Ancient Romans made mosaics from recycled materials

(ORDO NEWS) — The decoration of the floors of the sumptuous villa of a resident of Halicarnassus is evidence that Asia Minor was quite economically successful in the period of late Antiquity.

The city of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum) on the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor was founded by the Greeks in the 8th century BC.

And in the middle of the 4th century BC, the tomb of the satrap Mausolus was built there, which became one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

By the way, the word “mausoleum” at first referred only to this architectural monument, only after that it became a household word and entered many languages.

This time is considered the golden age of Halicarnassus, followed by a period marked by cultural, economic and political decline.

The main reason is related to the sack of the city by Alexander the Great during his conquest of the Persian kingdom.

However, there is now strong archaeological evidence that the city experienced a boom in economic activity during late Antiquity. And, perhaps, we are talking about another golden age in the history of ancient Halicarnassus.

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Excavations at the Villa of Haridemos

An international team of scientists led by Kaare Lund Rasmussen from the University of Southern Denmark conducted a study of mosaic fragments of a rich villa built in Halicarnassus around the middle of the 5th century. The results are presented in an article published in the journal Heritage Science .

Now the Turkish resort city of Bodrum is located on the ruins of Halicarnassus, which greatly complicates the work of archaeologists.

However, at the end of the 19th century, they unearthed a large household, consisting of a number of buildings and two courtyards. Numerous rooms were decorated with mosaic floors.

In addition to geometric patterns, they depicted various mythological figures and scenes from Greek mythology: for example, the abduction of Europa by Zeus or the birth of Aphrodite from sea foam.

The same mosaics show scenes from Virgil’s writings. Thanks to the inscriptions, it became known that the owner of the villa was called Haridemos.

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Plan of the villa

The middle of the 5th century is the decline of Rome, Antiquity and the so-called early Byzantine time. The mosaic floor at that time was a luxury item: expensive raw materials – primarily marble of different colors – had to be delivered from distant quarries. Ceramics and glass were also mainly imported from other provinces.

Researchers studied 19 mosaic tesserae on the floor of the villa. Tessers are called tiles, which are usually in the form of cubes and from which a mosaic pattern is assembled. Seven tesserae were made of glass of different colors: purple, yellow, red and dark red.

Using the method of mass spectrometry, scientists were able to distinguish glass brought from Egypt from glass made in the Middle East, and also determined which elements ancient craftsmen added to color the tesser material.

In addition, it turned out that six of the seven glass tesserae were made from previously used glass objects – that is, we are talking about waste recycling.

In general, in the Roman Empire with recycling, which our contemporaries are trying to establish with varying success, everything was fine. Fragments of broken glass products were not thrown away, but handed over to special collection points.

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Individual tesserae

As a rule, such points were located near the glass production: the fragments were melted down and a new product was obtained.

Stained glass was extremely popular, glassblowers had a lot of pigments at their disposal. And often recycled glass was painted in a different color. Recycled products were cheaper than “original” and were available to poor people.

It may seem strange that recycled materials were used to decorate the villa of a wealthy Byzantine. But, in fact, there is nothing surprising here. Its glass production in Anatolia was rather limited, as it required imported raw materials.

As the power of the Roman Empire waned, trade routes were closed or diverted, which likely led to a shortage of goods in many places – including raw materials for glass production in Anatolia.

Of course, it is difficult to draw conclusions from just seven glass mosaic tesserae, but the new results fit well with the picture of Halicarnassus in late Antiquity.

Despite the fact that the mosaic was made from recycled materials, the very fact of its presence, as well as the scale of the Haridemos villa, convincingly testifies to the good, by the standards of late Antiquity, economic condition of this city.

Here it is worth remembering that in Byzantium at that time economic activity experienced a serious decline, and this hit the crafts.


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