During a 2019 re-installation of an Early Byzantine floor fragment, Museum staff invited three members of our community—an artist, an ecologist, and an archaeologist—to offer their perspectives on this mosaic. Recognizing that there are many ways to interpret a single work of art, we invite you to add your voice to this dialogue by sharing your thoughts, feelings, and inspirations in the comments. We would also welcome your feedback relative to this sort of forum as we hope to add more works of art and continue a hybrid in-person/online dialogue when the museum reopens.
We look forward to reading your responses.
You might wonder why this fragment of a floor mosaic, produced for a lavish villa in Syria, depicts the fauna and lush flora encountered hundreds of miles away in and around Egypt’s Nile River. The simple images depicted here stand for more than meets the eye, connecting three distinct geographic regions and cultures in a lineage spanning thousands of years.
During the Early Byzantine period (c. 330–700 C.E.), the area of modern Syria became a major producer of olive oil. The wealthy Syrian farmers who commissioned mosaics such as this one for their country estates were paying homage to earlier Roman mosaics, piggybacking on what they perceived as Rome’s greatness. As early as the Republican Period (509–27 B.C.E.), the Romans had likewise sought to place themselves within a longer legacy: by referencing the Nile in their art, they evoked the fabulous wealth and millennia-old civilization of Ancient Egypt.
—Pieter Broucke, archaeologist
This fragment of a floor mosaic is made from small pieces of cut stone. Consummate craftspeople selected these tesserae (Latin for cubes or dice) for their color and brilliance, artfully positioning them in a cement matrix to create a durable and beautiful floor. While the stones composing the geometric border of black and white triangles are laid in a grid, the tesserae at the fragment’s center follow curved natural forms, as if to accentuate movement.
These tesserae also function as specks of paint, delineating forms through white and black, warm reds and pinks, blues, grays, and ochre yellows. Subtle harmonies of color enliven the duck’s variegated feathers, the red and pink shrimp, the undulating eel, and the speckled bellies and striped backs of the fish. Elsewhere, bold color contrasts dominate the design, as in the black and white geometric border and the black tesserae outlining the duck, fish, eel, mussel, and lotus plant.
—Kate Gridley, artist
The artisans’ choice to highlight the Nile and its associated biodiversity is likely rich with meaning. Water is life in a desert environment, such as in large portions of the Middle East (the original site of the mosaic) and northeastern Africa (the source of the wildlife depicted). Animals that are critical sources of food live in the river or are drawn to it—such as the fish and bird depicted in this mosaic—and plants that provide both food and fiber grow lush along its banks.
The abundance of water itself helps provide the basis for agriculture, and the seasonal flooding of the river replenished nutrients in the soil to maintain productivity in each year’s harvest. While it is true that many nomadic cultures thrive in drier conditions, the ecology of a river such as the Nile enabled the development of a prosperous settled society.
—Stephen C. Trombulak, ecologist