Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Two Exciting New Underwater Discoveries

The scientific excavation and study of ancients sites around the Mediterranean has been going on for almost 150 years. It's hard not to trip over ancient cities and towns of the Greeks and Romans, not to mention the many other diverse cultures that have thrived throughout history. For centuries the various modern cultures of Europe have been fascinated by the ancient world. This interest was easily fueled by the convenient ruins strung about Europe, especially in cities like Rome and Athens. As far back as the middle ages, we have accounts of ruins and objets d'art being dug up and appreciated. It has not been until relatively recent times, though, that attention was turned away from land and towards the sea. It has never been a secret that the Mediterranean Sea contains countless ship wrecks containing who knows what. Tantalizing clues have occasionally been pulled from the sea floor; the Antikythera Mechanism and the Riace Bronzes come to mind. Scuba diving only became practicable and popular after WWII, so much less time has been spent in dealing with underwater archaeology that traditional land based archaeology. Even today, underwater archaeology is a small specialized field, due mostly to the costs involved.

Two new finds have brought attention to both the ancient world and underwater archaeology. First off, divers off the coast of Squillace, Italy have found what they believe to be the sunken remains of the ancient town of Scylletium. Scylletium was an unremarkable town founded by Athenian colonists probably in the 8th or 7th centuries BCE. Known as the birthplace of the late Roman author Cassiodorus, Scylletium was also claimed by some to be founded by Odysseus. The divers found stones that appear to be man made and are thought to be part of the ancient town.
Another find shows just what kind of archaeological treasures lie beneath the sea. Five Roman ships have been found in what is being called an underwater "museum." The five ships, dating from the 1st to 4th centuries CE, appear to be merchant vessels carrying amphorae and other trade goods. The ships did not capsize when they sank, so their cargoes are relatively intact. The spot where the ships sank seems to be a high traffic area, probably an established trade route. It's finds like this and the one at Squillace that show us how valuable underwater archaeology can be and just how much is out there that has yet to be discovered.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Generous Gift Showcases Roman Mosaic

The Romans used mosaic art extensively throughout their empire. From Britain to the Middle East, examples of many different mosaic techniques have been discovered. Like much of Roman art, the mosaic technique was something that they absorbed and modified to suite their own artistic needs. The earliest mosaic examples come from Mesopotamia, dating from the 2nd millennia BCE. Those examples are primarily geometric in design using different colored tesserae. The Ancient Greeks embraced mosaics, decorating their floors with geometric designs made of tesserae or pebbles. In the royal Macedonian city of Pella we find some wonderful examples of figurative scenes executed in mosaic and during the Hellenistic period mosaic art would reach a new height. It is from the Hellenistic model that the Romans developed their mosaic art. Many famous Roman mosaics, such as the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii, are thought to be based on Hellenistic paintings. Pompeii is famous for its many beautiful mosaics, but elsewhere in Italy and throughout the Roman world, many astounding mosaics have been found.

Artistic tastes in Rome fluctuated then just as they do today. First of all there were several different mosaic techniques that were in use, some being more popular than others at different times. The three most popular mosaic techniques were Opus Vermiculatum, Opus Tessalatum and Opus Sectile. Opus Vermiculatum was by far the most sophisticated mosaic technique, utilizing the smallest tesserae in a dazzling range of colors. Many fine examples, such as the Dove Basin Mosaic from Tivoli, showcase this technique. Opus Tessalatum utilized black and white tesserae and was primarily used to form geometric patterns, though figurative scenes using this technique became popular. Opus Sectile focused on patterns made out of large pieces of stone, usually different colored marble. The floor of the Curia Julia in Rome is a good example of this technique. Different techniques were also used in conjunction. An Emblemata was a small, finely made Opus Vermiculatum "picture" that was surrounded by a large area of geometric designs in Opus Tessalatum.
Thanks to a generous gift from the Leon Levy Foundation the Shelby White, Israelis will now be able to view a beautiful Roman mosaic once again. The Lod Mosaic is a huge, 600 square foot mosaic floor dating from around 300 CE. The mosaic was discovered in 1996 but had been subsequently reburied due to lack of funds for its preservation. That has changed thanks to the gift of $2.5 million to the Israeli Antiquities Authority. The money will be used to build a new facility to house and preserve the mosaic. Money for the preservation of the world's ancient sites is always in short supply and it's refreshing to see such generous philanthropy at work to protect the Lod Mosaic.