In the cold rain of March 1932, 80 years ago this month, Princeton archaeologists began digging shovels into muddy earth at Antioch, Syria. They did so with trepidation —– the Univer­sity and prominent American museums were risking scarce Depression-era dollars on a big gamble. Political unrest and lawlessness long had made the region dangerous to visit, and little was known of its ancient Roman remains. Would anything valuable come to light during this bold expedition?

In fact, eight sensational seasons of archaeology, curtailed only by the outbreak of World War II, were destined to produce a bountiful haul of Roman floor mosaics — about 300 in total. American newspapers soon called Antioch the “dig of the century,” rivaling excavations in Pompeii for the insights it provided into domestic life in ancient times.

As the priceless mosaics were cut free, about 40 were shipped to Princeton, many of which are today on display in the Art Museum or elsewhere in McCormick Hall, including 10 handsomely reinstalled in Marquand Library in 2003. We tend to walk right by them without looking, but they are well worth our attention, says Princeton professor emeritus Peter Brown, world-renowned scholar of late antiquity: “This is the most splendid collection of Roman mosaics at any small museum in the world, and some of the most perfect classical mosaics ever discovered in one place.”

Antioch — today part of Turkey — once was the resplendent capital of the Province of Syria: a city of 800,000, one of the four great metropolises of the Roman Empire and, unlike Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria, never significantly built over in modern times. By the early 20th century it had dwindled into an insignificant, dingy town of 30,000.

Many Americans were curious about Antioch because of its key role in the origins of Christianity. After Jesus’ death and crackdowns in Jerusalem, some of his followers relocated to Antioch, 300 miles north. In the disreputable-sounding Jawbone Alley, a street preacher named Paul lectured the crowds, building a movement that for the first time included non-Jews. Here Roman authorities began calling followers of the new group “Christians.”

Wealthy citizens of Antioch paid for missionary trips through­out the Mediterranean world by Paul and the charismatic leader of the local church, Jesus’ disciple Peter. Matthew is thought to have written his Gospel in this vibrant intellectual center.

Godfather of the Antioch expeditions was legendary Prince­ton art historian Charles Rufus Morey, a top expert on early Christianity; he had started the famous Index of Christian Art in a shoebox. A big, glum, bullet-headed man, he lectured by reading from his notes in a monotone but nonetheless managed to inspire generations of students one-on-one. Morey dreamed of unearthing early Christian places of worship at Antioch as well as the great octagonal church with a golden dome built by the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, and perhaps even the Imperial Palace.

“There was missionary zeal about going back there,” says Christine Kondoleon of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, today’s leading expert on Antioch mosaics. Morey’s passion for the Holy Land was shared by many Tigers — one alumnus in 12 being an ordained minister in those days.

After World War I, Syria was ruled by France, which, hoping to add Roman art splendors to the Louvre, invited Morey’s Department of Art and Archaeology to undertake a dig. Morey needed only to raise the necessary funds — no easy task following the stock market crash of 1929. He begged numerous museums to participate in “the greatest archaeological proposition in existence,” optimistically promising them a glittering haul.

But only a handful of American institutions dared join Princeton (which put up $40,000), often with anxiety about spending their purchasing funds in so speculative a venture. “They really didn’t know what they would discover,” says Brown. “There was a real cliffhanger quality.”

The two major participants were up-and-coming museums with smallish collections — and Tiger connections. Morey’s former student, Francis Taylor *27, headed the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. Robert Garrett 1897 served as trustee of the Baltimore Museum of Art, for which he hoped against hope to “reap a harvest in art objects.”

Helping to lead the fieldwork was archaeologist William A. Campbell *30. Various Princeton graduate students came along, too. Oversight was entrusted to Morey’s Committee for the Excavation of Antioch, headquartered at McCormick Hall. “Princeton was the intellectual firepower behind it all,” says Kondoleon.

The archaeologists secretly worried that Antioch would prove a disappointment. At first glance, almost nothing ancient seemed to survive, virtually every Roman building stone having been carted off for subsequent construction or burned to make lime for fertilizer. The flood-prone Orontes River had buried remains up to 30 feet deep in mud and cobbles. So the Americans hired more than 400 Arabs to start digging.

In depicting human faces, the skillful artists used as many as 700 fragments of glass or stone (called tesserae) for areas smaller than a postcard.
In depicting human faces, the skillful artists used as many as 700 fragments of glass or stone (called tesserae) for areas smaller than a postcard.

Because the modern town was much smaller than the ancient one, test pits were sunk in the rural outskirts, amid orchards or in fields of cotton, tobacco, and licorice. Exca­va­tions were a constant battle against rain (“la pluie persiste,” the bilingual field notes often lament), dust storms, and ­looting.

