I know what I would have done if I had discovered the ancient mosaic fragments in the sea near Atalanti on the east coast of mainland Greece. I would have wrapped up my secret in tissue paper and put it in a shoe box under the bed. I would have hoarded the knowledge and pleasure of those fragments all to myself, worried for their safety, conscious of their fragility, but I didn’t discover them so they are not in my shoe box but here, on the internet, for all to see.
I came across the fragments through a Facebook post by Olga Goulandris , a mixed media mosaic artist living and working in Greece. In a comment thread she wrote that the mosaics fragments in the sea could be found off the main national road north of Athens heading towards Lamia. As it happens, I pass along that road quite often. With a car loaded with boys, weekend supplies and a scruffy dog, I routinely zoom past the turning en route to our little house in the mountains of Pelion. After seeing Olga’s post I often calculated whether I could test the patience of my fractious teenagers and go in search of the mosaics, but having hauled them around many of the major mosaic sites of Europe I knew that boys and mosaics are not necessarily a good mix and deferred.
However, when my friend, Angie, mentioned that she wanted to go to the ancient site of Delphi (the other town signposted at the Atalanti turning) my ears perked up. For one thing, Delphi has a wonderful early Christian floor mosaic that I had long been intending to return to and savour after glimpsing it years ago on a family trip with the boys, then much younger and even more recalcitrant. For another, Angie being Angie would want to join me in the hunt for these mosaic fragments in the sea. And so one bright, clear November day, music blaring, wheels screeching, we hit the open road.
I’ll write about the early Christian mosaic at Delphi in another post. Suffice to say, Angie being Angie wrangled special permission for us to duck under the barriers to see and photograph it up close. I’ll hold my horses on that one and only tell you that after a very happy morning communing with the mosaic and then going to the museum next door to admire the charioteer’s ankles, we headed off to Atalanti with little to guide us but a fixed intention and a steely determination.
Once we arrived in the unprepossessing town of Atalanti we made a few enquiries. A woman with a pram at the recycling bins directed us to the end of the main street and then left. A frocked priest with the prerequisite beard and twinkly eyes waved us straight ahead and over a bridge. On the coast, a man working at a kiosk selling chocolates and cigarettes knew of the mosaics and told us which road to take. It was the sort of road that almost goes out of it’s way not to call attention to itself. No signpost, no distinguishing features, a single lane running along a strip of coastline overlooking the North Evvian Gulf. Unusually for Greece, it’s not the kind of coastline you’d want to stop and admire, just a thin strip of dirty sand mixed with coarse stones and seaweed looking like something regurgitated from the bathroom plug hole.
We stopped again and asked a solitary woman holding a fishing rod with a cigarette stuck between her lips. She gave us more detailed directions but even so the mosaics were hard to find. We parked the car and walked along the shore but found nothing. Thinking the mosaic fragments must be submerged, I decided to go get my Wellington boots and wade out. And it was then, striking off on an illogical route back to the car, that I found them.
Information about the mosaic fragments is not easy to come by; about when they were made, why they are there and how they’ve manage to survive. All we have are the remains of some walls close by. If you Google them you wont find much except Olga’s post. Angie (being Angie) searched for me and found a reference by Thucydides referring to an earthquake in the region in 426BC and even though that’s too early for these mosaics it confirms what we already know and provides a reasonable hypothesis – that Greece is prone to earthquakes and that the mosaics could easily have been shifted at some point by seismic activity and then abandoned. At a very rough guess, I would say that they are late Roman/early Byzantine.
Atalanti has a little museum which might hold some answers but unfortunately Angie and I didnt have the time to go there and clearly it would be well worth visiting the Byzantine Museum of Phthiotis, Hypati, in Lamia which has quite a few mosaics salvaged from the region. There must be more information about these fragments out there somewhere but I failed to find it.
Notwithstanding their obscurity, it’s amazing how such humble things can evoke such strong feelings and generate such wide interest. There is something about ancient mosaic fragments which seems to elicit the abandoned puppy reaction in us all. When I got back to Athens I put a 24 second video on my Facebook page which has been liked more than 700 times, shared 2,600 times and viewed over 127,000 times. Given that some of the things I post only get ten likes, 700 is a lot. Many people commented on how wonderful these mosaic fragments in the sea are. Some said that the mosaics should be protected and a few even wondered if they could be fakes.
Yes, they are wonderful and in an ideal world they would be preserved and no, they are not fakes. The mosaics are not the finest examples of their kind. Looking at the mosaics above from the Byzantine Museum of Phthiotis you can see why those mosaics (assuming they are from the same area) were rescued and these, with their formulaic patterns, were not. Greece has dozens of world famous archeological sites to protect and probably thousands of minor ones and with limited resources available some things will inevitably get neglected.
The good news is that what’s left of the mosaic fragments in the sea seem remarkably sturdy. The mosaics feel as solidly embedded as if they were soldered into the rock beneath them. None of the tesserae or even smaller chunks of mosaic like the one above could possibly be removed by casual visitors. They have been there for a very long time indeed and I sincerely hope that they are likely to remain so. The fractured edges of the remaining pieces show that as much careful craftsmanship was put into creating the floor’s multi layered substrate as into making the mosaics themselves and the preparatory work has paid off.
The bad news, however, is that Olga photographed a large section of the mosaic (bottom right in the photograph below) which is no longer there and the black and white circle/star shaped section to it’s left which still remains is definitely larger in her photographs than in mine.
It would be nice to think that the sections was removed by experts and at the very least placed for safe keeping in a museum store room but I suspect that’s not what happened and we’ll never know where they were taken. In the grand scale of archeological looting it’s not a tragedy but it’s upsetting nonetheless. These fragments have survived for at least a thousand years, probably more, and they are vulnerable. Dont ask me where to find them because the secret, even if only part of it is left and I can’t claim it as my own, is safely stored under my bed.