Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Head of Dionysus from Corinth

Hello all and welcome to this blog post!

Today I will be looking at this mosaic of the head of Dionysus, from ancient Corinth.

I picked it because I liked the pattern around the head, so I decided to do some research into it. Unfortunately, there are many pictures of this mosaic, but not very much information about it! I was able to find out that it is dated to around 150-225 AD, and that it was the floor in a Roman villa. I also found out that it is currently housed in the Ancient Corinth Museum, that opening times are 8-3 every day except holy days, and tickets are 6 euros unless you are over 65, under 18 or a student in the European Union, which sadly I am not!

What is interesting about this mosaic is that is recognised as being Dionysus rather than Bacchus, the Roman equivalent. When Greece was incorporated into the Roman Empire, many of their gods became closely linked with the Roman ones, for example Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno, and Dionysus became Bacchus. The fact that this is Dionysus instead of Bacchus could be an indication that the Greek gods lingered during the Roman empire. Alternatively, it could just be that because it was found in Greece, archaeologists dubbed him Dionysus and so Dionysus he stayed!

Anyways, super short today because I chose my subject matter poorly, so sorry for that. Tis still a very pretty mosaic and I would love to go see it one day!

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Madaba Map

Hello and welcome to this blog post!

Today I will be looking at the Madaba Map, an intricate and interesting mosaic found during the construction of a Greek Orthodox in 1884, following the destruction of the city of Madaba by earthquake in 746 AD. It originally was part of the Nea Church, which was dedicated in 542 AD.

Now I say this is an intricate and interesting mosaic, and it is probably the most intricate and interesting mosaic in the world being as it is a map of the Jerusalem! We don't know who it was made by, but we do know that it was made between 542 and 570 AD, as no buildings build after 570 are on it. This means it it almost 1,500 years old. Unfortunately, after it's rediscovery in 1884 it was badly damaged by activities in the church, fires and moisture, reducing its size from the original 21 by 7 metes to 16 by 5 meters. Luckily, in 1964 90,000 DM (roughly £40,000 or $52,000) was given for the restoration, which was undertaken by archaeologists Heinz Cuppers and Herbert Donner. When complete, it would have had 2 million tesserae!

Reproduction of the mosaic, with credit to Bernard Gagnon

One of the many things that is interesting about this map is that it does not face north, as modern maps do, but instead faces towards the altar at the east. This means that the places the map depicts are in line with with the compass directions. The map depicts a large number of important biblical sites that were previously undiscovered, such as Askalon, the Nea Church and the Cardo Maximus, the latter two of which were found in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. It also showed a road running through the middle of Jerusalem which was later discovered 4m below the surface of a modern road!

All of the places on the map are labelled in Greek, including around 150 towns and villages. There are also descriptions of several cities including Gaza and the previously mentioned Askalon that are so detailed that they could almost be used as street maps. 

Location of John the Baptist's baptism.

This map is incredibly helpful for locating sites of biblical significance, which makes it incredibly significant for Jewish and Christian people alike. It is also the oldest geographic floor mosaic in art history which makes it significant from an archaeological and historical perspective as well! I personally am amazed by how accurate it has proven and the sheer scale - it must have been incredibly impressive when it was complete and I am glad work is going into restoring it.

Thank you for reading and hope you enjoyed!  

Friday, 19 August 2016

The Basilica of San Vitale - Byzantine Mosaics


Today, I will not be covering just one mosaic, but a series of them in one of the most beautifully mosaiced places in the world - the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. As a basilica it is a deeply Christian building and that is reflected in the wonderful artwork on the walls, which is some of the best early Byzantine art in the world. Work was started on the church in 525 AD and took 21 years to complete, and cost up to 26,000 gold pieces, which shows the magnificence and scale of this building!

The basilica has something known as a triforium, which is an shallow gallery with arches that is embedded within an inner wall. Mosaics within the arches depict the sacrifices from the Old Testament, such as the sacrifice of Isaac. They also show Abraham and Melchizedek, Moses and the Burning Bush, the story of Abel and Cain, Jeremiah and Isaiah and representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel.

This one shows Abraham giving offerings to three angels on the right, and on the left God stopping him from sacrificing Isaac since he showed obedience to his will. 

This mosaic shows Moses, Isaiah, Abel and Melchizedek, as well as two angels holding a cross which decorated the top of each arc.

Moving into the presbytery becomes even more colourful and detailed. Hellenistic-Roman tradition involves bright colours and natural imagery such as flowers, birds (including peacocks), animals and stars, and all of these can be found in the vault of the presbytery. The leaves, fruits and flowers surround a crown encircling the Lamb of God.

As you can see in the above picture there is an arch above the windows on each side of the presbytery. Above that arch, two angels are holding a disk and to either side of those are representations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Bear in mind this is all mosaic, it is incredibly detailed and the amount of work that must have gone into it is awe inspiring!

Moving on around the basilica then we come to the triumphal arch, which is decorated with images of Jesus and his twelve apostles.

 It is also decorated with two disks showing the sons of Saint Vitale: Saints Gervasius and Protasius.

As you can see, the artists ran out of space on poor Protasius' name, and had to drop an S to the line below! Very unprofessional indeed!

Now, there are a fair few other mosaics in this basilica, but I want to do a separate blog post for those as they are even more spectacular historically than these, if that seems possible! Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it!

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Earliest Mosaic - Ninhursag Temple

Hello all!

Today I thought I would take us back into the deepest depths of time to discover the first mosaic made out of recognizable tesserae, as opposed to pebbles. Now I know this means this isn't the earliest mosaic, but it did make a catchier title!

