Through neglect, theft, natural disaster, acquisition, iconoclasm, lack of resources or simple ignorance many of the ancient world’s mosaics are gone. This is the story of those lost mosaics.
Lost Mosaics _ fragments in the grass
The ancient city of Jerash, an hour’s drive from Jordan’s capital, is an extraordinary place by any standards. It’s a vast and sprawling site, too large to fully take in. Our little party of three kept splitting up and reconvening; disappearing through ruined doorways, vanishing behind colonnades or going off to climb worn stairways. Perhaps we wandered deeper and further than we might otherwise have done were it not for my determination to see and savour every mosaic the site has to offer.
At some point, however, feeling satiated, we started to head back to the entrance and as we walked we passed a notice board indicating that there was a Byzantine church somewhere nearby. A gentle incline lay ahead, broken by scattered rocks and the first flush of spring flowers. We left the path and climbed, the hill becoming steeper but there was no church to be seen. I assumed we’d taken the wrong route but my son persisted and not long afterwards I saw him gesticulating in the distance.
It would be good to tell you about the magnificent mosaic we found up there at our vantage point above the ruins. But all that could be seen of the former church were the outline of the walls and some mosaic fragments and scattered tesserae. We stayed for a while, savouring the isolation, and finding more and more parts of the abandoned mosaic floor beneath our feet. The grass had grown over it but only a gentle rub with the thumb on the edges of the exposed tesserae was needed to reveal more.
The mosaic floor of the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Jerash is one of what must be thousands of lost mosaics dating from the Roman and Byzantine eras. In her book Mosaics in Roman Britain, Patricia Witts estimates that about a third of the 2,000 or so known Roman mosaics in the UK alone no longer survive and that another third only survive in fragments. (1)
Of course many mosaics are lost only in the sense that they have never been found. Newspaper reports appear with comforting frequency of ancient mosaics discovered by chance or unearthed as part of a larger excavation. Recent discoveries include the Lod Mosaic and the Huqoq Synagogue mosaics in Israel as well as the mosaics found as a result of metro work in Rome and Thessaloniki, all adding to our understanding and knowledge of the ancient world and its mosaic decoration.
Lost mosaics _ recycled
But my focus is on the mosaics which we know about but which have been lost for numerous reasons including natural disaster, deliberate destruction, political edicts, theft, neglect, lack of understanding, and, most often, the sheer exigencies of life. Many of the ancient cities of the Western world were built over by subsequent generations, their stones plundered for new buildings, their levelled floors re-used for other purposes, their mosaics buried and forgotten until they were found with large sections so badly damaged that repairing them was not an option.
This is from the 6th century Hippolytus Hall mosaic in the Madaba Archaeological Park, Jordan. The mosaic was only discovered in the 1970s when a family home built over the Byzantine Church of the Virgin was appropriated by the Department of Antiquities and cleared. The hall had itself been built on top of a Roman temple.
I often think about these lost mosaics when I stand in front of a mosaic emblema in the hushed environment of a 21st century museum. The emblemata of ancient mosaics are the centre piece, the crowning glory, the most admired and skilfully worked part of a much larger mosaic. They were so prized that even in ancient times they were removed and reused so what we are often looking at is the last piece of what would have been something much greater but the surrounding design was never recorded and is now entirely forgotten.
The practice of recycling treasured emblemata (which were made in trays off site and therefore relatively easily taken out) is only part of the story of the ancient world’s lost mosaics. But it is a crucial part because it contains the nub of the issue. Mosaics are beautiful and their beauty makes them vulnerable, more vulnerable than other ancient artefacts because a mosaic is hard to transport. If you covet something, you want to own it but in order to possess a mosaic you need to dig it up and if you dig it up more often than not you succeed only in destroying it (2).
Lost mosaics _ acquired
Until around the middle of the last century there were no effective and reliable ways of removing complete mosaics so our museums are littered with trophy segments brought home by well-to-do travellers returning from their Grand Tours or bought by collectors whose only concern was to embellish their houses. The lost mosaics, the bits that were left behind, were of no interest.
Take as an example the eight fragments now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were removed from a villa outside Rome in the early 19th century by two English aristocrats and ended up spending decades embedded in the floor of Woburn Abbey in England before being sold privately and eventually being displayed at the Chicago Museum. They were taken, so we are told, from the border of a larger mosaic. The skill of their workmanship suggests that the original floor must have been exceptional but was apparently irreparably damaged by tree roots before the fragments were removed. But now it’s just part of the corpus of lost mosaics, the ones we will never know about.
