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The modernity of ancient mosaics

Man hugging his dog. Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Many years ago, when I lived and worked in Egypt, I spent a week in the Cairo museum researching an article about it’s 100th anniversary. My apartment was close by and I would nip in through a side entrance bypassing the crowds and spend hours wandering through it’s musty, less frequented galleries. I was allowed to go into the conservation room and try on ancient pharaonic jewellry and I had all the time I wanted alone with the spookily alive Fayoum portraits.

Bardo Museum. dog and worker.
Dog and worker. Bardo Museum, Tunisia.

Such delights are hard to forget but it was in the Tutankhamen exhibition that I remember having that feeling which ancient things can give you – of hopping over a barrier of time and seeing, not the objects themselves or their beauty or oldness, but the people who used and held them. It was the hinge of Tutankhamen’s folding bed that did it for me. A hinge: utilitarian, practical, simple and unchanged over thousands of years. No more or less a hinge than all the hinges we use in our daily lives. Never mind all that gold – it was the hinge that I loved.

Interesting and curiously modern design. Stobi, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

It is often the very same thing which gives ancient mosaics their appeal; not just the intricacy, beauty and variety of their designs, their miraculous survival down the millenia, their worn surfaces and undiminished colours, but it can be the modernity of ancient mosaics which stops us in our tracks, which dissolves that barrier and links us, with our ipods, heart transplants and satellite images from Mars, with the long dead makers of these lovely surfaces.

Detail from Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Those colours! Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Once you start looking, the modernity of ancient mosaics can be seen in almost every mosaic you come across – the faces, the ordinary gestures, the piles of fruit – but that’s not exactly what I have in mind. A face, except for exceptional examples like the one below, can still remain firmly in it’s own time and place. It’s not the humanity of ancient mosaics that I want to convey but how they can leap out at us and be entirely, utterly and fully of our time, to be modern. Like that hinge.

Pompeii mosaic portrait
Mosaic portait. Pompeii.

The only way to illustrate what I mean by the modernity of ancient mosaics is to give you photographs. Some I have seen for myself, others I have stumbled across during my junkie-like surfing of the internet or been delighted to find posted by other mosaic fanatics on Facebook to whom I send my warmest thanks.

The Thinker (look at the design of the hillock too) Grand Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

As with all good things it’s often best to start at the beginning so here is an example from the Pella mosaics in northern Greece which are among the oldest known mosaics. The Pella series includes the famous pebble mosaic of the young Alexander the Great, resplendently naked, atop a leaping cheetah. Much as I might like to show you the youth on his wild cat it is not one that helps with me with my point. But this, on the other hand, these 2,500 year old swirling flowers and fronds from the same palace belonging to Alexander’s father, well,  it makes William Morris look like a positive plagarist:

Pebble mosaic floor, Pella, Greece.
Pebble mosaic floor, Pella, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

The crossover between ancient and modern designs is apparent everywhere – that’s what we all do, in and out of the world of mosaics, borrow and reshape for our own uses – but sometimes as with Pella, the designs are new, original and startling. So much so that they transcend their age. Look at this from the Animal Room in the Vatican Museum. This could almost be an Eric Ravilious linocut:

Animal room, Vatican Museum, Rome. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Or consider this mosaic from the archeological Museum of Valence in southern France. When I came across it recently I had to check and recheck to make sure it wasn’t a witty motif from an upscale butcher on Manhattan’s upper west side:

Valence Museum, ox heads. photo by Paul Vasseyre
Valence Museum, France. Photo: Paul Vasseyre.

Or this one from El Jem in Tunisia which pre-dates Liberty prints by a couple of millenia:

peacock feathers, el jem, tunisia.
Peacock feathers, El Jem, Tunisia.


The modernity – or do I mean universality? – of ancient mosaics can also be seen in the actions or activities the mosaics represent. The ones of dogs; of dogs on chains, dogs hunting, dogs guarding, dogs accompanying and dogs being generally doggy offer some of the best examples. This dog, straining to be let off its too short lead, ears flattened, tail aloft, body tense and alert, is fully modern (universal) in the hinge-like way I mean.

Red hunting dog, Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Then there are the mosaics which are modern in their mind set, like this splendidly kitsch ribbon tied around some flowers from Zeugma in Turkey. Next to it, not photographed, is a lamb with ridiculously cute floppy ears:

Flowers and ribbon. Zeugma Mosaic Museum, Turkey. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Or ancient mosaics can be modern in a playful, self-deprecating way that includes an undertone of social commentary.  The famous unswept floor mosaic from the Vatican Museum in Rome and it’s derivatives depict the discarded debris from a Roman banquet casually tossed to the floor. Is the artist making a point about consumerism? About decadence and social heirarchies?  Bansky isn’t the only one to hold up a mirror to our shared foibles and frailities.

Unswept floor
Unswept floor, Vatican Museum, Rome.

Some ancient mosaics go one step further. They are so familiar to us in their themes that it’s hard to think of them as anything other than actually modern. The ‘bikini girls’ from the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, of young women on the sports field, is a case in point. Who would suppose that this mosaic was made 1,500 years ago?

odd mosaics. piazza armerina, sicily. via yukiyo hikasa
‘Bikini girls’, Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily.

And this, I still can’t believe that this is not some modern conceit, some clever mosaic artist creating a trompe l’oeil tiger skin with carefully manufactured cracks and missing fragments to give the illusion of antiquity:

odd mosaics. flckr. no accreditation or explaination.
I am not sure where this photograph or mosaic comes from but I would guess Tunisia.

Domestic, homely detail also has a way of sweeping aside the divide of time. Here are two friends playing dice:

Antakya museum
Dice players. Antakya Museum, Turkey. Photo: Dick Osseman.

A table neatly set with boiled eggs in cups:

Antakya mosaic egg cups
Mosaic feast. Antakya Museum, Turkey. Photo: Dick Osseman.

And what looks like a family excurison, messy and chaotic, the way all family excursions are:

Horse and cart. Distomo Museum, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

I can’t conclude the theme of the modernity of ancient mosaics without a quick reference to it’s opposite – the ancientness of modern mosaics. My own mosaics are modern with elements or inspiration from the ancient practitioners. Here’s a recent one I made based on the famous  Cave Canem mosaic from Pompeii  – my version is designed for a particularly ferocious Parson Jack Russell called Pedro:

Cave Petrum. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics.

And Jim Bachor, of Chicago pot hole mosaic fame, inserts modernity into ancientness in a wonderfully wry way that I can’t get enough of. Here is his Ostia Antica mosaic lookalike with toga-ed gentlemen busy at their ancient fryer:

Ancient Fryer. Photo and mosaic: Jim Bachor.

PS: In case you haven’t got a dog/cat, and don’t get that urge to sweep it up in your arms in delight and gratitude, here’s me doing the Great Palace mosaic thing (see top) with Farook:

Me and Farook looking like a mosaic from the Grand Palace Mosaic Museum.





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