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The Orpheus Pavement - one of the most significant archaeological projects of recent times

Thursday, 24th June 2010 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 weighs 3.5 tons and is made up
of 140 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

For enquiries relating to the sale of the mosaic please contact Catrin Hampton at Chorley’s on 01452 344499 or
A special catalogue is available @ £5 plus postage from the auctioneers.
Viewing of the mosaic is strictly by special catalogue entry ONLY on Tuesday 22nd June (9am - 7pm) and Wednesday 23rd June (9am - 5pm).
Rotating images of the mosaic are illustrated online at
Estimate: £15,000-25,000 but as nothing comparable has been offered before the auctioneers are anticipating this figure will be exceeded.

Source: IONA PR

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