One of the simplest ways to get a sense of how ancient mosaics were routinely broken up and dissipated is to look at Antioch Mosaics edited by Fatih Cimok which records a body of mosaics found in the 1930s in what is now eastern Turkey. The book includes drawings of the original mosaics with notations indicating which parts are now housed where. It is not uncommon for a single floor to be split up and distributed among multiple museums. For example, the 2nd century floor from a villa known as the Atrium House at Antioch is divided between Paris, Princeton, Baltimore and Worcester, MA. (3)
But mosaics, along with other works of art, were designed as a whole. The interrelation between the various elements of the floor, the room’s use, the patterns which link the motifs, were all part of it’s conception as a considered composition. It becomes something other, diminished and denuded, when it is carved up and portioned out. Why are mosaics uniquely subjected to this kind of treatment? There are examples of ancient artefacts being split up (the Parthenon Marbles being the obvious example) but these are exceptions rather than the rule and there is the endless discussion about the rights and wrongs of the situation. Not so with mosaics.
The problem of plundering mosaics remains undiminished. In between reports of the implosion of Syria and the suffering of millions of its citizens in the ongoing civil war, there have been stories of valiant efforts to protect its mosaics which are vulnerable to destruction by religious extremists or to being sold on the illegal art market.
Smugglers were ruthless in their efforts to get hold of ancient artefacts during the excavations in the 1990s to save the 2nd and 3rd century mosaics of Zeugma, Turkey. Even as the archaeologists were racing to finish their work before the huge site was engulfed by dam waters, smugglers managed to lift whole segments of the mosaics which have never been seen again. The fate of other mosaics stolen from Zeugma is the subject of an on going dispute – Turkey contests that fragments were lifted from the site in the 1960s and sold via a circuitous route to Bowling Green State University for $35,000 which displays them at the Wolfe Art Centre.
The shadowy tales of ancient mosaics vanishing and resurfacing are not uncommon. A recent case involved an extremely rare mosaic fragment from one of Caligula’s pleasure ships which was reportedly recovered from a lake outside Rome, taken from an Italian museum before World War II and then ended up in a New York apartment as a side table. The piece was eventually returned to the Italian government last year.
Lost mosaics _vanished
Often mosaics we go to see hint at other stories, of the mosaics that aren’t there as much as the ones that are. Take the curious mosaics of the church of San Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna where all that remains are broken sections from an extensive floor mosaic which was destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II.
The British Museum is full of fragments from Halicarnasus and Ephesus in Turkey as well as Utica and Carthage in Tunisia. The mosaics from Carthage include the surviving sections of a pavement which once adorned a 4th century luxury townhouse. ‘Where’s the rest of it?,’ I want to ask. What happened? Tell us more. Silence.
Perhaps many of them belong to the category of mosaics which were found and never lifted. Desirable parts of the mosaic were removed but the rest was abandoned, reburied and largely forgotten about.
However, the British Museum also displays mosaics from Roman Britian which shine a light on the sorry back story of many of the ancient world’s lost mosaics. The Hemsworth Venus Mosaic, for example, was found in 1831 but the site was under agricultural land and by the time it was re-excavated in 1908 much of it had been lost. The same is true of the Thurxton Bacchus Mosaic which was discovered in 1823 under fields but not lifted until the end of the 19th century by which time large parts of it had been destroyed.
Famously, the extensive and stunning Roman mosaic floors at Frampton, UK, which were accidently discovered in the late 18th century by labourers and were carefully reproduced in water colour by Samuel Lysons, were entirely lost in 1850.
What is clear from the existence of these and other museum fragments is that the pre-20th century archaeologists and collectors valued mosaics but no one really knew what to do with them. Some were subjected to botched repairs, others as I said, were just chiselled out and abandoned like elephants left with bloody holes instead of tusks. The famous Nilotic mosaic of Palestrina near Rome was removed in the 17th century and so badly damaged that only half of the original mosaic survived. (4)
Even relatively sophisticated removals often ended up stripping the original mosaics of their essential mosaic-ness. They have been so tampered with, so handled and tamed, that something fundamental was lost. This is the case with the Greek mosaics from Kos which date from the 1st century BC to the 2nd century AD and were moved to Rhodes in the 1930s by an Italian team in order to decorate Mussolini’s newly renovated summer residence, the Palace of the Grand Masters. Inserted into polished marble floors like shop-bought copies, they have no soul. But we should be grateful that they still exist.
Lost mosaics_ iconoclasts
Human interference is also responsible for large swathes of mosaics being deliberately vandalised in order not to offend religious sensibilities. Two main movements led to countless mosaics being destroyed or covered over. The first was during the 8th and 9th century when the Eastern church objected to the use of religious icons or images so many mosaics with Christian themes were removed. The second was due to the influence of Islam which prohibits the use of images of any sentient beings (animals included). As the Ottoman Empire grew more powerful and extended its reach from the 13th century onwards many former churches were converted into mosques and mosaics were hacked away or covered over.
Many of the mosaics in the Archaeological Park of Madaba, Jordan were almost certainly altered because of these prohibitions. This one shows a tree which has been superimposed on a bull leaving a disembodied tail and hind legs.
