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.