in pristine condition with only a few small holes in the corners which is expected from general wear and tear. Another key thing that caused the mosaics to sink and fall in some places was the areas where granary posts had been situated. The first known buildings on the Fishbourne site before the palace was built were granaries. These were buildings which could safely hold food which mainly consisted of corn and grain.

These buildings were built on top of thick wooden posts pushed down into the ground to stop rats and other vermin from getting to the food and eating it. When the granaries were no longer needed, instead of just pulling the posts out of the ground, the builders or people who were working no the site just simply cut the posts off level with the ground so 10 inches or so of the wooden posts were still left pushed into the ground. Then when the foundations for the palace were laid, no one bothered to think about the post remnants and they laid foundations over it.

Then mosaics were put down over the top of these wooden parts and where the wood had decomposed like the rubbish, the mosaics sank into these holes in several places and damaged parts of the flooring. This damage may have been simply that the mosaics were sunk in places or could even be that in some places the mosaics have cracked under the strain of sinking. What the people who cut off the posts should have done is to pull the posts fully from the ground and fill the posts with some strong filler or even with mud like the rest of the ground.

This would have prevented the mosaics from sinking and so could prevent costly damage. Moving onto man-made or human damage, there is plenty of damage caused to the mosaics by humans. Most of it has not been done on purpose but by accident. Firstly the roman themselves caused quite a lot of damage to the works of art. When the mosaics were built they were mostly built with the new changing trends in Rome in mind, which is the reason why some of the rooms at Fishbourne have colour pieces and some are just simply black and white.

Some depict famous battles or humans riding dolphins and with lots of detail and some are just simple geometric shapes. Keep on building new more modern mosaics was alright as long as you had enough space and money to build them. If Togidubnus was the owner of the palace (and he probably was), then money was absolutely no problem and space wouldn’t have been at the start. From evidence on mosaics at the Fishbourne site it looks as though Togidubnus or the occupant of the palace has just simply said for the people who made the mosaics to make some more modern ones on top of older more boring ones.

This is shown in this picture. Also when people didn’t like the mosaics they sometimes just ripped them up although they may have cost them loads to be put down and made. Sometimes they even recycled the pieces and used them again in other newer mosaics. Not only did the Romans build new mosaics over the older ones but also in some rooms, a hypocaust which was the roman equivalent of a heating system. It mainly consisted of gaps under the flooring which trapped hot air and kept the people in the room above it warm in the winter months.

The hypocaust looked like lots of different piles of tiles stacked on top of each other around the floor. Although it looked a bit dodgy, it proved to be effective in Roman settlements although never used at the Fishbourne site. This damaged the mosaics as the hypocaust were usually built on top of them so crushing them and causing bits to fall apart. Another way that the roman’s themselves damaged the prestigious flooring is that on some of the mosaics in some of the rooms, there are lots and lots of scorch marks.

These scorch marks would most likely have come from hot braziers and ovens that would have been sitting on top of the mosaics. Braziers and hot ovens were mainly used on industrial sites, which further backs up the possibility of the site becoming an industrial site after its original use as a palace for King Togidubnus. These scorch marks would cause thick embedded black lines to form across the mosaics. This would be extremely hard to restore as part of the mosaics is worn away from the shear heat of the braziers.

Objects could also have been accidentally but frequently dropped on the mosaics if it was used as an industrial site and this might have chipped parts of the mosaics. Also the heavy machinery that was used in industrial site was always moving up and down and this could have been frequently scratching the mosaics and causing large sections of ceramic squares to become loose. Staying on the human damage but moving a few hundred years later, there was a massive fire to the palace about two hundred years after it was originally built.

This is thought to be an act of vandalism but it could have once again been an accident. The fire pretty much gutted at least half of the palace and did structural damage to the other parts. The fire would have become trapped in some of the rooms and this would have caused the heat to get more intense and so would have done damage to the flooring which included the grand mosaics. The flames could have also have been caught up in the hypocaust system and this would have made it very hard for the fire to get out and would have caused the underside of the mosaics to be destroyed.

The flames might not have melted the ceramic s such, but would have most probably caused great discolouring among the colourful pieces and would have caused them to look ‘charred’. After the site was no longer standing in medieval times, the earth above the remains would have most probably been quite fertile as in medieval times it was used as farming land and was quite regularly ploughed. We know all this information as on some of the mosaics there are distinctive parallel lines which suggest that the ground was only just above some of the mosaics and that the plough could reach down onto them.

The parallel lines suggest the distinctive ‘ridge & groove’ ploughing techniques as used by pretty much every farmer in medieval times. This is how we know that some of the damage to the mosaics was done by accident in medieval times. These lines have been etched into the mosaics making it very hard to restore like the damage caused by the braziers. The site was ploughed from the Saxon period through to the 19th century. This, and the deliberate removal of wall foundations, both for the stone and to remove obstacles to ploughing, caused considerable damage to the remains.

It is remarkable that so much survived, especially the mosaics in the north and west wings and the bedding trenches and tree pits in the central garden. Moving into the 20th century, in the 1960s something happened which actually did the most damage out of all the damage types and that is when a large JCB digger was digging below the ground on the Fishbourne site. It was digging a main water trench on the edge of the site and without noticing ripped through some of the mosaics. It was only when little colourful ceramic pieces were seen in the ground that the national heritage moved in and decided the site was of national importance.

From then onwards, extensive excavations took place on the site between 1961 and 1969 under the direction of Barry Cunliffe and they uncovered which was to be the largest roman settlement north of the Alps. Only 1/4 of the site could be excavated however as houses had already been built around the site and at least 3/4 of the site is still beneath houses and the nearby roads. The house foundations may have already destroyed some of the priceless mosaics but the national heritage cannot dig beneath the houses as they wish for.

Some of the occupants of the nearby houses have allowed permission to dig up their gardens but there is one woman in one of the houses who will not allow this and it is thought that something good might be under her garden. When the site was excavated in the 1960s, a grant was given for a large roof to cover some of the better bits of the site and the mosaics. The roof covering the site has unfortunately started to leak and water now drips down onto the mosaics and gathers in areas which inevitably are damaging them.

On the areas which haven’t yet been excavated, a natural but very effective roof of grass and mud is preserving what is thought to contain many more fascinating mosaics like the ones inside. In conclusion I feel that overall there has been lots of damage done to the mosaics which has mostly been done by accident. However some of the damage like the damage caused by fire 200 years after it was built was probably committed as an act of vandalism. I see no need for this as it is destroying our history as a nation.

I think that the thing which probably caused the most damage to the mosaics was when the digger was digging a main water trench. This digger just sliced through them like cutting through cheese. I say that this was the most damaging factor but at least the mosaics could be pretty much restored whereas the scorch damage from the braziers could not be restored as it is engraved into the ceramic. So in a way the damage from things like the sinking caused by the rubbish dump and the granary posts is worse damage as it cannot be restored easily.

If the present day Fishbourne site had a better roof that did not leak that would help to keep the mosaics in tip top condition. Overall I think that the most damaging type of damage was the man-made damage. I think this because there are far more factors that damaged the mosaics in this category than in natural and structural and the damage caused under this category destroyed the mosaics more. This is because man-made damage can have a lot more strength and force behind it than natural does although tree roots can be very strong and can even push up through concrete.

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