House Groups in ArtStor: House of Narcissus

As JJ posted about earlier, some of the initial labor for Phase One involved sorting through the vast archive of 500+ photographs of mosaics from Antioch that the JHU Visual Resources Collection built for us prior to the start of the course. JJ took on the task of grouping those images by house, bringing together within Artstor mosaics that have been distributed around the globe. Within these groups one can now access the available photographs of mosaics, regardless of current location. For now, this resource is limited to those with JHU’s institutional subscription, due to image permissions, but I have extracted some screenshots to share how it works using the example of the House of Narcissus:

And here are some additional images of the Narcissus mosaic from its current location in situ at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Narcissus mosaic on the wall in the Baltimore Museum of Art
Narcissus closeup (Baltimore Museum of Art)

Pivoting as a Result of Widespread Museum Shutdowns

I began my time with the Classics Lab Antioch Recovery Project with a passion for visitor experience. Our class, interestingly, did not have the makeup of a typical classics course. Rather, it had students hailing from a wide array of disciplines, including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, economics, anthropology, and art history. These diverse opinions further encouraged me to step outside of my own background in art history and explore how larger sectors of the population engaged with Antioch Mosaics.

I began my study with a wide sweep of internet reviews. I specifically remember scanning one recent Yelp review of the Baltimore Museum of Art from an individual named Jason J, that read: “my personal favorite are the Antioch Mosaics acquired in the 1930s through a Princeton University archaeological excavation. It’s powerful viewing these walls…Which were most likely floors originally. (It does bother me that these are no longer in their original location but I don’t know the circumstances of their removal. It may have been to make way for modern construction or some other reason.)”

The individual’s comments revealed a deep investment in the pieces, as was evidenced in his knowledge surrounding their excavation. However, his confusion was equally as revealing. Although he had clearly visited the Baltimore Museum of Art’s sunny Antioch court, the object labels had not successfully relayed the appropriate information regarding the conditions around the removal from modern day Antakya. With this information in mind, I partnered with my classmate Louisa to design a questionnaire that would probe at these questions: How do different visitors interact with the Antioch mosaics? What information do visitors retain about these objects? What further details would visitors like to learn about the Antioch mosaics? How does the surrounding space and the curatorial decisions affect these outcomes?

Unfortunately, before Louisa and I had the chance to execute our survey on site at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the museum had decided to close its doors to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Without the ability to stand with visitors in the space, we decided to pause this line of research and pivot to something more virtual friendly. Louisa cleverly suggested that we flip the research around, instead interviewing curators about their intentions with the Antioch mosaics their respective institutions held. This way, we reasoned, we could understand what narratives curators wished to impart with their work on the mosaics. Although the transition wasn’t always smooth, we hoped that by starting to research curatorial intentions would set up the next iteration of the course to conduct better visitor surveys when museums reopened.


The Artifact Silo

In a classic art historical text I read for an art history methods course this week, The Arch of Constantine, or the Decline of Form by Bernard Berenson, the famous art historian and Renaissance specialist writes the following:

“nothing thus far has been brought to light in Antioch to challenge the attention of those whose chief interest is in art, and not in artifact that merely serves as a document in the history of mental aberrations and the recondite superstitions then current. For sculpture, provincial towns of Asia Minor, like Aphrodisias or Tralles, have thus far proved far more interesting than Alexandria or Antioch.”

Berenson’s writing reveals a deep disappointment around the findings at Antioch, deeming them artefacts of history rather than art. Antioch has long been textually narrated as linked to the origins of Christianity and owns the bragging rights of being the place in which Jesus’ disciples were first called Christians. Thus, unfortunately (for Berenson), the lack of findings relating to the biblical past did not support the origin stories of Christianity he wished to confirm.             

Although Bernard Berenson’s text is now more than sixty years old, many of the legacies of his tastemaking efforts remain today. I wonder if visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) register a similar sentiment that the mosaics on the museum’s walls are closer to artefact than art. This week, to help me frame my visitor survey project around the BMA’s Antioch mosaic collection, I have been reading some more general texts regarding the intentions of museum visitors as well as studying famous past surveys to understand their methodologies. In The Museum Experience, I read that museums largely serve as social environments, as studies show that most people choose to go as part of a social group. Such social motivations can shape the perception of artwork greatly.

Interestingly, in a famous UK Survey of visitors at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, the conductors of the study chose to isolate their subjects rather than examine them as a group. Single adults were accompanied by a researcher and asked to talk about their interpretations and visit in general as they walked through the galleries. A questionnaire followed at the end of the walk. Given that it is now known that museums are a largely social space, I hope to investigate whether it is possible to study groups in visitor surveys rather than isolating individuals for examination.

What might be the logistical issues around such an approach?


Mosaic Math

A wide array of the Antioch Mosaics consist of geometric and patterned designs. For my research project, I am interested in exploring these compositions in a mathematical context, following questions including: what mathematical knowledge did the Romans in Antioch know and display in the mosaics at the time? What deeper patterns can be observed across several mosaics? Since this is a broad topic, I decided to focus specifically on the Twisted Ribbon pattern, often observed in the borders of the ancient Antioch art.

