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)

Perceiving Sound in Antioch

Sound perception is a relatively unexplored concept in art historical and archaeological fields of study. The recording arts have only been around for less than a century, and mainly connected to capturing the modern, not the historical. While fields such as archaeomusicology explore the sounds of ancient music, we have little to no perception of sound in everyday spaces. This is due in part to the fact that these spaces don’t exist today. While some important ancient buildings are still standing, the vast majority of residential and commercial spaces were repurposed, destroyed or built upon in the name of progress. Antioch is no different; we may have many of the mosaics from the ancient site, but nothing exists of walls, thresholds or rooves. Furthermore, most of the research on these buildings has understandably been focused on the mosaics remaining. However, through my research conducted during the first phase of the Antioch Recovery Project and through experiments conducted during the projected second phase, I intend to recreate some of the sounds of ancient Antioch using modern settings and technology.
While little is left of the buildings at Antioch, we can use the floor plans and research on contemporaneous buildings to gain a better understanding of how they worked. The buildings were likely made out of stone, which would have likely made the rooms incredibly echoey. This would have made it difficult to hear anything. The warm climate also points away from materials such as wall coverings, which would have helped to dampen some of the sound. However, this warmer climate also would have made possible outdoor and outdoor-adjacent spaces. For example, looking at a floor plan of the house of Menander (Figure 1), we can see that there exist pools and colonnades. Pools in the houses would have been filled by falling rainwater, so it is evident that these spaces were open to the outside. Furthermore, we can make the assumption that other colonnaded spaces would have been open-air as well. This is particularly interesting because these open-air spaces correspond with larger gathering places such as dining rooms and courtyards. These large spaces being open to the outside would help to dissipate some of the echo that we could assume occurred in smaller, closed off rooms. It is also likely that these smaller rooms were probably private rooms (such as bedrooms), where less sound, and thus less echo, would occur.
Now that we have some understanding of how buildings in Antioch might have looked and worked, we come to the question of how to recreate sound in these spaces that no longer exist. There are two types of spaces that we would need to record in: indoor and outdoor-adjacent. While these spaces may not actually exist in situ, certain modern spaces would work as adequate places to record and recreate sound. The first space is the Dumbarton-Oaks museum in Washington, D.C. This space has a collection of many Antioch mosaics displayed on the floors and are open to walk on. This is an exciting prospect for being able to record sound interaction with mosaics themselves. This space would be an adequate recreation of outdoor-adjacent spaces in Antioch houses, as there would be little echo and more focus on the sound of walking over mosaics. In order to get a historically accurate sound, I also propose doing research into authentic footwear of the time to see how sound differs between modern footwear, bare feet, and historical footwear. In order to capture the sounds of indoor spaces, I propose that we record in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This museum has preserved rooms from Pompeii (Figure 2) that, while not in the same geographic location or century, are likely extremely similar to the indoor rooms that existed in Antioch. Furthermore, the Museum is extremely open to projects and research as long as there is no damage to the art. This means that we would probably be able to get into the space and record without having to get express permission from the administration. However even if we needed permission, I am sure that the Met would allow us to record. I also propose researching ancient musical instruments to use in this space, as the instruments were likely created to thrive in the echoey qualities of indoor rooms. It would also be interesting to research and recite ancient poetry in these rooms in order to see how they would sound to an ancient ear.
While covid-19 has made it impossible to gather these recordings in this semester, I am thankful that there will be a second phase of this project, so we can gather this data. In my opinion, it is extremely important to understand how sound worked in these spaces, as sound is an integral yet often overlooked part of our lives. Hopefully, this research will also bolster more projects similar to this one and make ancient sound recreation a more explored field.

Figure 1.

Figure 2. for more information, visit

Antioch Mosaics and ArcGIS Online: The Final Takeaways

To conclude our research on the global distribution of the Antioch mosaics, Ella Gonzalez and I created an interactive map and StoryMap on ArcGIS Online.