Alas, the Imperial Palace never came to light, nor Constantine’s church; golden treasures proved scarce; little light was shed on early Christianity. “They found no temples, no colonnades, no statues of civic worthies,” says Brown, and initially were “discomfited at having discovered so little.” But everywhere they dug, mosaic floors appeared, an astonishing quantity that spanned 500 years from just after the lifetime of Christ to the final destruction of ancient Antioch in the sixth century by earthquakes and Persian invaders.

Roman Antioch was known for its luxurious, even decadent, lifestyles. Gorgeous mosaics painstakingly were laid on villa floors where guests could admire them, especially while banqueting on low couches arranged around the edge of a dining room. Within elaborate geometric borders appeared mosaic copies of presumably once-famous paintings, such as Aphrodite and Adonis, as seen on a piece of floor today in Marquand Library.

The original paintings having vanished long ago, such mosaics provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of high-style art in Roman times, filling a major gap in ­art-historical knowledge. “The real excitement was, it was one of the only excavations where it was possible to see classical art changing into post-classical art,” Brown explains. That shift is one of the great puzzles of scholarship: Why after 250 A.D. did the Romans abandon the lifelike art they borrowed from the Greeks and switch to something more abstract?

The lovely Aphrodite and Adonis is one of the oldest mosaics found at Antioch — created just a few decades after Paul and Peter roamed the city. Only the bottom half survives, a reminder that many of these artworks were found severely damaged by later ditch-digging or plowing. It shows classical Hellenistic realism of the kind that later gave way to more patternistic abstraction, apparently under Persian influence. At this early date, foliage still looks realistic; human bodies and drapery are modeled in three dimensions by the use of light and shadow. Later mosaics, of which Princeton has many examples, trend toward all-geometrical borders and flatter, more stylized ­figures.

The archaeologists removed Aphrodite and Adonis in 1932 by a laborious method they would repeat hundreds of times. After young architect Charles Agle ’29 *31 took documentary photographs from a rickety “bridge” he built overhead, the mosaic was cut free on all four sides. Once its top surface had been protected with glued cloth and boards, wooden poles were inserted underneath, and the whole artwork was flipped over. Its original, crumbling concrete backing was chiseled away and a new one applied, with steel bars for reinforcement. Then the immensely heavy artifact was packed in sawdust and mattresses for an epic journey by truck and ship across the world to New Jersey.

Each participating museum was to receive its share of mosaics. Those in the Aphrodite and Adonis villa were divvied up between several institutions. Not for 68 years would this particular group of pavements be brought back together, for a special exhibition at Worcester and two other cities in 2000, a blockbuster show seen by a quarter-million visitors.

For this show, Antioch mosaics were subjected to intensive scientific analysis for the first time. These investigations served to highlight the great artistry involved. Numerous mosaic designers were shown, by their distinctive handiwork, to have been active in this one villa alone. In depicting human faces, the skillful artists used as many as 700 fragments of glass or stone (called tesserae) for areas smaller than a postcard. In attempting to emulate fine painting, the range of colors spanned the rainbow: A single pavement may contain 18 shades of green, for example. 

Careful examination in 2000 revealed fairly recent damage to several mosaics. Laid flat on a lobby floor for decades, the Worcester Hunt, in the Massachusetts museum, frequently had been walked and even danced upon. Princeton’s Aphrodite and Adonis was cracked and abraded because of its exposure to New Jersey winters on an exterior wall of the Art Museum starting in 1987 (recognizing their mistake, curators brought all the mosaics indoors between 1999 and 2008). Ancient mosaics look tough but are in fact rather fragile, especially the bits of glass, chemically weakened by 15 centuries’ exposure to water underground.

Many Antioch pavements depict animals, including a series of fish that were identified by 1930s biologists in Guyot Hall. What is that mammal shown fleeing from a rapacious tiger, only its hind legs visible? Princeton archaeologists immediately recognized the distinctive behavior of a bulldog.

An especially vigorous mosaic in McCormick Hall shows birds posing amid grapevines. Mortar was barely dry on this one when the city was leveled by the massive earthquake of 526 A.D., in which 250,000 died — the beginning of the end of Antioch’s greatness.

Field notebooks from the ­excavations include ­photographs, measured drawings, and colored depictions of geometric mosaics.
Field notebooks from the ­excavations include ­photographs, measured drawings, and colored depictions of geometric mosaics.

Mosaic imagery is overwhelmingly pagan, proof of the tenacious hold that the old religion had in the metropolis. Mystery cults sometimes appear: A big pavement in a McCormick stairwell, which students trudge past daily on their way to lecture hall, shows a man being inducted into the bizarre Cult of Isis.

Only rarely was Christian art found. Today’s campus Christians worshipping in Murray-Dodge may be unaware that a fragment of one of the world’s oldest churches lies just yards away in the lobby of McCormick, complete with religious emblems: a Chi-Rho, grape leaves, two crosses. Its Greek inscription records that a priest in the new cruciform church at Antioch donated fancy embellishments in March 387, “in fulfillment of a vow.”

