What happened to the Roman mosaics in the old Dock Street Museum?

What happened to the Roman mosaics in the old Dock Street Museum?

by Oliver Blackmore

Newport’s old Dock Street Museum displayed two fine Roman mosaics from Caerwent. The black and white photograph below shows them grandly flanking the museum stairway. The Dock Street Museum was demolished in 1967. However, many Newportonians still remember the mosaics from their childhood. One such person recently asked what had happened to the mosaics? This presented the ideal opportunity to tell their story.
The Caerwent mosaics displayed on the stairs of the Dock Street Museum c. 1906.

Both mosaics date to the third century AD – often called the ‘golden age of mosaics’ in Britain. Discovered in a Roman house in Caerwent, the mosaics are from and associated with, a room called a ‘triclinium’. A triclinium (named after the Greek ‘triklinion’) was a formal oblong-shaped dining room, composed of three (‘tri’) couches (‘klinon’). Triclinia were where middle and upper class Romans would eat, relax and entertain. Diners would recline on the couches, whilst their slaves brought them various courses of food.
The geometric mosaic was from the triclinium itself. The figurative example, known as ‘the Four Seasons’ mosaic, is from an adjoining room, connected and visible from the triclinium. The oblong shape of the triclinium can be seen at the centre point of the black and white photograph below, with the Four Seasons mosaic in the foreground.

Room 7 of House 7 (south) Caerwent, showing the both the Triclinium and Four Seasons mosaics in situ. Photograph taken by the CEF, c. 1901.

The mosaics were discovered in 1901 by a group of archaeologists called the Caerwent Exploration Fund (CEF). They were led by Thomas Ashby who went onto become the first director of the British School in Rome. Ashby and his colleagues photographed the mosaics but were unable to capture the vibrant colours (–  colour photography was not widely available until the 1930s). The CEF employed Frank King, a Bristol surveyor to complete accurate watercolour drawings to record the polychrome mosaics in all their splendour. Today, these watercolours form an important component of the CEF archive at Newport Museum.

Watercolour drawing of the Four Seasons mosaic by Frank King, c. 1902

Particularly impressive, is the Four Seasons mosaic, which diners would have looked across while reclining in the triclinium. The female figures in the corners represent the seasons. The cloaked figure in the top right is Winter; the bottom right is Spring; Summer is at the bottom left and autumn is missing top left. The cupids in the medallions hold torches, which relate to the seasons. The cupid near Spring is missing; Summer has a cupid with a torch fully ablaze; Autumn, a fading flame and Winter holds an extinguished torch. Mosaic experts have suggested Bacchus may have been the missing central figure, being a fertility god and leader of the seasons.

Watercolour drawing of the Lower Pavement mosaic of the triclinium by Frank King, c. 1902

The geometric mosaic associated with the triclinium itself was excavated in two stages. Readers will notice that Frank King’s drawing is annotated: ‘Lower Pavement’. This because there was a later ‘Upper Pavement’, found on top of it. Roman tastes in interior design changed overtime and the occupants of the house must have wanted to update the mosaic in their triclinium. After all, it was the place they would formally entertain guests. Unfortunately, the Upper Pavement was not in a good condition and so the excavators took the decision to recover the earlier Lower Pavement, which was better preserved. It along with the Four Seasons mosaic was set in concrete sections and removed to Newport’s Dock Street Museum to be reassembled.

The Lower Pavement reassembled on the ground floor of John Frost Library, Museum and Art Gallery. © Patricia Witts, c. 1991. 

When the Dock Street Museum was demolished and the new John Frost Square Museum built, both mosaics were put into storage with only fragments exhibited. It would not be until the 1980s, that both mosaics would be displayed again. The Lower Pavement was displayed at the bottom of the ground floor stairs (see photograph above). It remained there until the 1990s, when it was again put into storage to make way for a fire escape. The Four Seasons mosaic was painstakingly reconstructed in the late 1980s to form one of the star exhibits for the brand new Roman displays, which opened in 1988 to celebrate Newport Museum and Art Gallery’s centenary. Thirty-two years on, the Four Seasons mosaic still remains the focal point of the Newport Museum’s Roman displays.

The Four Seasons mosaic as currently displayed in Newport Museum and Art Gallery


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