The map of the current Antioch mosaic repositories can be accessed here:

The StoryMap describing our entire research process from start to finish can be accessed here:


  • Faith Cimok’s Antioch Mosaics: A Corpus (2000)
  • Frances F. Jones’ “Antioch Mosaics in Princeton” (1981)*
  • Claudia Barsanti’s “The Fate of the Antioch Mosaic Pavements: Some Reflections” (2012)

*Note: all mosaics with “M” plus a number are from Jones’ article.

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 Roman-Persian Wars: two views on borders

During this semester I was interested in researching the historical and ancient geopolitical situation of Antioch at the time of the mosaics and relating that to the mosaics themselves. This final blog finishes my chronology of the various “border” wars fought during the Roman-Persian wars, between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid Persian Empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire was first founded as part of Diocletian’s reforms after the Crisis of the Third Century that I mentioned in a previous blog. He split the Roman Empire into the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire with two co-emperors to try to make the empire easier to run. However, his reforms failed and there were more civil wars until Constantine reunified the Empire. Eventually, after even more civil wars, Emperor Theodosius finished the process of dividing the Roman Empire in two by leaving the eastern and western halves to his two sons when he died in 395 AD.

The Sassanid Empire was founded when Ardashir I, who was the satrap, or governor, of Pars (modern day Fars Province of Iran) under the Parthians rose up and overthrew the last Parthian king of kings and proclaimed himself King of Kings of Persia. The mutual hatred between the Roman and Persian Empires that had existed for centuries continued even with this change in government because unlike the previous two Persian Empires, the Sassanid government was less religiously tolerant, more militantly Zoroastrian, more nationalistic (even though nationalism as we know it today did not yet exist) and more religiously conservative. The culmination of all these factors was many persecutions of Christians and Manichaeans under the Sassanids.

This angered the Romans, especially after the Roman empire turned Christian, and it was exacerbated when the Sassanids tolerated Christian sects that the Romans did not like. In their minds, any enemy of Rome was a friend of Persia. The Sassanids also tolerated Jews for the same reason, because Rome had always had a rocky relationship with Jews ever since they first revolted against Rome and the situation got even worse after Rome turned Christian.

This is a map of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire as they stood at the death of Theodosius in 395 AD.

images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a map of the Sassanid Empire at its greatest extent including areas occupied during the Roman-Persian Wars.

The Persians captured and recaptured Antioch many times during the course of the Roman-Persian Wars. As a result, as I have already mentioned in an earlier blog, Persian influence was very strongly reflected in Antioch as evidenced by the use of lions and geometric patterns in mosaics. This was also because of the presence of many Persian and other merchants from the Persian Empire that worked on the Silk Road in Antioch. Chinese, Indian, Central Asian and other goods traveled through the Persian Empire to get to Antioch. Its strategic position on the Silk Road and the other trade routes connected to the vast Indian Ocean trade network contributed to Antioch’s accumulation of its vast wealth. Despite the constant conflict around it, Antioch remained a tolerant, multicultural city.

I have talked previously about the acculturation that all of this geopolitical conflict created in the area around Antioch and pointed out the use of peacocks, lions, Greek writing and literature as examples. As I end my chronology with this discussion of the Sassanid Empire, I see the Persian influence in Antioch as reflected in the “borders” of the mosaics. Much like a fine Persian carpet, the mosaics often include layers of borders that frame the interior of the mosaics. Scholars of Persian textiles note this link, too. As Maryam D. Ekhtiar said in Art of the Early Caliphates (7th to 10th centuries), “Artistically, both empires have developed similar styles and decorative vocabulary, as exemplified by mosaics and architecture of Roman Antioch”.

image courtesy of

After the Roman-Persian wars, the ancient city of Antioch ended. It was gradually diminished and eventually devastated by a series of earthquakes in 526 and 528 AD. The city went on to be conquered by the Muslims and became a part of the Rashidun Caliphate. This conquest finally ended the Roman-Persian Wars.

image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a map of the Rashidun Caliphate at its greatest extent.

