The History of Mosaics: Materials for Construction

Throughout history mosaics have been made from a variety of different materials, depending on the location of the project, complexity of the floor and importantly, the wealth of the patron.

Limestone and marbles were typically the main stones used in mosaic workings however for different colours different resources would be used. In Britain for example there was a lack of local red stone therefore a mosaic maker would cut up and re-use terracotta tile or pot in order to get the desired colour.

As well as stone it was not uncommon for glass to be used. Smalto was a type of coloured glass which could be made into rods then cut by the mosaicists and put into the mosaic , this technique was sometimes used in floor mosaics although due to its brittle nature was more popular in wall mosaics as they endured less pressure and damage. The smalto was good for providing dark reds and blues and was especially effective when used in baths or fountains as it would become very bright when wet . Glass tesserae have been found in Britain but it seems in such a province it was used very rarely for only minute details such as emphasizing the green speckles in the hare at Cirencester .In wealthier provinces closer to Rome glass tesserae are known to have been used in greater quantities, however the passage of time is not kind to such mosaics. Floor mosaics generally survive better than wall mosaics as walls tend to crumble and be recycled more so than floors which get buried in earth. In elite mosaics even more luxurious materials could be used if wanted, gold and silver leaf glass were used on occasion and in some mosaics precious gems and jewels were used to highlight a detail. The inclusion of such expensive materials would have often been a minority component of mosaics; on the whole the predominant material was limestone and marble.

The ways in which the mosaic makers got these materials is not completely clear. It is believed that some of the stone for mosaic building would have came from the waste products of stone masons as their sizeable waste could have been gathered cheaply and cut down to the appropriate sized tesserae for the planned mosaic. However if a mosaic was to include richer colours than the black and white stone traditionally handled by a typical stone mason then they would have to be sourced specially and thus become more expensive. Another problem with sourcing stone for mosaic construction is that stone in any significant quantity is a heavy commodity to transport so unless the mosaic site was fortunate enough to be situated near the stone source or a port where it could be imported via the sea, it would become costly or limited in its colour.

Once the mosaic workers had the relevant materials, they had to cut them to the required shape. How they did this is still questionable however it is thought that they would have used a small anvil such as with glass tesserae and cut them using a knapping blade. The main evidence for this is that this is the traditional technique that society has inherited from the past and that a Roman funeral monument displays what is believed to be a workshop of sorts, in which stone is being cut into tesserae, loaded in baskets and carried away. Presumably the men working the stone into manageable tesserae would also go on to lay the mosaic itself however this is not explicitly clear, although it would seem the more likely and sensible way to maintain a mosaic workshop, especially as additional shaping of the tesserae may be required at the site. Nevertheless the evidence for the actual production and the organisation of the industry is sparse so such conjectures remain.

Example from Brussels

The History of Mosaics

A Roman mosaic in all its beauty

Mosaics have long been seen as the staple of Roman art, culture, and achievement and have been found in Roman buildings across the empire ranging from Britain to Africa and Spain to Judaea. Their occurrence in the ancient world is … Continue reading

My Denarius of Hadrian

Hadrian 134-138 AD

Recently, I must admit, my posts have become somewhat infrequent and sporadic:  sometimes life simply gets in the way of writing.  Nevertheless life includes collecting and I would like to share one of my best recent acquisitions,  a denarius of … Continue reading

An Urbs Roma Nummus

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A coin doesn’t have to be valuable to be beautiful and it is for this reason why, despite the few silver issues highlighted previously, that the majority of my collection are low value bronze denominations. A particularly good example of … Continue reading

A New Year, A New Denarius

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Over the festive period my Roman coin collection has increased quite considerably so here is one I identified earlier. It is a denarius of Septimius Severus, emperor of Rome from AD193-211 the founding father of the Severan dynasty and saviour … Continue reading

The Hare Mosaic II

Since last week’s discussion of the hare mosaic I’ve been thinking again about the place of the ‘hare’ in ancient religion.

For all the talk of its potential significance in its namesake mosaic, the significance of the hare in ancient religion is a veritable mystery and uncovering the reason would add such great flavour to an already absorbing piece of art.

For the sake of a reason, my best guestimation would be that the hare, as well as the goose and cockerel, were all the zoomorphic representation of a native deity or at least the animal companion of.  Such companions are widely known from ancient pagan religions such as the cockerel and ram being associated with Mercury.   A parallel can also be drawn to a local belief, across the Cotswolds where a series of sculptures dedicated to a local deity all portray a figure associated with a bird, given the area possibly a wood pigeon.  

This to my mind would suggest that, if the hare was taboo as food or a hunting item and looked after or revered by the native British, then being the associate to a deity would be a most plausible explanation for such behaviour and worship. Nevertheless this is just conjecture and should be treated as such, but it never hurts to enquire and it would certainly be plausible. Furthermore even if it is a valid assumption  the next mystery is who was this deity, and what powers did it behold?  It seems history loves nothing more than a mystery.