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.