I am thankful to my classmates for what I learned from their various perspectives on the mosaics. I am especially thankful to Ella and Maya for what they shared about their efforts to create GIS maps of the existing Antioch mosaics around the world. Their work sparked a modern-day mystery for me—what happened to the Cuban mosaic after the revolution? That remains unsolved, but now when the world returns to its new normal, I will travel to Cuba and try to solve that modern-day mystery myself.

Twisted Ribbon Design and Geometry

The twisted ribbon border is a meandering pattern of what appears to be a flat ribbon waving along across the mosaic in a repeated manner. While there is thought to be no major significance to the pattern itself, it represents “the movement towards ornamental complexity” in the Antioch mosaics, “which was born in the late second century.” The ribbon itself is typically different colors on each side, which are shaded into gradients as it arcs. This paper will focus on the twisted ribbon that transverses sinusoidally, and it identifies some variations of the pattern.

This paper is written for the Antioch Recovery Project, part of the Classics Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University. While I arrive at certain claims through my work, there is no “conclusion” to this topic. This paper serves as a journal surrounding my research into the Twisted Ribbon border pattern. I encourage others to add on or disagree with certain aspects, and perform similar studies to other design elements of the Antioch Mosaics. 

Organization of Mosaics by House and General Trends

After quite a few weeks I’ve finally finished categorizing the images in the Antioch Recovery Project Artstor! A long monotonous task but I’m really glad I did it. I’m the kind of person who can much more easily draw conclusions and make improvements if I can see everything of interest together in one place. By organizing the images such that all mosaics corresponding to the same house, as well as house plans and in situ photographs, are grouped together under the house name, it has become much easier to see why certain things happen.

For example, at the beginning of the project, I wanted to find out why certain houses had very specific names. Like why the House of the Drinking Contest was called that when the mosaic associated with that house in the collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art depicts Psyche stealing from Eros. However, when I was through categorizing the images, it became clear that the House of the Drinking Contest is named for the large mosaic central to the house that shows Heracles and Dionysus in a drinking contest with one another. Now, things like house names seem obvious. Yet a month ago I would not have been able to confidently know things like this without searching through hundreds of images.

Going through the hundreds of images, I began to realize a few things. One of the first things was that at first glance everything felt similar. I just assumed that every mosaic had the same orange-y neutral color pallet and portrayed familiar scenes of Greek mythology.  Yet the more I began to order the images by house, the more distinct each one felt. The Atrium House featured multiple images of satyrs and maenads standing alone surrounded by layers of geometric borders. The House of Dionysus and Ariadne more prominently featured larger geometric patterns and scenes of several people together. The individual images in the Atrium House feel more isolated by the large layers of the border that separate the figures from each other. However, with the images of couples in the House of Dionysus and Ariadne together in series it feels more like it is telling a story. These differences in tone and composition may be easily noticed by an expert, but for me, it took ordering these images by original location to notice what makes each house unique.

While going through the process of categorizing the images was really helpful in familiarizing myself with the various forms on the content present in Antioch and Daphne, I hope that the complete groups will be more useful for future researchers. It has been really fulfilling to see my colleagues use these image groups to generate their own projects, including story maps and house models. I hope that these groups will be used to better understand the similarities and differences between houses, to recreate what the houses looked like in their prime, and to study patterns between houses in the same area. Whatever the direction of the Antioch Recovery Project is in the future, I hope that my contribution not only allowed me to discover clarity but provided a foundation to make new improvements moving forward.

Hellenization and why Antioch has mosaics

As I continue to trace the history and geopolitics of Antioch, in this blog I focus on the Seleucid Empire, which lasted from 312-64 BC.

In an earlier post, I traced how in the precursor to Antioch, when Syria was part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, Alexander the Great conquered that Empire. Upon his death, his empire was divided between his generals. At that time, Rome was just a tiny hilltop farming settlement.