For initial concept development and research, I started with the Leopard and Goat mosaic, a 5th century piece currently located in the Baltimore Museum of Art. Beneath the main scene lies the Twisted Ribbon pattern sinusoidally traversing across the border. On the decreasing portions (where d/dx(sin) < 0), the ribbon is shaded green/blue on both the top and bottom thirds of its height and white in the middle. The increasing portions (where d/dx(sin) > 0) are the same design but with red/brown tones. Beneath every peak and above every valley of the wave are yellow fruit or vegetable shaped objects across a dark background.

In the online graphing program Desmos, I first tried to model the side of the ribbon closest to the viewer. Plotting points that can vertically drag, I moved each into position in the center of the white tiles at x=0.25 intervals. Further analysis showed that this arrangement is not well fit by a sinusoid, but rather half circles joined together at their widths.

Next, I plotted points in the same fashion at both the top and bottom of the twisted ribbon’s projection onto the 2D mosaic. The height of the twisted ribbon on the mosaic (found by subtracting top and bottom) is close to a sine function, but not perfect. What is interesting is finding the centroid of the area at each 0.25 x interval: Middle = Height/2 + Bottom. Plotting these points in MATLAB, as shown in the figure below, we see a nice fit for the function f(x)=1.138sin(0.936x+2.292) at RSquared = 0.938 (the function accounts for 93.8% of the trend) of the plotted point.

Leopard & goat mosaic; 5th century CE; Baltimore Museum of Art

This implies that there may be deeper meaning behind the function governing the pattern of the twisted ribbon.

The next steps in this project include:

  • 3 dimensionally constructing the ribbon and “unraveling” it to visualize its pattern
  • Researching the development of the sine function and other historical uses throughout the Roman period
  • Compiling a set of mosaics with the Twisted Ribbon pattern to study and compare
  • Categorizing the different types of Twisted Ribbon borders in the mosaics


Mosaics in situ

For the Antioch Recovery Project, I am particularly interested in the in situ locations of the mosaics at the time of excavation. Having read Christine Kondoleon’s introduction to the 2000 exhibition on the city of Antioch, we know that many of the mosaics now dispersed in various museums—such as the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), the Worcester Art Museum and the Dumbarton Oaks Museum—were found in the private homes of Antioch’s elite. That being said, I am interested in what the pictorial scenes on the mosaics would have signified to their original owners, and whether or not their location within the home had a greater significance. Were they purely decorative or did they relate in some way to the family’s ancestral history? Were they functional in design or simply for show? Were they always found on the floor or are there some instances in which mosaics were found on the walls of private homes? How did the mosaics visually speak and interact with the frescoes painted on the wall? Were the mosaics and wall paintings thematically related in any way?

So far, I am approaching this preliminary inquiry by looking at floor mosaics found within the private homes of Pompeii’s elite, and seeing whether I can make comparisons to those found in Antioch. In particular, I am revisiting my senior thesis topic on the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii and looking at its interior design and architectural layout. Although I mostly focused on the House of the Tragic Poet’s program of wall paintings, I did briefly discuss the House’s floor mosaic depicting a group of actors preparing to go on stage. A very helpful article that I used throughout researching and writing my senior thesis is Bettina Bergmann’s “The Roman House as Memory Theater: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii” from the 1994 issue of Art Bulletin. In this article, she includes detailed reconstructions of where in the Pompeiian home mosaics/wall paintings were found, and how contemporary Roman people interacted with them. She also includes a digital reconstruction of the house and its architectural floor plan; all of her included reconstructions are vibrantly colored and highly legible.

If possible, I would like to use SketchUp or another 3-D designing software to digitally reconstruct one of the private homes from Antioch in order to better understand where mosaics—like those in the BMA collection—were originally situated within a domestic setting. From a museum curatorial standpoint, I strongly believe that a digital rendering of an Antioch home and its interior design will help visitors better visualize where and how these mosaics were used within the home. This may also influence how future curators at the BMA decide to display the mosaics. Additionally, these visual reconstructions can be included within our video submission to the International Committee on the Conservation of Mosaics. From this exercise, we may be able to make stronger connections between various homes in Antioch and Daphne, and furthermore, we can perhaps better understand the people who once lived there.


How do ancient spaces emphasize mosaic’s subject matter and function? (Post #2)

            When thinking about ancient environments it is interesting to consider the occupants of the space during the peak of their usage. John Dobbins and Ethan Gruber have tackled the task of recontextualizing third century mosaics to better understand their usage in Roman Society. To date, the archeologist-computer scientist team have explored and digitally reconstructed The House of the Drinking Contest at Antioch and The House of the Faun at Pompeii. While 3D reconstructions are helpful in visualizing ancient spaces, the team focuses on the way in which light interacts with the space and the mosaic.

