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Unexpected Finds

Posted On September 28, 2017 | 13:03 pm | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (October 2017)



Floor Tile. Dumbarton Oaks Archives (AR.OB.Misc.085).

Recently, four decorative floor tiles were discovered during excavation work in the Dumbarton Oaks gardens north of the Catalogue House. The tiles came to light as workmen trenched the area to lay new water piping as part of the water-supply improvement project. The four tiles are accessioned in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (AR.OB.Misc.085–088).

Floor Tile. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.OB.Misc.087.

Back of floor tile AR.OB.Misc.086.

These unexpected finds are late nineteenth-century cement “encaustic” tiles made by the Belgian–French company, Boch Frères et Compagnie in Maubeuge (Nord), France. Each measures approximately seven inches square with a thickness of three-quarters of an inch (17.3 x 17.3 x 2.1 cm), and each is stamped on the back: BOCH Fres & Cie MAUBEUGE. Two of the tiles (AR.OB.Misc.085 and 086) have the same pattern.

The Boch ceramics company was founded in 1841 by Eugène and Victor Boch at La Louvière, Belgium. In 1861, the company opened a branch at Maubeuge in the north of France, which principally made floor tiles until the plant closed in 1936. The company made both ceramic and cement encaustic tiles (the latter called carreaux de ciment comprimé in French). Manufactured by hand, cement tiles used different colored cements instead of the clay used in ceramic tiles. The colored cement pastes – made of oxide pigments, white cement, marble powder, and water – were poured to a depth of one-eighth inch into the patterned sections of a metal mold (moule de cloissoné, in French) that had been inserted into a wooden or metal frame.

Side view of floor tile AR.OB.Misc.085.

When the mold was carefully removed, the colored cement pastes fused, producing the tile’s pattern. The remainder of the frame was then filled with cement as a backing. The completed tile was subjected to pressure by either a hand or hydraulic press, and after setting, the tile was removed from the frame and dried slowly for several weeks in a carefully maintained humid environment.

Process of making a cement and encaustic floor tile.

It is not known where the four Dumbarton Oaks tiles were used. A possibility is the Home for Incurables, the health charity that had been built in 1892 in the area where the Dumbarton Oaks library, greenhouse, and refectory are now located. In 1925, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss acquired this property and had it torn down. Possibly, these tiles and other debris became landfill as the gardens were developed in the later 1920s.

Floor tile. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.OB.Misc.088.

Complete floor in France using tiles of the pattern of AR.OB.Misc.088.