Dr Norman Davey: rescuing Roman plaster decorations

This article, from the December 1996 Newsletter, recorded a return visit to St Albans by its then oldest member, Dr Norman Davey, and reflected upon the contribution he made to saving the plaster wall and ceiling decorations of Verulamium.

A most welcome visitor to St Albans in September [1996] was Dr Norman Davey, the oldest member of our Society, who spent two days revisiting old haunts. Brian and Kathleen Moody and I joined him for a delicious lunch at St Michael’s Manor, after which Chris Green and Brian Adams [then both members of the St Albans Museums team]  took us round the Hypocaust and Verulamium Museum, to show him some of the work to which he had contributed so much.

Chris Green writes ‘During the 1955 (and later) excavations Dr Davey devised new methods for lifting and mounting fallen Roman wall and ceiling plasters, using expanded aluminium mesh. Over twenty years he laboriously restored some 80 panels from sites throughout the country, adding a new dimension to our knowledge of Romano-British interiors.

Roman wall plaster (John Moorhead/St Albans Museums)

During the Wheeler’s campaign at Verulamium in 1930-33 Norman Davey made extremely fine measured pencil and watercolour drawings of several floor mosaics, which were later deposited at the Museum. Unfortunately the backing of the boards proved unstable, and acid decomposition threatened the survival of the images themselves. Museum Conservation Services Ltd of Duxford removed the acid backing from the very thin, but stable, facing paper over a period of weeks, using a synthetic cellulose adhesive to soften and swell the cardboard without affecting the watercolour pigments, and scraping the residue away with scalpels. The drawings were then lined with handmade Japanese paper and mounted for display. Dr Davey was able to see them in the week of their return to Verulamium.

Origins of the Bouncing Bomb                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    There have been some recent references, for example in the July 1997 issue of British Archaeology, to the existence near St Albans of a scale model of the German Mohne dam, which became one of the targets of RAF 617 Squadron.                                                                                                                                                                                        Our Honorary Member, Dr Norman Davey, whose many archaeological achievements at Verulamium and elsewhere are well known, was the person responsible for this invention. While he was working at the Building Research Station, Barnes Wallis consulted him secretly in December 1940, in order to work out a method of destroying the Ruhr dams from the air. As a result it was decided to build an exact 1/50 scale model of the Mohne dam, using the plans published by the Germans before the war, so that explosive tests could be carried out to determine the size of bomb required and the optimum depth to explode it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          The model was built by Norman Davey and some carefully chosen colleagues, in the grounds of the research station, where there was a suitable stream of water. They worked for seven weeks in severe winter weather, under conditions of extreme secrecy, using tiny concrete blocks all to scale, and by February 1941 the model was ready for testing with miniature bombs.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The actual Dambuster’s raid took place in 1943 and its story has been told many times, but always without reference to the vital first steps taken at Garston. One might have expected that the model dam could have been destroyed in the interests of security, but some it escaped and is still standing today, nearly intact apart from the pieces blown out of it by Barnes Wallis. Norman Davey can be proud, not only of his remarkable contribution to the war effort, but also of the quality and durability of his model-making techniques.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Brian Moody  [Extracted from the Society’s Newsletter, August 1997]