A little bit of background; this mosaic was found at the Ninhursag Temple (as you may have guessed from the title) in Tell al'Ubaid, Iraq. Tell al'Ubaid west of Ur, pictured on the map below.

The temple itself is dated to 2,500 BC, which is also the age of the mosaic, which is the Early Dynastic period in Mesopotamia, of which Iraq was once part. So this mosaic is over 4,500 years old!

The mosaic in question is rather unusual as it does not depict anything in particular. Nonetheless, it uses tesserae for decoration, so I think it counts! It is also unusual as it is a column, whereas most mosaics tend to be on square or rectangular surfaces. So without further ado, the Ninhursag Temple mosaic!

What is very interesting about this mosaic was how it was made. The inner core was a palm log which was then coated in bitumen.The tesserae itself is mother of pearl, pink limestone and black shale, a rather exotic and beautiful combination. Each piece of tesserae had a loop on the back which copper wire was passed through, and then the ends of each wire were twisted into a ring and pressed into the bitumen to attach the tesserae. This seems time consuming and complicated, and I can only assume it was to prevent the fronts of the tesserae from getting spots of bitumen on them! 

This particular mosaic was one of two columns that may have been either side of the entrance to the temple, although they were found out of place. It is 59 cm high and 31 cm in diameter, and was excavated by Dr Harry Reginald Holland Hall in 1919. That is a name and a half, right?

I hope you have found this blog post informative - I know I definitely enjoyed reading about it! 

If there are any periods in history you want me to look at mosaics before, please let me know in the comments!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Zeugma - The City of Mosaics

In 2014, news articles ran about 3 new mosaics found in the ancient city of Zeugma, however these mosaics were not all Zeugma had to offer. In fact, it has the largest mosaic museum in the world, with 170^2 feet of mosaics! It is an incredibly interesting archaeological site, especially if you are interested in mosaics as we are here, so I thought I'd do some research on it and share my findings with you guys here!

First of all, Zeugma is located in the Gaziantep province of Turkey, as shown on the map below:

It was part of both the Greek and Roman empires at different points during it's life span, being founded by one of the generals of Alexander the Great in 300 BC. In 64 BC the city was conquered by the Roman empire, when it likely gained the name Zeugma, meaning "bridge of boats", due to it having a pontoon of boats across the river Euphrates. It was during this time that it became wealthy, and that the mosaics we are interested in first started appearing, as it was along the Silk Road connecting Antioch to China. 

However, what goes up must come down and in 256 it was invaded by the Sassanid king Shapur I. This was then followed by an earthquake which basically leveled those bits of the city still standing. Due to these twin calamities, the city never recovered it's previous status - which would later turn out to be a good thing! 

After the Roman empire split in two, Zeugma remained part of the Early Byzantium/Eastern Roman Empire, however due to ongoing Arab raids it was soon abandoned. It was resettled in the 10th and 12th centuries by a small Abbasid group. Finally, a small village named Belkis was settled in the 17th century, which remained standing until the 1990s, which is where the story really gets interesting.

Although Western scholars have known about Belkis for a good two centuries, and the Turkish locals even longer, it has received very little attention except from tomb raiders and looters, who carted off priceless mosaics and artefacts from the ruins. Below is a brief timeline of events that really plunged Zeugma into the limelight:

  • 1987  - Gaziantep Museum excavate two tombs that have been broken into by looters, revealing statues and frescos. 
  • 1992 - The watchman of the site reported renewed illegal activity, and a trench dug by antiquity hunters was found in the center of the city. This trench was continued by the Gaziantep Museum, uncovering a Roman villa with beautiful mosaic pavements such as the one below depicting the wedding of Dionysus and Ariadne.
  • 1996 - Construction of the Birecek Dam begins, revealing mosaic fragments. The museum was lucky enough to get the work halted while they rescued the mosaics, revealing a Roman Bathhouse, gymnasium and 36 mosaic panels. However work inevitable continued and threatened to flood the entire city. As such, frantic rescue excavations were carried out on the city before it was completely submerged. The site is divided into 3 zones: Zone A, to be submerged July 2000, Zone B, submerged October 2000, and Zone C, which luckily escapes being submerged and so work can continue indefinitely. 
  • 1997 - A Bronze Age cemetery is found in the clay quarry area in front of the dam. There were 320 graves dating back to the early Bronze Age.
  • Winter 1998-99 - Museum staff work throughout the winter, a bad time for archaeology as I'm sure you can imagine, in order to rescue the archaeology both from the impending threat of drowning and the constant threat of looting. They recovered the now famous "Gypsy girl" mosaic fragment as well as the Akratos Mosaic:

  • 1999 - Two more mosaics are discovered, one showing Neptune, Oceanus and Thethys and one showing the Minos bull. The museum director decided to once again work through the winter, and uncovered a fountain with a statue of Apollo and another mosaic depicting Odysseus taking Achilles to Troy. 

  • July 2000 - Zone A is submerged, and a larger focus is put on Zone B.
  • October 2000- Zone B is submerged, and work moves to Zone C, where it continues to this day. 
The construction of the dam was done with the best of intentions  - to provide hydro electricity for the population and irrigation for the parched landscape. However, it ended up costing far more than the Turkish government initially realized in priceless archaeology damaged and possibly lost forever. It also submerged the local village of Belkis, which was rebuilt but still caused a lot of outrage. While we are lucky these priceless mosaics were able to be recovered, other sites are not so lucky, which paints a bleak picture for the future of the past.

Zeugma, submerged.