Antioch mosaics reclaimed at Florida museum

Visitor views pavement from the House of the Drinking Contest, Roman, 2nd Century A.D., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021, at the exhibit. Photo courtesy MFA, St. Petersburg.The mosaic panels unearthed at the ancient site of Antioch in the 1930s only to be reburied under the east lawn of the Museum of Fine Art in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the 1980s, have gone on display in a new exhibition at the museum.

The museum acquired the set of five mosaics from Princeton University in the 1964, the year before the museum opened its doors. The pavements date to between the 2nd and 5th centuries and were raised from the floors of luxury Roman-era villas in the suburbs of Antioch. Two of the mosaics were permanently installed out of doors, one in the Membership garden, one cemented into a fountain in the Sculpture Garden. One was put in storage, and in 1989, the last two were buried under the lawn for unknown reasons.

The neglected mosaic collection got some much-needed attention with the appointment of new executive director Kristen Shepherd in 2017. She found the one in storage, had the ones under the lawn excavated and detached the one that had been embedded in the fountain. Three years of cleaning and conservation later, the five mosaic panels (plus one previously unrecorded fragment found in the east lawn excavation) have gone on display in Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA, open through August 22nd.

“Our acquisition of these mosaics from Princeton a year before the museum opened represents a message that the museum would be an encyclopedic art museum and the founders had that in mind. They were the first shipments of art at our loading dock, so it was a big deal,” says Michael Bennett, Ph.D., the MFA’s curator of Early Western Art. “With Princeton’s full collaboration, we’re telling the story of their 1930s excavation and Antioch. We’re including a documentary film made by the archeologists during that excavation that’s never been seen by the general public. Princeton has never loaned any of this archival material before, so this is a world premiere.”

For a completely immersive experience, the MFA is pulling out all of the tech stops to incorporate video, QR code audio guides, and historic black and white photography as storytelling elements to fully encapsulate the journey of these mosaics. They even have a time-lapse from the 2018 excavation of the mosaics from their lawn to their conservation with the help of RLA Conservation to them finally being moved and installed in the exhibition gallery.

When the exhibition ends, the mosaics will be permanently mounted as a group on the walls of the Membership Garden.