Erected not long after Constantine made the whole Roman Empire Christian, this Kaoussie Church stood on the blood-soaked ground of Antioch’s riverbank Field of Mars, where followers of Christ had once been martyred. The pavement takes us back to an exciting moment in religious history: Just six years earlier, Antioch bishops had helped formulate the Nicene Creed, which affirmed the full divinity of Jesus; golden-tongued St. John Chrysostom was preaching, perhaps in this very church; St. Jerome passed through on his way to become a hermit in the desert.

After Princeton’s spectacular series of mosaic discoveries made headlines around the world, the archaeologists received permission to excavate for an additional six years, starting in 1937. But the political situation was deteriorating rapidly, with Turks and Arabs battling in the streets of Antioch and the whole world lurching toward war. When the local province seceded from Syria to join Turkey, the handwriting was on the wall: Turkey had strict laws prohibiting the export of antiquities. Archaeology ceased in 1939, and the last of the excavated mosaics hastily were shipped to America.

Although the Antioch dig was curtailed abruptly, it had produced extraordinary results. Worcester Museum was particularly happy with its haul, with director Taylor calculating that the museum had spent $30,000 to unearth treasures worth $250,000. The mosaics are displayed proudly at each museum today — and thanks to subsequent sales, at other institutions as well — and several recently have been restored by careful cleaning and replacement of lost tesserae.

In recent years, Turkey has demanded return of looted artworks from various museums, and 1,883 objects were turned over in 2011 alone. But there have been no such calls regarding Antioch mosaics, says Kondoleon, who adds, “Nor should there be — these were distributed as part of a legal agreement with the then-Syrian Department of Antiquities.”

Princeton’s mosaics “are very, very important,” says Depart­ment of Art and Archaeology professor Michael Koortbojian, an expert on Roman art. “For two reasons: We know exactly where they come from. And we have lots of them. Scholars come from all over the world to see them.” Last fall, the Association Internationale pour l’Etude de la Mosaïque Antique held its annual conference in Princeton just to see these works.

Typical of an earlier era in archaeology, the Antioch expeditions were rather unsophisticated in their methods. “Mosaics were hauled out of the earth with little attention to the walls and doorways that had framed them,” says Brown, “then divided up and sent all over the world like pretty postcards.” As pavements were cut free, their geometrical borders often were left behind. And like all digs prior to the 1970s, relatively little attention was paid to subtle clues that might have told us more about how the 80 excavated buildings actually were used or the methods by which stone and glass tesserae were manufactured and assembled.

The Antioch archaeologists watched in distress as farming and looting fast decimated ancient remains. “There was more of a rescue-operation mentality than a disciplined excavation,” Kondoleon says. Still, a huge amount of information was amassed by the diggers, whose field notebooks are carefully preserved in McCormick Hall to this day, and there is talk of a major re-analysis of all the written data, applying more modern methods.

“It was just the tip of the iceberg” that the fruitful 1930s digs revealed, Kondoleon believes. She argues that further archaeology is needed urgently before urban sprawl in the modern Turkish town, called Antakya, wipes out what yet remains of the once-dazzling ancient city of Roman Antioch. 


So many mosaics were brought back from Antioch, “Princeton didn’t know what to do with them,” says historian Peter Brown. There wasn’t room to display them all in McCormick Hall and the Art Museum, even after those buildings were enlarged. Five were installed in Firestone Library; one wandered off to the backyard of a house in town; several remain in storage to this day. 

In 1951, a mosaic, photo at right, was used as the outside doorsill at the Architectural Laboratory downhill from Palmer Stadium. Here it was trodden upon daily and exposed to rain, ice, and snow, suffering severe damage. After the University was alerted to its condition by PAW in the course of researching this article, the architecture school took steps to protect it, said Michael Padgett, the Art Museum’s curator of ancient art. Recently the University had it removed (with considerable difficulty) and taken to the Brooklyn Navy Yard studio of art conservator Leslie Gat.

“We got it out just in time,” Gat says. Examination of the 1930s concrete backing shows that it was “about to break into nine pieces” along the lines of the metal rebar inside the cement, which expands as it rusts.

At a minimum, this valuable but woebegone relic will be stabilized. If funding can be found, its entire surface will be carefully restored.

Gat’s team of art conservators has covered the mosaic face with silicone prior to cutting away much of the concrete backing, which weighs 1,000 pounds. Then they will mount the mosaic on a lightweight aluminum honeycomb before repairing the crumbling surface itself. Plaster casts may be taken of intact tesserae to fill in areas that are missing, using painted pigments to imitate colored stones that are lost.

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 wrote Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency and Princeton: America’s Campus, to be published in May by Penn State Press.