Menander, the Mytilenean Mosaic

Mosaic portrait of Menander from the Mytilenean mosaic floor

Mosaic portrait of Menander from the Mytilenean mosaic floor

It’s inevitable when you travel in Greece that you will find yourself at an archaelogical site. They are everywhere. Now, how fulfilling the experience will be depends on your expectations. It’s probable that you will find yourself in a bizarre grid of knee high “walls” that you could easily walk over – no scaling, no hurdling, necessary. They were once barriers for privacy, indicators of ownership, providers of shelter – structural components to house a family, a company of players, a committee of civic officials, a communion of ancients. Now they define a bare necropolis. Who for, or why each square was occupied is lost not only to the recalcitrant gait of time but also to the process of their rediscovery and conservation. You see these squares are bereft of ornamentation. If you are lucky the little vases, the palm-sized votive statuettes, the misshapen, worn coins, the fragile, foil jewels – these little glimpses into the ancient reality of the living spaces you are standing before are behind glass in the local museum. Often they are in Britain, France, Germany, the United States or wherever the country of origin is of the archaeological school that is responsible for the dig. A healthy imagination and some background reading will help fill in your enthusiasm.

When I arrived in Mytilene I was determined to see the House of Menander even if it meant foregoing many of the touristy sites on the island to find it. I didn’t just want to imagine it. Travelling with children always means a trade off. Having shared the misadventure of looking for the HIppodrome in Istanbul with my husband and children, I was a little anxious about our prospects of finding the House of Menander. Would my children have patience for the search? or would their droning pleas for the beach sap the enjoyment out of the experience?

We began our search at the New Archaeological Museum of Lesvos. As I approached the reception desk, doubts troubled me. What if they had no idea what I was talking about? It was a possiblity, Menander is not that well known and I had come across the mosaic’s existence through social media platforms. The mosaic’s images seemed credible at the time. But I had also come across an image of the restored Hippodrome on social media. The restored Hippodrome. What Hippodrome! How should I pose the question of the mosaic’s existence and whereabouts without being insulting, condescending or presumptuous?

The plays of Menander as depicted in the mosaic floor found new the Ancient Theatre of Mytilene.

The plays of Menander as depicted in the mosaic floor found near the Ancient Theatre of Mytilene.

The lovely tour guide, Toula, listened to me finish my waffling, prattle patiently. “It’s just here,” she said as she led us across the foyer and into the first room of the museum. She then took us through all of the rooms regaling us with anecdotes. Apparently the archaeological team responsible for the dig were Greek which explained why the mosaic floor has remained in a local museum just blocks away from where it was found.

One story left me asking whether it was a modern-day fable of sour grapes. Apparently, when the mosaics were found there were voices of doubts from the international community. It seems the brightness of the tiles had brought into question the authenticity of the mosaics. Tesserae tiles were often made of glass or ceramic and as such had to be coloured. Why hadn’t the tesserae tile’s pigments not deteriorated if the floor was actually dated to the 2nd century C.E..?

Right side detail of the Mosaic floor depicting in individual square cells, Menander, His plays and Thalia the Muse of Comedy

The right side of the floor – Thalia, the muse of comedy. The square directly above her doesn’t depict a play but three ancients including the philosopher Socrates. The rest are plays written by Menander, mainly lost.

Was this a fair question?

In the ancient theatre district of the island of Delos there are a number of ancient mosaics. A colourful, outdoor example shot in situ is the image of a winged messenger astride a tiger. From the state of conservation of the mosaic, it can be safely assumed that the tesserae tiles have not been restored to their original colours. Of all of the photos on this post, this is the only one that I have increased the intensity of the colour, purely to bring out the detail of this ailing artwork. The intensity of the colours of both mosaics are comparable.

Mosaic from the Island of Delos depicting a messenger on a leopard

A messenger or Nike (Victory) astride a tiger, Delos in 1999.

Tellingly, the Mytilenean mosaic of Menander was also found in a theatre district. Both mosaics deal with theatrical themes. The Delian mosaic is symbollic. It seems to be concerned with a theatrical contest, hence Nike astride a tiger, the symbol of Dionysus, god of theatre. The fallen vase to the side, a trophy perhaps, may indicate a defended title lost or a disregard for the results of the contest.

Other considerations arise at the archaelogical site of the ancent town of Olynthos in Chalkidiki. Its mosaic floors bask under the heat of the sun. They depict images in black and white that are said to be of the oldest in Greece. They were excavated in the early 20th century. To look at them closely you cannot fail to see that each building “block” is not perfectly tesserae – a four sided tile –  but a water washed pebble. Did the designer have a black and white image in mind and collected only black and white pebbles or have the pigments in the pebbles deteriorated over time regardless of having been underground?

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Bellerophon (background); 2 griffons devouring their prey (foreground) Olynthos

I would suggest that the simplicity and boldness of the design requires the contrast of black and white to achieve the designer’s goal. That they are black and white by intent. That no pigment deterioration has occurred here. The mosaics are of naturally occurring mineral materials.

Bold black and white floor mosaic from the archaeological site at Olynthos.

Black and white mosaic –  Olynthos.

Toula’s answer to the sceptics was simple. The tesserae tiles making up the mosaic floor on Mytilene are not glass or ceramic tiles but naturally occurring rocks that have been cut and shaped. Their colours hold faster than man made pigments for this reason. Evidence for the existence of these rocks on Mytilene is abundant. I photographed some when the kids got their wish and we took them to the beach.

Pebbles in the seashore at Vatera, Lesvos

Beaches near Mytilene – more pebbly than sandy. Vatera, Lesvos

To Toula, I send thanks for a great tour. For the international detractors – a case of sour grapes it would seem.

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