These ancient mosaics were buried on the lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

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A mosaic panel in the East Portico of House of the Evil Eye in Antioch, modern-day Turkey. Photo taken in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of Antioch Expedition Archives, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University.

ST. PETERSBURG — Why were the mosaics buried on the lawn in the first place? That was a mystery.

But there they were at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, two ancient pieces dating from the years 100 to 300, sitting beneath the grass on the east lawn for nearly 30 years.

It’s a rather surprising place to find ancient mosaics. The museum’s collection spans 5,000 years, but it only opened along the downtown waterfront in 1965. The discovery on the lawn led to an excavation last week. Now, conservationists are working to preserve the mosaics, a process museum guests will be able to witness.

The mosaics have been in the museum’s hands for many years. The art was discovered in the 1930s when a team from Princeton University excavated a site on the ancient city of Antioch, on the border of modern-day Turkey and Syria.

The museum acquired five mosaics from the excavation in the mid 1960s as one of its first acquisitions. One was embedded in a fountain in the sculpture garden. One went on display in the Membership Garden. One was stowed under the stage of the Marly Room. Someone — it’s unclear who — buried the remaining two in the lawn outside the gates of the sculpture garden sometime in 1989.

Executive director Kristen Shepherd has had a longtime affection for the mosaic on display in the Membership Garden, under which she would sit and do her homework when she visited the museum as a high school student.

When she was named director in January 2017, she was happy to see the mosaic was still there.

“When I first arrived at the museum, people would say, what was your favorite thing (in the museum) growing up?” Shepherd recalled. “I said, this mosaic captured my imagination.”

This prompted her to research the object. She went to the museum’s registrar, was thrilled to learn that it was one of five, and immediately identified the three in the museum. There was documentation that the other two were buried in the lawn, but with minimal information.

“We don’t know why they were buried,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd set out to uncover the mosaics. She started a fundraising campaign to excavate and restore them. The “Antioch Reclaimed” project was born.

She began interviewing past directors and staff members to find out what they remembered, including the location. Excavators began probing the lawn last year to determine the exact location and then dug a small hole there to expose a corner of one of the mosaics.

Shepherd hired art and architecture conservation firm Rosa Lowinger and Associates to perform the excavation and the restoration. From the small hole that revealed a piece of the mosaic, the conservator was able to determine the depth of the hole and the condition of the piece, and put a plan into action.

The dig began on March 7, and yielded another surprise — a fragment of the mosaic that was embedded into the fountain, which has also been extricated as part of this project. Since such mosaic slabs were traditionally used for flooring, they’re extremely heavy — one was 400 pounds — and had to be removed with heavy machinery.

The months-long conservation process is happening at an outdoor lab on the east lawn, and museum visitors will be able to watch. An international loan exhibition surrounding the mosaics is planned for 2020. After that, they will be permanently installed in the museum. The museum is continuing to raise funds for this project and recently received a matching challenge gift of $50,000.

Antioch, a Greco-Roman city founded by a former general of Alexander the Great, was situated along the western caravan routes between Asia and the Mediterranean. It was one of the early centers of Christianity and played a major part in the rise of Hellenistic Judaism.

The mosaics were used as decorative flooring of five separate villas of the affluent, which were given colorful names such as “House of the Drinking Contest,” indicative of the lavish lifestyles the owners lived. Mainly geometric in design, the mosaics are reflective of the eastern and western influences that came through the city on the trade routes, distinguishing them from other mosaics of the period, which have many more figurative elements.

“They reflect, in many instances, the compositions of lost wall paintings, which don’t survive,” explained Michael Bennett, senior curator of early Western art, who is also an expert on Antioch. “Because they are cement slabs, they last forever and preserve large scale wall paintings.”

The importance of preserving artifacts from that region is especially important in the age of ISIS. The terrorist organization has systematically eradicated ancient works of art. The mosaics are also critical in understanding that ancient culture.

“These mosaics give us a virtually unmatched opportunity to talk about how important conservation of antiquities is,” Shepherd said. “We’re fortunate to have them but we’re also responsible for preserving and caring for objects from antiquity. What a gift these are to the community.”

Contact Maggie Duffy at mduffy@tampabay.com.

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