By Kylie Madry (B.A. Journalism, B.A. Political Science ’18)
Tile by tile, workers laid intricately designed mosaics of theater masks, satyrs and birds almost 2,000 years ago in a wealthy family’s dining room, in an area then known as Zeugma, in modern-day Turkey.
Buried over time, these Roman-era stone and glass pieces remained undiscovered until the 1960s, when looters crudely ripped them from the ground and sold them on the black market.
Twelve of the mosaics made their way to Bowling Green State University (BGSU), in Ohio, where they were installed in the university’s Wolfe Center for the Arts in 2011.
As a recently hired art history professor at BGSU, Dr. Stephanie Langin-Hooper was tasked with planning a lecture series around the pieces, which the university had bought in good faith.
The university believed they were from Antioch, a major excavation site in the 1930s.
“It became clear pretty quickly that what the university thought they were, was not what they were,” said Langin-Hooper, who became a professor at SMU Meadows School of the Arts in 2014. “These were obviously not excavated. When an archaeologist excavates a floor, we want to take the whole floor instead of chopping it up into pieces. This would be like taking scissors to a painting.”
The mosaic fragments perfectly matched one of the most famous mosaics in Turkey, the “Gypsy Girl,” which depicts a maenad, or follower of Dionysus, with piercing eyes and brown, windblown hair.
The maenad mosaic had stayed hidden during the plundering, under a fallen column, until archaeologists uncovered it in the 1990s.
Thanks to Langin-Hooper’s investigative skills, the Gypsy Girl mosaic will soon come closer to completion.
In November, after years of talks between BGSU and Turkey, the 12 mosaics were removed from BGSU’s Wolfe Center for the Arts and returned to their country of origin. They will go on display at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, the largest mosiac museum in the world.
“I think it’s easy to ask why this matters, when everyone involved in this is dead now,” Langin-Hooper said. “But it really matters that these pieces are going home.”
Langin-Hooper, who teaches the popular War, Looting, and Collecting class at SMU, says one of the easiest ways to combat looting is simply not to buy pieces that are known to be looted.
“And when we find out when pieces are looted, we do the right thing and return them,” she said.
While looting by ISIS in the Middle East has made headlines in recent years, Langin-Hooper is clear that more mundane looting still occurs, and even well-known museums can unwittingly own looted pieces.
“This happens all the time, still, even at places like the Dallas Museum of Art,” she said. The DMA returned a mosaic of its own to Turkey in 2012 after discovering it had been looted.
But as for the Gypsy Girl, her story isn’t completely over.
“I think it’s important to be said that this is not the whole floor — there are looted pieces that are still missing,” Langin-Hooper said. “The mystery is not totally solved.”
Read Dr. Stephanie Langin-Hooper’s Press Conference Remarks
Hello and thank you for that kind introduction. Thank you also to BGSU, Dean Craig, and the Turkish Delegation for the invitation to make a few remarks here today.
About two thousand years ago, a Roman family decided to build a house. In a city named Zeugma, they picked the perfect spot near the banks of the Euphrates River. They spared no expense on their new villa, and one of its crown jewels was the luxurious mosaic floors. The basic designs may have been chosen from a pattern book, but the final product was a custom creation – a one-of-a-kind, unique work of art. Each tiny tile block, called a tessera, was hand-cut. Brilliant bits of colored stone, glass, and faience, shaped and tooled to the perfect dimensions, fitting together like a sparkling puzzle. For their dining room, also called the triclinium, this Roman family selected themes appropriate to the lavish dinner parties they planned to host. Theater masks evoked the joys of entertainment and the transformative effects of alcohol. The god of wine, Bacchus himself, was honored by the inclusion of the faces of Maenads – wild women who were his followers. One such Maenad can be seen right here, vine leaves and grapes adorning her hair. This dining room also overlooked the river, and the many depictions of colorful exotic birds echoed the living birdsongs that could be heard just outside. Beautifully crafted and intricately laid, these mosaic birds still seem to come to life even today. Atop this mosaic floor, the Roman family would have placed their banqueting couches, reclining to eat feasts, host guests, drink wine – with this marvel of artistic creation stretching across the room before them.
