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Syllabus: Past Meets Present Among the Tiles

"Bust of Tethys" mosaic
Bust of Tethys on a marine background, 3rd century; one of the mosaics students researched.
[Image: Baltimore Museum of Art]

Life was good in the ancient city of Antioch. People prospered in this cosmopolitan corner of what is now southeastern Turkey on the Syrian border, enjoying a lively mix of languages, religions, and cultures. Art flourished—most notably the large mosaics that covered the floors of homes and public institutions.  

But those were the good old days of the fifth century. By the early 500s, a fire and two earthquakes set off a long period of decline. The mosaics sat buried under layers of silt. 

In the 1930s, an international team of archaeologists began excavating the old city, uncovering more than 300 mosaics. As allowed by international law, institutions sponsoring the excavations—including the Baltimore Museum of Art near Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus—took possession of the art.  

In 2000, an ambitious exhibit brought many of the mosaics back together for the first time, recreating some of the original context of the pieces and sparking renewed interest in the city and its time period. It also gave Jennifer Stager, assistant professor in the Department of History of Art, the idea for a course, held for the first time in spring 2020. 

Titled The Antioch Recovery Project, the course was part of the Krieger School’s Classics Research Lab, an experimental pedagogical model marked by collaboration and the opportunity for students to contribute to a long-term stream of research. Students take on segments of a faculty member’s research as their own, sharing their findings with peers and bringing new discoveries to light.  

Stager’s original plan was to focus on digitally reconstructing some of the houses. But the course quickly took a much broader turn as students brought specialized knowledge from their majors to the table: A Peabody student studied the mosaics’ acoustic properties, for example, while a math major looked at the mathematics and recurring patterns within the designs of the nonfigural mosaics. Stager invited guest lecturers to share their expertise by Zoom, and colleagues such as Jennifer Kingsley, associate teaching professor and director of the Program in Museums and Society, provided context. 

Together, students Ella Gonzalez and Maya Kahane tackled the creation of an online map showing where each of the mosaics is located now. Using the ArcGIS mapping software recently made world-famous by Johns Hopkins’ interactive map of the coronavirus spread, the students tracked every piece to its current institution, along with the path it took to get there. 

“We wanted to explore more about where the mosaics are and why did they get there, and the object journey. They each have a story to tell,” says Gonzalez, a second-year history of art doctoral student. 

The map is available to anyone, can be edited and updated, and is intended to evolve. It adds an important set of data to existing knowledge about the mosaics, which play an underappreciated role in our understanding of both history and art, says Kahane ’20 BA/MA, History of Art. Falling outside the more familiar categories of painting and sculpture, she says they offer information that is sometimes overlooked.     

“One intent was investigating how one should see these mosaics,” she says. “Categorizing them, and showing they’re also a really important facet to understand the history of Antioch, and therefore the art history of that time period.” 

The course’s format was a vital part of the learning process. “We had a lab space, and everybody gets a key. That in itself creates a different sense of a space that you’re using to work on a project together and that has goals that are iterative, and as a student, your intellectual expertise contributes to those goals,” Stager says.