Back in 2018, you may have heard about the MFA St. Pete finding treasure in their back lawn, and it was far from pirate gold. To the contrary, through layers of grass and dirt, they unveiled ancient mosaics from the Greek city of Antioch that were a part of the museum’s early permanent collection acquisitions in the 1960s. Three of the five mosaics managed to get buried, most likely as a last-resort storage method, but their excavation and restoration is complete and they now are a part of the exhibition Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA open through August 22.
“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.
The mosaics themselves come from wealthy homes in the suburbs of Antioch and would have been originally placed near the dining room (also known as the triclinium), which was a social focal point of the home. One of the mosaics comes from a house the excavators called “The House of the Drinking Contest,” named after a figural mosaic in its dining room picturing the hero Herakles challenging Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, to a drinking contest. (and you can guess who won).
“The technique and tradition involved in making them is amazing, they have to mine the stone, then sort it by color, then cut them into cubes one-by-one by hand, then sort them again. When you look at a geometric mosaic, they were using advanced mathematics and engineering that speaks of a mature tradition of image making,” Dr. Bennett says. " 'Techne' is the closest word to 'art' in Greek. We get our words 'technology' and 'technique' from that. These mosaics are made up of disparate parts that are so beautifully put together that they make up an organic whole.”
Once the exhibition has concluded at the end of August, the MFA plans to install the mosaics on the walls of its Membership Garden so that they can be admired in the natural sunlight, not just on special occasions, but all the time.
“There are a lot of layers to this exhibition, but we want people to come in and have this sense of the romance of archeology because let’s face it: archeologists are romantics,” Dr Bennett says.
Visit the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg website to find out more about the exhibition.