Discovering the history hidden in the tessellas of mosaics

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Raúl Sánchez Fernández

Mosaics are an important documentary source for the study of history, going far beyond their artistic aspect. That is the nature of the research being carried out by Luz Neira, Professor of Ancient History at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M), who has received the Cultura Viva de Arqueología Award for her work.

Hidden within the tessellas of mosaics are the way of thinking, the concerns, and the hopes and desires of those who at one time commissioned them, be it a geometric design, one with plants and flowers, or with figures. The fact is that mosaics, in addition to their decorative nature, stand out as a prime documentary source for the study of the Roman world because the peculiar circumstances of their preservation in their original destiny always reflect privileged contexts, and are fundamentally linked to the private sphere and the domestic realm, according to Luz Neira, PhD in Geography and History. “In this sense”, she pointed out, “the mosaics are an ideal medium for expressing, transmitting and spreading a certain image, and consequently they reflect a vision of the society’s elite”.

The interpretation of the images captured, their interrelation and the symbolism of the motifs, with the resulting conclusions about the motivation behind them – the tastes, the level of culture, the beliefs or preoccupations- of those who commissioned the work is one of the basic challenges when one takes on the study of a mosaic. “You have to be aware of the diversity and impossibility of formulating identical hypotheses for similar choices since the depiction of one single subject does not always have one given meaning”, the Professor of the UC3M Humanities Department: History, Geography and Art, explained

In recent decades a series of discoveries have been made that are bringing to light magnificent and truly spectacular mosaic collections in the Iberian Peninsula, according to this researcher from the Institute of Culture and Technology of the Madrid university, who chairs the Asociación Española de Estudio sobre el Mosaico Antiguo (AEEMA) (Spanish Association for the Study of Ancient Mosaics). “Some have unique and exceptional depictions that not only show a very high level, but in particular, also show the way of thinking, the concerns and the controversy within the inner circle of the most powerful individuals at that time in the western part of the Roman Empire”.

The most complicated part of researching these mosaics according to the archeological content is that in general, with hardly any architectonic, ceramic or numismatic remains, is to be able to clearly distinguish the true meaning of the depictions and their connection with the aspirations of those who commissioned them. The latter were usually influential members of the upper echelon, for which the analysis of the representations done by the mosaic artisans could help in understanding the preoccupations and the concerns that the data reveals about the social, cultural and religious circumstances of the elite environments of that era. Notwithstanding, some of these sites where sculpture, paintings and epigraphs have been exceptionally preserved, in addition to some literary sources of each period, contribute to a more accurate historical reconstruction which can be useful for the present, according to this researcher, who maintains that “the knowledge regarding antiquity which the mosaic reflects as well as the study of the images, help us to also understand some keys to the iconography of today’s world”.

This year, the Cultura Viva de Arqueología Award has been bestowed on Professor Luz Neira for her dedication to the study of Roman mosaics and her contribution to the scientific diffusion of the mosaic as a documentary source for the study of history, in specialized research as well as in university teaching, and within society in general, highlighting the reassessment of the art of mosaics in archeological and cultural patrimony and its key role in cultural management. “I feel very honored by this award, because of the prestige of “Cultura Viva” – an association whose work on behalf of culture, in the broadest sense of the word, is commendable - and because of the outstanding members of the jury and the truly noteworthy winners in the different areas in these 19th editions”.