“I suppose that you've already been introduced to our newest exhibit.”
Only the previous day I had returned from an arduous five month dig in Cambodia. My long absence from the Museum of London had evidently been overlooked by Rawdon – a man who is utterly incapable of humour and whose every utterance I have learned to take at face value.
I replied vaguely that I had been away for a while.
He led me into a large room that was similar in décor to the galleries in the museum, although this particular area is off limits to the public. There was, at the centre of the room, a spotlit glass case. When I had last set foot in there, which was in August, the case had contained a selection of pottery that had been unearthed by workers on the Crossrail project. These shards had since been removed. In their place lay a human skeleton. It had been positioned on its back with its arms at its sides. It was embedded in a chunk of London clay so that only a portion of the bones were visible. Scattered both on and around it were small tiles, some of which bore faded colours.
“Was he buried under a mosaic?”
“Not quite. There's a very helpful piece of engraving that goes with this find: The man was a Roman of high standing called Pontius Apronius. He resided in a villa which lies on the site of the new Berecroft development in Shoreditch. The atrium of the villa was decorated with a splendid floor mosaic which had been created to honour the general Lucius Artorius Castus.
“Upon taking possession of the villa, Apronius carried out extensive renovations to the property. Among these was the removal of the mosaic. Unfortunately news of its destruction reached the ears of General Marcus Castus – a grandson of the late Lucius Artorius.
“Anyway, the short of it is Castus had the pieces of the mosaic glued to the body of Apronius ,who apparently went on to live for a further five years in excruciating pain – I imagine breathing was a problem and look – you can see here where there is what we think is a stress fracture across the femur probably caused by the weight of the stone.”
A few weeks after this conversation I, by chance, observed sections of the Eduardo Paolozzi mosaic arches being gingerly carried out of Tottenham Court Road station and loaded into an idling lorry.
I pondered momentarily on whether a similar fate to that endured by Pontius Apronius would be an appropriate punishment for whichever soul had perpetuated this act of cultural vandalism.