While excavating a historic mansion that was previously used by ancient Roman emperors in Italy, archaeologists made an unexpected discovery of two mosaics that portrayed the Greek mythological figure of Medusa.
Medusa was known for her hair made of snakes and her infamous gaze, which was believed to turn people into stone.
The circular room where the mosaics were found is located in the Villa of the Antonines, a place named after the Antonine dynasty which reigned over the Roman Empire from A.D. 138 to 193.
The team of archaeologists presented their findings at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting held in New Orleans in January. They suggested that the mosaics were most likely created in the second century A.D.
During the presentation at the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting, Timothy Renner, who is a professor of classics and general humanities at Montclair State University in New Jersey and co-director of the team that is excavating the site, commented on the significance of the newly discovered Medusa mosaics.
Renner noted that in both mosaics, Medusa is depicted gazing off into the horizon, which may be leaving onlookers to ponder what was going through Medusa’s mind.
The location of mosaics was in a circular room at the Villa of the Antonines, where two recesses were carved into the room’s northwest and southeast corners. Interestingly, two other niches in the room were found to contain no remnants of mosaic artwork.
Renner also discussed the changes that have occurred to the location over time. An early 20th-century image of the site showed Roman concrete walls above ground, but Renner revealed that these walls have either been damaged or are no longer present.
The purpose of the circular room where the Medusa mosaics were discovered remains a mystery, and it is unclear why the room featured these particular artworks.
However, the sheer size of the room at approximately 69 feet (21 meters) in diameter suggests that it was meant to be an impressive space.
Deborah Chatr Aryamontri, an associate professor of classics and general humanities at Montclair State University and co-director of the team, commented during an interview with Live Science that the room “definitely must have been quite impressive to enter.”
She further added that the discovery of the Medusa mosaics was a pleasant surprise, especially considering that many of the villa’s most impressive decorations were removed during the 18th and 19th centuries.
According to the researchers, during the second century, Medusa heads were a favored ornament in the Roman Empire. It is unclear whether the heads in the villa were commissioned by the owners or were the artist’s personal creation.
The fact that the Medusa mosaics were found in the room adds to the intrigue of this ancient space, as it may suggest a connection between the artwork and the function of the room. Without additional evidence, however, the team of archaeologists cannot say for certain why the mosaics were placed in this location or what significance they may have held for the occupants of the villa.
The circular room containing the mosaics was only partially uncovered in 2014, and further excavation and study have been ongoing. The team hopes to assist in the development of an archaeological park near the villa in the future.