Head of Aphrodite found during excavation of mosaic

The dramatic 1600-square-foot Roman mosaic discovered last year in the ancient town of Antiochia ad Cragum on the southern coast of Turkey continues to bear fruit. Archaeologists excavating the part of the mosaic that was left underground at the end of the last digging season found a life-sized marble head of Aphrodite face down in the soil. The head has been damaged — there are copious chips on the nose, right eye, cheek and chin — and no matching body was found.

This one beaten up head is of disproportionate historical importance because it’s the only piece of monumental sculpture unearthed in eights years of excavations.

The new discoveries add evidence that early residents of Antiochia – which was established at about the time of Emperor Nero in the middle of the first century and flourished during the height of the Roman Empire – adopted many of the trappings of Roman civilization, though they lived in relative isolation a thousand miles from Rome. In the past, scholars believed the region’s culture had been too insular to be heavily impacted by Rome.

Yet [University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor of art history Michael] Hoff and his team have found many signs that contradict that belief.

“We have niches where statues once were. We just didn’t have any statues,” Hoff said. “Finally, we have the head of a statue. It suggests something of how mainstream these people were who were living here, how much they were a part of the overall Greek and Roman traditions.”

Lime kilns have been found near the site which suggests the statuary that once inhabited the niches of Antiochia ad Cragum were burned to make the slaked lime used in concrete. The rise of Christianity in the area in the 4th century may have also played a part as pagan iconography, including statues and figural reliefs, was a particular target of destruction.

The head of Aphrodite wasn’t the only exceptional discovery this season. The team excavated the western half of the large mosaic surrounding the marble-lined swimming pool that was partially unearthed last year. They cleared the pool and found two stairways leading into it and benches along the inner sides. They also found that the elaborate mosaic floor was used as a base for a glass-blowing furnace in the middle of the fourth century, around the same time the lime kilns were in use. Because of these later finds, the date of the mosaic has been moved forward to the late second or early third century.

As if that weren’t enough for three month’s work, the archaeological team also discovered a second mosaic just south of the pool. They excavated a mound where toppled columns were visible above ground and found a square mosaic floor of geometric designs, fruits and flowers. The layout of the remains suggests this structure was a Roman temple which makes the floor even more unusual a find because mosaics floors are rare in Roman temples.

“Everything about it is telling us it’s a temple, but we don’t have much in the way of to whom it was dedicated,” he said. “We’re still analyzing the finds. But the architecture suggests heavily that it was a temple.”

While the larger bath plaza mosaic features large patterned areas, the temple mosaic uses smaller tesserae to compose geometric designs, as well as images of fruit and floral images amidst a chain guilloche of interlocking circles. The temple mosaic measures about 600 square feet.

Both mosaics will eventually be conserved and protected so visitors can enjoy their beauty in situ. For now, conservators repaired some of the damaged areas with a dedicated mortar then covered the mosaics with a conservation blanket and a heavy layer of sand to keep them safe from the elements and looters.

One thought on “Head of Aphrodite found during excavation of mosaic

  1. I commented last year’s article about this find with a bit of an offhanded remark about the size of the mosaic not being that spectacular. I do admit that as a fanatic of mosaics and especially of late antiquity (about which I’m writing my thesis), I actually appreciate every new find and can never not be amazed when I see one. However, I do have to say that the comment I made last year still stands: this mosaic seems to be very modest despite all the noises the finders are making.

    During the summer I finally managed to visit Aquileia that is probably one of the most interesting archaeological projects I have seen in a long while (especially the river harbor and the basilica with its campanile made out of the blocks of the former circus). I’m not even going to start talking about the wonderful 4th century floor mosaics of the basilica that with their 750 square meters easily dwarf the 150-200 of Antiochia ad Cragum. But I do have to say that almost every house that has been discovered in Aquileia (not to mention the thermae) has had floor mosaics of similar geometric quality as the ones in AdC. So it seems that paving everything with simple geometry was the thing that one did. Granted, these ruins have been preserved largely due to the fact that Aquileia lost much of its former importance pretty soon after the fall of the Western Empire and therefore not much was being built atop of them, but it seems that something similar can be said about AdC as well.

    Once again: I actually do admire these new-found mosaics as I admire any discovery made about out the past (especially of the Roman era) and I don’t, in fact, think that they are something to be scoffed about. But I’m starting to feel that oftentimes the (hyperbole) statements made by the finders in our present age of media saturation and need for PR are meant for the general public rather than for those who are really interested in the actual facts (although this time there seems to be plenty of those as well).

    Anyway, thanks again for another interesting article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.