Fast forward to the early 1960s. Zeugma and all of its glorious villas had long since fallen into ruin and been buried by the sands of time. But the discovery and excavation of the nearby site of Antioch had awoken looters to the possibilities of more ancient treasures, and the financial incentive of the thriving antiquities market made looting profitable. Using crude and violent methods, such as pickaxes and sledge hammers, looters bashed and crunched this beautiful mosaic floor. Tesserae shattered, whole sections of the mosaic were pounded to oblivion, as a few beautiful panels were targets for extraction. Wrenched from their concrete substrate, these twelve fragments were stolen, smuggled out of Turkey, and transported halfway across the world. How exactly and by whom, we will probably never know. The mosaics appeared again, now with the false provenance of Antioch, in a New York City antiquities gallery. That gallery sold them to Bowling Green State University in 1965 for the price of $35,000 dollars.
And it is here the mosaics have stayed for the last 53 years. They made a re-debut in December 2011, freshly conserved and restored, here in the brand new Wolfe Center. One month later, in January of 2012, I asked Professor Rebecca Molholt of Brown University to collaborate with me on researching the mosaics. Together, we began to suspect the truth: the provenance was false, the mosaics were looted. It was Professor Molholt who made the final discovery, locating the origin of these twelve mosaic fragments not at Antioch, but at Zeugma, in the dining room of the so-called Maenad Villa. BGSU released this news to the press and began the almost 7-year journey that has led to this moment.
Today is a triumph. I use that word “triumph” deliberately, as it refers in Roman times to the celebratory display of looted artworks taken by conquest, paraded through the streets of Rome. Today, however, we have a modern triumph – a reverse triumph, if you will. The looted masterpieces get to go home.
It is a triumph for scholarship, for research, and for collaboration. From the moment that I first began studying these mosaics, until the moment that Rebecca Molholt and I discovered their true provenance, took all of two weeks. Two weeks, start-to-finish. That’s it. In an era when everyone on the internet seems to have an opinion, when expertise is disdained and the value of the humanities are constantly called into question, this demonstrates the power of true scholarship. Professor Rebecca Molholt unfortunately passed away from cancer in 2014. But she dreamed that one day she and I would travel together to Turkey to see the mosaics returned, and I would like to think that she is sharing this podium with me in spirit. I also owe a thank you to Professor Rebecca Martin and Professor Mehmet Önal, who collaborated with me on the scholarly publication of these mosaics and their provenance, published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology in 2013. Most importantly, I owe a sincere thank you to Professor Katerina Ruedi Ray, who was then the Director of BGSU’s School of Art, who strongly advocated for my right to publish that research – and who was also extremely kind and protective of a brand-new junior professor who, just 5 months on the job, made a research discovery the implications of which not everyone was excited about. Katerina, thank you.
Today is a triumph for the people of Turkey. The citizens of Gazientep, some of whom are quite likely the descendants of that very Roman family who enjoyed this mosaic in their dining room, will get a piece of their history back.
It is a triumph for those of us who fight to stop the looting of ancient artworks, the destruction of archaeological sites, and the illicit antiquities market. These mosaic fragments may have been stolen over half a century ago, but looting continues throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East – not just the headline-grabbing looting conducted by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but also the more mundane, but still harmful, looting that happens every day in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, and so on. How do we stop this destruction of the past and theft of cultural heritage? Like this. By refusing to buy objects off the antiquities market – no matter how gorgeous or how rare – unless they have proper paperwork. And by returning ancient artworks once we know they were looted.
And, last but by no means least, today is a triumph for the people of Ohio. The people of America’s heartland are known for their sense of integrity, for wanting to do what is right. Today, you are on the right side of history.
Dr. Stephanie M. Langin-Hooper
Assistant Professor and Karl Kilinski II Endowed Chair in Hellenic Visual Culture
Southern Methodist University (2014-present)
Assistant Professor of Ancient Art History, Bowling Green State University (2011-2014)