Other examples include mosaics from Istanbul’s Agia Sophia which were destroyed or plastered over when the Byzantine church became a mosque in 1453 including ones of Jesus, Mary, the angels and various saints. In Bethlehem, an eight-foot-tall mosaic angel has recently been revealed behind layers of plaster after a $10 million renovation programme at the Church of the Nativity.
Lost mosaics_ neglected
Simple neglect is probably one of the greatest reasons why mosaics have been lost. Sometimes this is because there is insufficient interest in them (5) or simply because the number and scale of mosaics that need protection is so vast that only the best can be the focus of government attention. Often it’s because the original mosaics are of poor quality and clumsily made compounded by the inevitable fact that resources are limited.
A few years ago I posted a 25 second video of a mosaic fragments under the sea near Atalanti, Greece. The clip went viral by my standards and received more than 220,000 views and a slew of comments many of which expressed outrage at the fact that the mosaics had been abandoned. My response was, and is, that not every mosaic can be protected. The Greek state has enough to think about without worrying about insignificant fragments of little artistic merit being used as stepping stones by local fishermen.
During a visit to the Byzantine site of Heraclea Lyncestis in Macedonia in 2015, I found a hut on the edge of the site with piles of salvaged tesserae arranged on a table. A guard, perhaps, or other bored official had been spending their time making their own mosaics out of the original pieces.
The problem of limited resources is exacerbated as time goes on – the longer fragile and vulnerable mosaics are left unprotected, the higher the renovation costs will eventually be. The Church of the Nativity in Palestine’s West Bank hadn’t been renovated since the 15th century and by the time work started on the mosaics they were in critical condition as the result of centuries of soot and dust. Some had already been lost because of rain water seeping into the building.
Under this category I include botched restorations by earlier generations who didn’t understand the techniques of mosaic making or appreciate the works of art they were tampering with.
Lost mosaics_ natural disasters
Natural disasters, although devastating for the buildings surrounding the mosaics, often meant mosaics were not lost but only covered over for hundreds of years which had the effect of protecting them from the elements and looters. The mosaics of Zeugma, Hisham’s Palace in Jericho and Kourion, in Limassol, Cyprus are all examples of sites which were badly effected by earthquakes and as a result were either abandoned or only partially repopulated so their mosaics were later discovered in good condition.
The volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79 famously covered the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, burying its floor mosaics under thick layers of ash, thus preserving them almost untouched until the first serious excavations of the 18th century.
However, less known and talked about are the wall and vault mosaics which were lost in the same eruption and similar earthquakes as tons of lava crushed the walls of houses and public buildings. Examples of wall mosaics are tantalisingly rare because of their inherent fragility but traces of the glass, shell and pumice mosaics that often decorated vertical surfaces have been found telling us of their existence. Sometimes we have enough evidence to suggest that the wall decoration was equally as important as the floor designs – the Volutes mosaic from Zliten villa in Libya shows the tips of two pairs of feet along its edge, suggesting that full-sized mosaic figures depicted on the walls were a contiguous part of the floor.(5)
Lost mosaics_all is not lost
Let’s go back to Jordan where our little party left Jerash and hired a car to see the churches of Madaba. We were somewhat constrained by the fact that we had no map, our phone GPSs were refusing to function and the road signs were erratic or non-existent. However, after much debate we decided that the 6th century Church of Lot and Procopius must be up a steep unmarked gravel track which abruptly ended at an uninviting looking low brick building. No, this couldn’t be it. We reversed and headed back down the track but fortunately I turned round to double check and saw a galabeya-clad Bedouin waving energetically from the top of the hill we’d just descended.
Sure enough we had found the church and our Bedouin friend let us in and regaled us with the story of his family who were living in a tent on the site in the 1930s when his grandmother was raking the fire and raked a little deeper than usual….You can still see the blackened patch where the family meals were cooked.
Many mosaics have been lost but that doesn’t mean we cant revel in the ones that have been found.
As I started to research this post I realised that it is an enormous subject which has not been covered before. I came across countless examples which I could have used to illustrate the points under the headings above but the restraints of time mean that this is only an outline of an issue which deserves much fuller examination.
- Mosaics in Roman Britain, Stories in Stone. Patricia Witts. The History Press. P. 17.
- This, by the way, is the reason that I believe that mosaics are not included in the history of art. Read on: helenmilesmosaics.org/ancient-mosaics-general/mosaics-in-the-history-of-art/
- Antioch Mosaics, A Corpus. Edited by Fatih Cimok. P. 25.
- Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World, Katherine M. D. Dunbabin. University of Cambridge Press. P. 49
- Greek archaeologists, for example, had little interest in the Roman period. Ibid. P. 209
- Ibid. P. 122.