Ancient roman murals discovered in France have revealed graffiti that has been attributed to children of the time. Archaeologists and restorationists have been working for three years to reassemble the jigsaw-like pieces of the painted plaster that had decorated a Roman villa of the 2nd century A.D. Garlands of fruit and drinking cups painting on trompe l'oeil columns on the red walls of a dining room testify to the hospitality of the master of the house. 

Archaeologists from the French Center for the study of Roman murals (CEPMR) of Soissons, in the department of Aisne in the Hautes-de-France in northern France, discovered the murals during ground preparations for the l'Îlot Casanova residential development. Restorationists have reconstructed 13 sections of the murals. Sabine Groetembril, who heads research section of CEPMR, said of the painstaking work, "Fragments are associated until there is no doubt. It’s a puzzle of which they have neither a model nor all of the pieces.”

Computer-generated replica

Groetembril described the murals, which was a technique that Europeans continued to use for centuries. "It was the wallpaper of the Romans. When the house was destroyed, the plaster was reused as backfill.” On the same site, a second mural was brought to light by the archaeologists,  decoration was brought to light reminds the archaeologist: "It seems that it belonged to the same domus. For lack of time, he was ransacked. We lost a lot of fragments. This second set would have a richer composition than the first.

The reconstructed murals measure 3 meters high and 4.5 meters long. Using the fresco technique, the ancient artisans used water-based pigments that were applied to freshly laid, or wet lime plaster. The pigment and plaster fused so that the painting becomes an integral part of the wall. Once the paint and plaster were dried, a veil of calcite was applied that protected the murals from the ravages of time. According to Groetembril, the Romans used the following pigments for the mural: "Ocher; green earth [Verona green]; mercuric sulphide [cinnabar] that provides red; blue comes from iron ore and copper.”

The composition of the paintings is classic for Gaul in the years 100 till 120 A.D. Red panels are divided by columns to create a small temple [aedicule] and which are separated by black interpanels decorated with candelabra embellished with various objects such as vases, fruit, drinking horns, and shields. Above the capitals leap painted decorative lions and a coffered ceiling in trompe l'oeil.

Few sites are as large

The motifs in the paintings were used by the restorationists to date the paintings. However, the mortar used by the Romans has yet to reveal its secrets. The archaeologists hope that the murals will not be merely preserved and kept in storage, but instead but on exhibit for the public to see. Groetembril said: "The results will be published at a symposium, but the purpose is diffusion and exposure.These paintings speak volumes about their owners and times. Few sites provide such large areas of murals." Computer software has allowed the restorationists to provide electronic images of what the murals may have been like at the time of their completion, based on photographs of tons of fragmentary evidence. The digitally created model of the murals can then serve as a background   on which the paintings will be placed, for exhibition in a museum.

Children recorded gladiatorial feats

On the walls uncovered by archaeologists are examples of graffiti that they attribute to children of the era. One of the drawings depicts a gladiator holding a trident and wearing a very detailed cuirass and leather leggings. Groetembril said of the find: "We find on this wall several graffiti representing gladiators. One can imagine that the children of the house attended a party and fights. Gladiators were stars at the time. The children wanted to etch what they saw."

Once the study of the paintings is completed, CEPMR will restore the fragments of murals if a project is established in cooperation with the curator of a museum. Restorationist Beatrice Amadei-Kwifati explained, "We are restoring paintings according to our own protocol. The plates are refined and reinforced with a glass fabric and a synthetic mortar. The fragments are glued on an aluminum plate to be put on exhibit. All our restorations are reversible, when needed."




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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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