            In their reconstruction of The House of the Drinking Contest, the team shows us the importance of lighting considerations as it relates to the function and placement of the mosaic. In the case of the House of the Drinking Contest, they find that as the sun set in the spring and summer, rays of light would shine at an angle low enough to enter through the doors of the triclinium and would illuminate and reflect off of a large mosaic depicting the mythological scene of Herakles challenging the god of wine, Dionysos, to a drinking contest. The rays of light would illuminate the mosaic around 5:30pm and onward, right around when the after dinner festivities were beginning.

            Dobbins and Gruber attempt to untangle the broad question: how does space emphasize the object’s subject matter and function? In the House of the Drinking Contest we see (whether purposefully or coincidentally) how this ancient space is conceived to visually emphasize the social dining experience through the light effects of the natural environment.

            The team has also analyzed one of the best-known mosaics and houses in the Roman world, the Alexander Mosaic in the The House of the Faun. Through a digital reconstruction of the House, they identify a peculiarity of the space: the Alexander Mosaic is obscured by shadows cast by adjacent columns during winter daylight and during the summer, the room would have been dimly lit, making the mosaic hardly visible. They were baffled by this unexplainable result, as most mosaics are architecturally emphasized, and decided to make a trip to the site themselves to get a better feel for how the space interacted with the mosaic. When they arrived they found that the solution in antiquity was to dismantle part of the colonnade to allow light to flood the mosaic space in the more conventional dramatic-light manner. Because scholarship before them had misinterpreted the dismantling as a modern occurrence, Dobbins and Gruber used this problematic element to show how at some point in time, the space was modified to allow light to flood the mosaic area.

Essentially, their watershed finding is that the installation of the Alexander Mosaic was possibly accompanied by significant modifications not previously recognized that enhanced its presentation to its ancient, and now its modern, audience. Dobbins and Gruber’s work poses questions about the ancient environments of the mosaics, but moreover, it creates avenues of inquiry about the modern exhibition space of the mosaics in the Baltimore Museum of Art. How do the BMA’s Antioch mosaics function during their prime usage periods in Antioch; did the light conditions emphasize the subject matter in the mosaic or the space around in a manner similar to Dobbin and Gruber’s mosaic examples? A logical next question would then be, with regard to the modern day exhibition of the mosaics, what effect does light have on them now, especially considering that the mosaics are currently hung like paintings as opposed to their in situ position, on the ground?

Through digital reconstruction of spaces we can more easily understand the nuances of these spaces and perhaps find answers to not only questions of usage in antiquity, but to problems of modern museum display.


ARP: Excavation History (post #1)

At present, I am interested in researching and understanding the excavation history and the distribution of the Antioch mosaics throughout various museum collections. While I am interested in the excavation history, I am focused on how the excavation history and the key people and players involved can provide insight into the journeys of these objects from Antioch to collections throughout the world. In particular, while the excavations were led by Princeton University and Musées Nationaux de France in conjunction with the BMA, Worcester Art Museum, and later the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks, it is also interesting to ponder the distribution of mosaics to museums that were seemingly not involved in the initial plans for excavations, such as Antioch mosaics housed in the Getty Villa in Malibu or the Honolulu Museum of Art. A variety of possible avenues for inquiry within the larger umbrella of excavation/distribution history (which I will label under the collective title of “provenance”) arise:

  1. Who were the key people and players involved in the excavations? What were their connections to museums/art institutions, and how did these connections shape the distribution of the mosaics?
  2. What were the political, social, historical, and financial factors shaping the distribution?
  3. For the museums involved in the excavation, what kind of art comprised their initial collections? Was their participation fueled by a desire to build their collections? Moreover, is it common for museums to be involved in excavations, and what are the legal and ethical ramifications (if any) for this?
  4. Why were certain mosaics belonging to the same structure in Antioch distributed to different museums?
  5. How did museums with no immediate involvement in the excavation acquire mosaics?
  6. How were these mosaics transported to their respective locations?

Examining the history of the excavations and distribution thus opens up a broad array of questions and possible avenues for research. However, to make this more manageable for a semester course, I intend on approaching it in the following way: By first providing a brief sketch of the excavation history and outlining key institutions and individuals involved, and then, as a case study, mapping the distribution by focusing on a single mosaic in the BMA collection and investigating the accompanying mosaics and other objects from a specific site in Antioch that may have been distributed to different collections. This exploration would also provide an excellent opportunity to use digital mapping tools as well as modeling tools to bring together disparate mosaics into their original (digitally reconstructed) context.  Right now, I am focusing on finding a specific mosaic from the BMA to research as a case study, and am cognizant that since there are many moving parts in this analysis, that a great degree of flexibility must be involved to alter preliminary plans as the research ebbs and flows and new findings and complications shape future directions. Moreover, this is surely compounded by the rich trove of archival material, namely those at Princeton and at the BMA, that will aid in my research. The sheer amount of archival documents available–from excavation reports to correspondences among the different agents involved in the excavations–is dizzying and overwhelming, and my next task (after finding a specific group of mosaics to work with) must be to streamline this process to look at the available archival material in a way that is efficient and productive, but not exhaustive.