orpheus

The Orpheus Pavement, a 20th Century reconstruction of the Great Pavement of Woodchester, comprising approximately 1.6 million fired clay tesserae, overall size 47' x 47' (2,209 square feet or 205 square metres), currently installed at Prinknash Abbey. EPA/CHORLEY'S.

LONDON.- One of the most significant archaeological projects of recent times - a reconstruction of the great Orpheus pavement - is to be sold by Chorley’s on Thursday, 24th June 2010. Made from 1.6 million pieces of small, hand-cut clay blocks called tesserae, the 2,200 square foot (205 square metre) mosaic took 10 years for brothers Bob and John Woodward to complete.

The Roman period was one of great prosperity for Britain and Gloucestershire was no exception. Large settlements were developed around Gloucester and Cirencester and the wealthy built great villas nearby. The villa at Woodchester near Stroud must have belonged to somebody of great wealth and influence and of the 60 rooms, some 20 had mosaic floors including the large hall which contained the Great Orpheus pavement.

The mosaic depicts Orpheus, one of the most important figures in Greek mythology. Sometimes called the father of music and poetry, he was presented with his lyre by the god Apollo. In the poem ‘Argonautica’ he plays his music so beautifully that the Argonauts are able to ignore the seductive songs of the sirens. He was also one of the few mythological figures to enter the underworld and return. The mosaic depicts his lyre resting on his left knee, his hunting dog alongside him and a myriad of beasts all around including tiger, leopard, lion, elephant, bear, gryphon, stag, horse and wild boar and birds including pheasants, peacocks and doves. A pair of water nymphs are depicted in each spandrel.

The remains of the original pavement at Woodchester have been uncovered periodically and opened to the public. During its most recent opening in 1973, brothers Bob and John Woodward visited the site and were spellbound by the splendid work. The exhibition caused chaos when 151,000 visitors descended on the village. The brothers realised that another uncovering might never take place and decided to make a full-scale reconstruction.

Bob Woodward turned from local builder into a research scholar as he tried to discover what the missing parts must have looked like. The earliest report he found dated back to 1693 when Celtic scholar Edward Llwyd recorded having seen ‘birds and beasts on the floor’. A manuscript in the Bodleian Library reported that in 1711 visitors saw what they thought was a wyvern – a two-legged winged creature: in fact it was a griffin, another mythological creature partlion, part-eagle, parts of which still remain. In 1712 an elephant was described by Edmund Browne and in 1722 a central star by Richard Bradley – however these have now both disappeared. All these sightings appear to have been the result of partial uncovering, perhaps on occasion during burials. During the 1780s, Samuel Lysons, the second son of a Gloucestershire clergyman, made the first full excavation. His findings were published in 1796; the work contained several anomalies such as the picture of the elephant which Lysons said had disappeared. In Lysons’ private diaries Bob found reference to a meeting in 1780 with the Rector of Woodchester who had seen the elephant earlier and drawn it for him.

Bob conducted careful research into other Orpheus mosaics to help replace the missing sections as accurately as possible, particularly the Barton Farm mosaic at Cirencester which had several similar beasts, suggesting very close links in their construction.

The original pavement was made of limestone in seven different colours and 14 shades, the pieces varying from 1 ¼ inches (32mm) to ¼ inch (6mm). A replica in stone would have been prohibitively heavy and expensive so instead the Woodwards scoured the country to find clays with suitable natural colours and the only shade they had to colour artificially was the one used to represent water.

12 tons of clay were fired into strips which were then cut into cubes. Colour slides of the original were projected from below onto a transparent workbench so that the image of each square appearing on the bench was exactly the same size as the original. Each new tessera was then cemented onto boards so that whole sections could be moved individually. The mosaic is made up of 400 sections which can be assembled on a flat surface within a few hours.

The mosaic is mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records under ‘Largest mosaic’ quoting “The largest Roman mosaic in Britain is the Woodchester Pavement, Gloucestershire of c AD 325, excavated in 1793, now re-covered with protective earth. It measures 47 ft 14.3 m square comprising 1½ million tesserae. A brilliant total reconstruction was carried out by Robert and John Woodward in 1973-1982”

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A detail of the reconstruction of the Orpheus Pavement. EPA/CHORLEY'S.

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A detail of the reconstruction of the Orpheus Pavement. EPA/CHORLEY'S.

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A detail of the reconstruction of the Orpheus Pavement. EPA/CHORLEY'S.