The heavy conflict in the region involved the biggest chunk of Alexander’s Empire, which included Syria and Mesopotamia. This went to General Seleucus and was referred to as the Seleucid Empire. Seleucus built Antioch in Syria and made it the capital of his Empire. Its rival was another division of Alexander’s Empire, Ptolemaic Egypt. The two empires fought many wars for control of the Levant.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the same, parts of the Seleucid Empire broke away. Judea broke away and the miracle that led to the first Hanukkah occurred. In another example, a nomadic people from northern Iran and southern Turkmenistan (who were related to the Persians) called the Parthians, moved to annex or capture many Seleucid provinces to form a new Persian Empire, the Parthian Empire, as a successor to the Achaemenid Empire. In Mesopotamia, the Parthians built their new capital, Ctesiphon, on the other side of the river from Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. The Parthians also incorporated some former provinces of the Achaemenid Empire that were not under Seleucid control into their empire.

During the many wars to expand its influence in Asia Minor and mainland Greece, the Seleucid Empire (including Antioch) declared war on Rome. Earlier, during the time many provinces were breaking away, Eumenes I as governor of Pergamon, had also declared independence from the Seleucid Empire and proclaimed himself king of Pergamon. His successors allied with Rome against the Seleucids. There, the empire met its match. Eventually the Roman Republic took over the remainder of the Seleucid Empire in 64 BC. In 27 BC, the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.

In addition to the wars, the Seleucids brought Greek culture to the area, especially in Syria. Eventually, Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid Empire, and Alexandria, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, became the two richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the Mediterranean. Through acculturation, during the creation of the Seleucid Empire, the area around Antioch adopted Greek culture, including the language, literature and decorative arts. This was especially true of the rich cities—as Greek culture was very city-focused.

Thus, mosaics came to Antioch. Evidence of Greek culture can be seen in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s mosaics. The Lion and Humped-Ox Animal Friendship Mosaic fragment includes the Greek word for friendship. Under the Persians, the trade language of the Eastern Mediterranean was Aramaic. When Alexander arrived it was changed to Koine Greek and remained so even under the Romans until the Muslim conquest when it was replaced by Arabic.

Image obtained from Alex’s Twisted Ribbons post

Another fragment of the BMA’s Antioch collection depicts a scene from Greek mythology of “Europa and the Bull”. It shows Zeus in the form of a bull carrying away Europa after he kidnapped her.

A similar depiction was also used on the modern Greek 2 Euro coin in 2002.

Conflict and Fragmentation

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s fragments of the Antioch mosaics symbolize to me the fragmented nature of the Roman Empire from which they came. Researching the history and geopolitics at the time of Antioch leads to a repeated theme—conflict. Certainly, the Crisis of the Third Century—the Roman civil war to end all Roman civil wars—symbolizes this.

 It all started because there was endemic corruption in the government and a very unstable line of succession to the imperial throne beginning with the assassination of Commodus in 192 AD and the subsequent Year of the Five Emperors. After Septimius Severus ended this by becoming emperor, he and his successors increased the size of the Roman Army to better be able to deal with external threats. Because of this, the army eventually asked for a 50% raise. In order to give the army its raise, the Imperial government had to debase and devalue the currency, which led to runaway inflation and an economic crisis. That crisis led to the army becoming more powerful than the Imperial government. This reawakened the problem of the army being more loyal to its generals than the state, which had plagued Rome since the Marian Reforms of the late Republic. Next, Emperor Severus Alexander went to war with the Sassanid Persian Empire for the first time and was assassinated after returning home from the war.

These combined problems led to many Roman provinces breaking away and many generals and provincial governors declaring themselves emperor or being declared emperor by their troops whether they wanted the throne or not. For example, Postumus, the governor of the provinces of Germania Superior and Germania Inferior, was proclaimed emperor by his troops. He went on to conquer all of Gaul, get Britannia to side with him and declare independence from Rome. Many peoples outside the Roman Empire, such as the Persians and so-called barbarians like the Goths, Vandals, Alemanni, Franks and Saxons, took advantage of the increasing fragmentation and invaded.

