Visiting the Heraclea Lyncestis mosaics, Macedonia

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Central urn bordered by deer, peacocks and an acanthus wreath. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

When I made plans to go visit the Heraclea Lyncestis mosaics in Macedonia with Tessa Hunkin I was slightly concerned that the mosaics would play second fiddle. Tessa Hunkin is my mosaic heroine. In case there’s anyone out there who thinks you dont know her, you do. She’s the one that set up Mosaic Workshop in London’s Holloway in the 1980s with Emma Biggs. I bet you have at least one of her many books on various mosaic subjects from making techniques to garden mosaics and mosaic patterns. She won the 2014 British Association of Modern Mosaics Mosaic of the Year award for the Shepherdess Walk Mosaic that she created with the Hackney Mosaic Project and has designed and made a string of mosaics for public and private spaces which consistently make my jaw drop.

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Leopard gorging on a fallen deer. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Adding on the fact that I rarely meet anyone from the wider mosaic world, you can see why I thought I might be somewhat distracted. But since we had a lot of motoring to do to get from Thessaloniki in northern Greece to the Heraclea Lyncestis mosaics which are just outside Bitola in Macedonia and then on to see the mosaics of Stobi there was plenty of time to talk. Tessa was travelling with her school friend, Debbie, and in the space of the day as we drove through rolling, seemingly empty countryside along roads bordered by brilliant red poppies and towering thistles we managed to cover quite a few topics.

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Red hound with checkerboard markings. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Designing toilets, prehistoric sites in Bulgaria, mosaic injuries, the Greek finance minister, cutting tiles, laying mosaics, the Russian soul, mosaic disasters, the mosaics of Jordan, the syntax of bird song, family holidays, cuts to mental health services, pricing mosaics, mosaics on mesh, wooden slot machines, mosaic business stategy, the varying sweetness of Greek oranges, the churches of Rome, fund managers in Brixton, mosaic materials, reading in public, teaching mosaics, work/life boundaries, addicts learning deferred gratification through mosaics, the price of Edmund de Waal’s pots, colour in mosaics, the mosaics of Tunisia, mosaic injuries, the differences between martins and swifts, in what ways Georgia (USA) is similar to Macedonia, university choices, the Mosaic Workshop, pet mosaics, school days….the list goes on.

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Fig tree, detail. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And that’s not counting the time we spent admiring and analysing these Heraclea Lyncestis mosaics which date from the end of the 6th century and were laid in the porch or narthex of a Great Basilica during the years when the city was an important episcopal centre. Heraclea Lyncestis was originally founded by Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, in the middle of the 4th century BC but it wasnt until the Romans conquered it about two hundred years later and built the Via Egnatia through the city connecting the Adriatric and Aegean seas that it developed into the recognisably Roman city we see today. The Romans inevitably added the necessary accoutrements of Roman life including baths and a gladitorial theatre and when the empire split and the city converted to Christianity the mosaics were made to decorate the new religious buildings.

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Goose and fish. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Nowadays Heraclea Lyncestis is a quiet ruin manned by a single guard. When we were there opera music wafted over the stones from an disused cafe and there was still snow on the mountain behind the site. No one tutted or shooed you away if you balanced on the rickety gang planks which straddle some of the broken walls. For two hours we were the only visitors except for the lizards and armies of tiny red spiders that scurried over the tesserae.

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Tessa Hunkin looking down on the Heraclea Lyncestis mosaics, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

This porch is the most impressive of the Heraclea Lyncestis mosaics but there are others to see which are less well preserved and distinctly sub fusc in comparison. Judging from photographs posted on line I think there must be more mosaics at the site which are not on permanent view but this one is so detailed in it’s design, rich in its colours and intriguing in it’s composition that we felt no need for anything more.

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Goat (I assume). Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

It depicts a scene of earthly paradise, abundant with flowers and birds, wildlife and trees, fruit and fish. A bull flicks it’s tail as it lunges towards a pouncing lion, a leopard tucks hungrily into a fallen deer, slobbering blood onto it’s prostrate victim, birds rise in panic over head and a red hunting dog strains to break away from it’s leash. The composition is balanced by a central sprouting urn which is cupped by thick acanthus fronds. On either side of it are deer and peacocks with multi coloured wispy tails and the whole mosaic is framed by a wave border and an elaborate swastika pattern entwined around panels showing various kinds of sea life and overweight geese. The designs are lifelike and lively, full of movement and tension. See for yourself:

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Peacock and vine. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
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Flying bird, detail. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
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Red hound, detail. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

With the exception of the central part of the mosaic, the design is remarkably free of any rigid stylisation. Each of the trees is different. The first, (from the left to right) is a pine tree with bulbous cones:

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Pine tree with cones. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Beside it is a fruit tree – a cherry perhaps? – laden with produce:

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Cherry tree (?), Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The next tree looks like an apple:

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Apple tree (?), Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And then there is this which could be a chestnut:

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Unidentified tree, could it be a chestnut? Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Passing over what seem to be two palm trees on either side of the urn which are so badly damaged that it’s hard to tell, there is a stunningly modern leafless tree:

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A winter tree, Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Then a badly damaged broad leaf with what look like bunches of grapes hanging from its branches but are surely not because other grapes elsewhere in the mosaic are clearly attached to distinguishable vines:

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Damaged tree with what look like grapes. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
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Vine detail. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Then there’s the fig (above) to which the hunting dog is tied and a pomegranate tree under which the leopard gorges itself:

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Pomegranate tree, detail. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

We spent a long time marvelling at the colours – that blue!

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Acanthus wreath, detail. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Musing over the use of glass:

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Glass detail in peacock’s tail. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And puzzling over restoration and strange anomalies:

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The border goes seriously off kilter. Badly restored? Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

It was wonderful to be able to get up so close to the Heraclea Lyncestis mosaics:

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Tessa Hunkin has a closer look at the red hound. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And to have the time to savour every detail:

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Wide eyed octopus. Border design. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
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Blue spotty fish and squid. Border design. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Then, when we were quite done, and beginning to think about moving on to Stobi, we wandered around the site and stumbled upon these plastic pots filled with ancient tesserae:

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Ancient tesserae in plastic pots. Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

and other bits and pieces.

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Broken statue, Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Have your own little wander around Heraclea Lyncestis and watch this very short film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9CphGyF_MA

Coming next: a two part post on mosaics and social media to mark my two year mosaic blog anniversary! 

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