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Ancient Construction Tools and Methods put to the Test

Wed March 21, 2012 - National Edition
Mary Reed

Visitors to the Roman settlement historical site at Wroxeter in the West Midlands of England in 2010 must have been surprised by a strange sight: men with sheets over their heads standing in a field studying the sky.

The reason? They were consulting the gods to see if the location was a good place to build a villa.

It was, and they did.

The project was followed by the British TV series “Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day,“ a six-part broadcast chronicling the construction of a Roman urban villa at Wroxeter, one of the largest Roman settlements in Britain.

The builders were required to produce the necessary building material by hand and construct the villa using only Roman building methods and tools as far as possible under modern safety regulations. Thus, for example, the team used steel scaffolding rather than the wooden type the Romans would have used.

In addition, since the villa is located on an English Heritage site, the ground beneath it could not be disturbed. The structure was therefore built on a low platform above the still-buried forum, an important administrative area for the original Roman town, ensuring the forum was safely preserved for future archaeological work.

The recreated villa was designed by Professor Dai Morgan Evans of Chester University. Based upon a building excavated in 1914 on plot number six at the Wroxeter site, the villa’s amenities include a bathhouse heated by a hypocaust, the forerunner of central heating. Heating for the villa itself would have been provided by charcoal braziers.

The six-man construction team was composed of plasterer Tim Dalton-Dobson, plumber Kevin Fail, carpenter Fred Farray, laborer Ben Gotsell, bricklayer Darren Prince, and foreman Jim Blackham. The project, which began in summer 2010, was completed in approximately six months.

Plumber Kevin Fail became involved with the project through an advertisement on a UK Web site called “My Builder.”

“One afternoon in late 2009, I replied to this job ad and got it. They picked six for a day’s filming as a pilot and out of the six they only liked three of us, Jim, Ben, and myself. The other three were added not long before we started the project, and they were Fred, Darren, and Tim,” Fail recalled.

The craftspersons chosen featured a wide variety of ages and experience, a mix that doubtless appealed to and interested viewers. For example, Fail described himself as “not your normal 52 year old. I have long hair and ride a motorbike and wear a leather waistcoat.”

What the team had in common, however, was the project was one where they learned as they went along, beginning when they arrived onsite in May 2010.

Surveying was carried out by use of a groma. At first glance resembling a small gibbet, the groma’s swivelling head supports an X-shaped wooden crossbar with a plumb line suspended from the end of each arm. By aligning plumb lines with a sequence of poles held at increasing distances by an assistant, the surveyor is able to mark out straight lines for a road or lines at right angles to each other, the latter forming the rectangles or squares needed when laying out a building.

“The first two weeks consisted of us firing a kiln and making lime mortar while the float foundations were being laid,” Fail said. “We went to a blacksmith and made some tools, which the Romans would have used, very similar to today’s chisels, etc.”

Then the really hard work started.

“Every rock had to be broken by hand into a brick, all mortar for bricks was mixed by hand with a copy of a Roman hoe. When we started building, to be honest the building really didn’t look that big. We had dwarf walls along most of the villa, but the bathhouse was full height,” he said.

“The timber frame was hewed to a certain degree, but then the rest was pre-fabricated for us as the Romans would have done at the time. The frame was green oak and it was all lifted into place by hand. No cranes!” Fail added.

An oak tree was felled with a two-man saw, shaped with axes, and formed the gable end of the structure, which features wattle and daub walls. The wattle was formed of green hazel wood woven horizontally, the daub composed of animal droppings with hair and topsoil heavily applied and then dried before the application of lime plaster.

Mud bricks also were used on the job. These had no structural integrity, being more of a filler and easily stacked. They were formed of a mix made of 20 percent topsoil, 60 percent earthen-based clay, 15 percent lime putty, and 5 percent mixed small stones. The mortar that went between the joints was 30 percent lime putty, 60 percent clay, and 10 percent topsoil.

Soda glass also was needed for the villa and creating it involved some experimentation. The common method used was to blow a cylinder, cut down the side, and open it out into a pane, but the craftsperson involved blew rectangle vases and then cut the corners. Frescos and paint production involved mixing 1/8 iron oxides with lime putty for the bright yellow and red exterior paint. The frescos decorating rooms were painted on the top layer of plaster while it was still wet so the color would adhere to it.

The villa’s mosaic flooring was handled by Fail, the plumber. His first problem was finding a way to manufacture the 250,000 tesserae used to create the mosiac.

“I did it by making slabs and cutting them like a chocolate bar. Once they had dried a little, I would then break them into sections, hand-painted them all, and got them fired,” he said.

“The real way to lay them is to push them into lime mortar, but we couldn’t do that, as it was the wrong time of year. So my daughter created a mosaic floor design and we drew it out full size on hessian, cut out patterns, and then took them to four local schools, where we got the children to stick the pieces on the hessian, following the color pattern.”

Once this was accomplished, the mosaics were laid with modern Rapid Set using lime mortar as a grout. It had to be accomplished in two days and was due to be walked on the day after. In February 2011, workers returned to the site, brushed out the lime, and replaced it with modern grout to hold the mosaics in place.

Materials for the job, including lime mortar and plaster, were created or mixed by hand. In addition, construction of the villa required 1,500 timber joints and 2,500 oak roof tiles, again cut by hand. Some 150 tons of local sandstone was quarried for the project. The same type of stone was commonly utilized by Roman builders, but the sort used on this job is older because the mines from which it came go deeper.

While each team member was a specialist, construction of the villa was very much a team effort. As Fail put it, “We all had our own little and large projects in the build, but we all chipped in with every aspect. I did brick laying, plastering, joiner, roofing. Everyone did everything.”

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