URI art history lecturer, students study Byzantine mosaics on Cyprus

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 29, 2018 – Really, archeology isn’t a lot like “Indiana Jones.” Just ask Ann Terry.

Terry, a University of Rhode Island lecturer of art history, spent three weeks last spring studying fragments of 1,500-year-old Byzantine mosaics on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. The work – sorting trays of artifacts and cleaning, classifying and documenting thousands of mosaic pieces – could be laborious and boring, she said.

But the project may eventually add to the knowledge of an area that passed through the hands of numerous ancient powers. So, the work could also be thrilling.

“In archeology, it’s the small finds – like bits of ceramic, or coins – that really propel an understanding of a site,” said Terry, of South Kingstown, Rhode Island. “If you find a big statue or a great temple, it makes all the papers, but it’s the little finds that fill in all those blanks about a community and gives you a sense of the ordinary people, instead of just the wealthy elites.”

An expedition from Princeton University excavated the site from 1984 to 2007. Scholars from several disciplines continue studying and publishing the finds. Terry, whose expertise includes Byzantine era mosaics and archeology, was asked to study the mosaics by Amy Papalexandrou, director of the team documenting artifacts from two late 6th to early 7th century basilicas excavated at Polis Chrysochous.

About three times the size of Rhode Island, Cyprus is rich in archeological sites. Strategically located in the eastern Mediterranean, the island was a vital crossroads for numerous powerful civilizations – Assyria, Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

“In school you’re taught that the Roman Empire fell,” said Terry. “The west fell. The Roman Empire moved its capital to Constantinople. The eastern Mediterranean was thriving, particularly in the 4th to the 7th century, just at the same time the west was disintegrating.

“So you’ve got a pretty vibrant urban culture because Cyprus is so strategically located, it trades with Asia Minor, Levant, Syria, Palestine, Egypt. There are great natural resources – copper, forests. Of course, that’s a long way from looking at little tesserae.”

Tesserae – the tiny pieces of stone, glass and tile that make up mosaics – were central to Terry’s work on Cyprus.

For three weeks in May and June, Terry, Kira Wencek ’19 and Wesley Hale, who earned his master’s degree in history at URI last spring, set up a work space in the artifact storage building, not far from the dig sites in Polis. The storage building – or apothiki – packed floor to ceiling with wooden trays overflowing with artifacts, resembled something out of a scene from Harry Potter, Terry said.

The artifacts were excavated by Princeton teams at six dig sites in Polis. Polis was the site of two ancient cities: Marion, destroyed in 312 BCE by Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt, a successor to Alexander the Great; and Arsinoe, founded around 270 BCE by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Excavations of the basilicas in the early 1980s uncovered fragmentary wall and pavement mosaics, including numerous gold tesserae.

“The excavations turned up an incredible quantity of finds, some of which had not been studied,” said Terry. “The mosaics fragments we worked on had been recorded in the excavation notebooks and given register numbers, but no one had looked at them since.”

Being the first to closely study the pieces and with time at a premium, Terry’s team chose selective artifacts to document and assess. Some of the pieces were big enough to make out an image, such as an eye, but most were smaller fragments of stone or glass tesserae.

After classifying the mosaic fragments, Terry, Wencek and Hale were able to make some comparisons with mosaics at other locations, including an archeological site in Kourion, on the island’s southwestern coast, and the Archeological Museum in Nicosia, the capital. Stones from the pavement mosaics at Polis were the same color and texture of stones on a nearby beach, Wencek said.

“In general, looking at the basilica mosaics helps give an idea of what or who an ancient community valued, although this is a little tricky with the Polis mosaics because they mostly consist of small fragments and individual tessera, rather than distinguishable images,” said Wencek. “But examples of our observations, such as the pavement mosaic stone being locally sourced, and a lack of red-colored glass tesserae, help to start to paint a picture of workmanship and trade that includes tesserae manufacturing and what kind of materials were available.”

Wencek, a double major in computer science and art, created a Google database to record the physical attributes of each fragment. Those characteristics can help draw direct conclusions or be used in comparisons with other finds. The Wakefield, Rhode Island resident was awarded one of a dozen first-time College of Arts & Science summer fellowships to work on the project, and this fall took first place in the category of the arts, humanities and social sciences for her poster on the project in the University’s Showcase 2018 of undergraduate research, scholarly and creative work.

“Getting to work in Cyprus, at an archeological site, alongside dedicated and passionate professional archeologists and art historians from all over the world was a truly unique and amazing experience,” said Wencek, who is spending her senior year studying at Kochi University in Japan, in an email.

Hale, of Crescent City, California, wanted to take part in the project to expose himself to as many cultures and archeological practices as possible as he prepares for a career in cultural resources management. “I enjoyed the work and I enjoyed learning about mosaics and Cypriot history,” Hale said in an email. “I got some hands-on experience working in foreign museums with ancient artifacts, and I met some very talented and fascinating individuals.”

While the project is just starting, Terry said, “we hope to offer new evidence of Cyprus in late antiquity.”

Terry’s project received funding from the URI Center for Humanities and the URI Hope and Heritage Fund.