Most importantly for our project, the Persians managed to invade Syria and Capture Antioch. Later, a Roman client king of Palmyra named Odenathus drove the Persians out of Syria and crushed many Roman usurpers in the eastern provinces by annexing them into Palmyra. The Romans proclaimed him Governor of all the East, but he, too, was assassinated. He was succeeded by his wife Zenobia, who formally declared Palmyrene independence from Rome. Eventually Aurelian was proclaimed Emperor and he reunified the Roman Empire by reconquering both the break-away Palmyrene and Gallic Empires. However, he was also assassinated.  The crisis did not finally end until Diocletian came to the throne and reformed the empire’s administrative structures to try to make it easier to run and prevent another civil war. But old habits die hard. Rome went on to have even more civil wars until it finally fell, but none nearly as destructive as the Crisis of the Third Century.

 Some of the mosaics we are studying date back to this time of conflict in the 200s AD and onward.

Given all of this division, it is in many ways a miracle that the Empire didn’t tear itself apart prematurely.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As a postscript, when I was doing research on the topic, I noted Professor Paul Freedman of Yale’s comment on the pessimism of the Roman people during the crisis. He mentioned that when Diocletian came to the imperial throne and the crisis finally ended, the joy and relief of the Roman people was reflected in mosaics with messages like “joyful times everywhere” or “a world restored”.

The Crisis of the Third Century as Seen by Contemporaries by Geza Alfoldy

3D Model Construction and Viewing, an Update, pt. 2

In my initial post on this subject, I finished by constructing a test house in Sketchup, and importing that into a basic Unity game, with typical FPS (first person shooter) style controls- moving with WASD, jumping with space, and looking around with a mouse. Since then, the project has advanced in both of those ways: the house and the game.

As previously discussed, while other 3D model viewers already exist, none that I found allowed you to walk through them akin to a game, which I consider to be significantly more immersive than simply viewing it. Thus, I decided to make my own. Since the last post, the basic coding hasn’t changed- movement and vision work the same.

However, I decided to add a new feature- when you looked at a mosaic, I wanted to be able to pop up a screen, displaying both the mosaic from a head-on perspective, and also information about it- such as its name and current location.

A screenshot of the info display within the Model Viewer

This took quite a long time.

In my first attempt, I used the built-in Unity functions of OnMouseEnter() and OnMouseExit() to determine when the cursor was looking at the mosaics- when the mouse entered the confines of a mosaic, code would begin to run, checking to see if the user pressed the “e” button. If they did, then the desired info would all pop up. Once the user pressed “e” again or moved their mouse outside the confines of the mosaic, the information would disappear.

However, while this worked in testing, it didn’t work once the program was built in WebGL and uploaded to the site. This is because for security reasons, browser games can’t move the cursor- thus, the in-game crosshair and the actual mouse didn’t line up, so when the crosshair was hovering over the desired mosaic, the mouse wasn’t, so the code didn’t execute as desired.

To fix this, I had to implement my own method of detection, which was Ray casting. This continually drew a ray from the center of the camera out into the world. I could then detect when that ray hit objects, and which object it hit. Once I knew that, I could check if the object was a mosaic, and if so, it would pull up the info as desired.

The code that displays and hides the Info Display on a key press
The code that handles the ray casting, and general logic of the system

After this, a smaller problem remained- the images and text didn’t scale properly with window and screen size, but this was easily fixed with a settings change.

However, there is still work that can be done. The exact method of embedding the program in the website is still to be decided. Verge3D, an extension for WordPress, allows for direct hosting of the application, as well as easy full-screening. However, so far, I haven’t found out how to host it without the game being partially cut off. Hosting on and embedding using <iframe> allows for a cleaner appearance, but may have legal issues of publicly hosting content including non-public images of mosaics, and doesn’t seem to allow for full-screen.

Additionally, further features could potentially be added, allowing for time, such as recreating the real topography of Antioch within the game, so the house would be positioned as it was in real life.