Dr Norman Davey and recovering Roman wall plaster

A ground-breaking method of lifting and restoring wall paintings

A fragment of restored plaster wall

Norman Davey, a member of the Society, had worked with the Wheelers during their 1930s excavations at Verulamium. Together with other Society members he later joined Sheppard Frere’s team for excavations in advance of the road widening scheme at Bluehouse Hill. During these excavations large pieces of fallen wall plaster were found.

A process for lifting Roman wall plaster had only been recently developed and was in its infancy. However, Davey devised new methods for lifting, preservation and mounting using the facilities of the Government’s Building Research Station at Garston, Watford, where he worked. Davey’s new process involved:

  • specific steps for removing the wall plaster,
  • treatment using water and specific solvents in order to fix pigments
  • use of other solvents to fill in gaps

all done in a room with temperature and humidity controls.

Dr Davey with fragments of plastered wall retrieved from the excavation and laid out ready for restoration (Photo from N.Davey & R.Ling, Wall Paintings in Roman Britain [Britannia Monograph 3, 1982] with permission of The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies)

He also designed a reinforcing frame of duralumin (expanded aluminium) on which the slabs were mounted to allow transport and re-erection.

Sheppard Frere, who led excavations at Verulamium in the mid-1950s, wrote:

The enormous achievement of Norman Davey has hitherto received little notice: but it would be no exaggeration to state that he has provided a whole new dimension to Romano British archaeology by recreating the nature of painted walls and ceilings to complement the conventional plans and pavements. In doing so he has made apparent a fresh channel of impact whereby classical art and culture affected Romano British life.

A restored plastered wall, exhibited in the Verulamium Museum (St Albans Museums)

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