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The 2,400-year-old mosaic discovered in Hatay, Turkey (photo by Halit Demir, © Andalou Agency)

Reclining by a wine jug and a portion of bread, a cup in one bony hand, the skeleton on a 3rd-century BCE mosaic discovered in Turkey has a simple message for its viewers: “Be cheerful, enjoy your life.” The words in ancient Greek frame its skull and were revealed in a recent excavation in the ancient city of Antioch, located near today’s Syrian border.

According to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, the mosaic was found in 2012, but was shared by the agency last week. The Daily Sabah reports that excavations were launched in the area when construction began on a new cable car. The bacchanalian skeleton is part of a group of mosaics discovered on what’s believed to be a dining room floor. One directly beside the skeleton shows a man racing towards a sundial, another reminder of the passage of time.

The 2,400-year-old mosaic discovered in Hatay, Turkey (photo by Halit Demir, © Andalou Agency)

The skeleton is just one of the many incredibly intact mosaics found at Antioch, such as the “Worcester Hunt,” which shows lions, deer, and other beasts falling beneath warriors on horseback and is now at the Worcester Art Museum, and the quieter, figurative scene “The Judgement of Paris” at the Louvre. Yet Demet Kara with the Hatay Archaeology Museum told the Hürriyet Daily News that the skeleton is “much more comprehensive” than most other mosaics found from its era. Kara added that it’s also “important for the fact that it dates back to the 3rd century BC.” [EDIT: There have been questions raised as to if this date is accurate, but at this time we are reporting what the museum has provided.]

It’s also not the only ancient mosaic to contain a corpse in the carpe diem spirit. Another similarly lounging but oddly fleshy skeleton was found along Rome’s Via Appia and is now part of the Museo Nazionale Romano. And two separate mosaics discovered at Pompeii feature, respectively, a skeleton standing with two wine pitchers and a skull balancing on a wheel between symbols of wealth and poverty, suggesting that death is the “great leveler.” While they might appear grim, their meaning was much more about celebrating life in the face of death than pondering that shared mortal fate.

UPDATE, 4/28: Hyperallergic contributor and former intern Cihan Kucuk in Turkey directed us to some more recent information from local news sources. Nikos Tsivikis with the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum reported to Arkeofili that, contrary to the initial dating of 3rd century BCE from the Hatay Museum, it’s more likely to be from the late Roman period (2-4th century CE). And further discussion of the mosaic in harmony with the two adjoining pieces reveals that it might have a meaning more connected to the space, which was possibly a dining area for an almshouse. Murat Bardakçı reported to Haberturk that a more accurate translation would be: “You get the pleasure of the food you eat hastily with death.”

Hurriyet Daily News, which initially reported the previous translation, also followed up with additional opinions from experts, reporting that some believe the mosaic was initially “wrongly interpreted.” Historian İlber Ortaylı also told the publication that a “new, separate museum” should be set up for the mosaic area, and hopefully further research and the international attention for the mosaic will reveal more about its unusual design.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

23 replies on “Cheery Skeleton Mosaic Found in Turkey Says, “Enjoy Your Life” [UPDATED]”

      1. Hello Ms. Meier,

        I’m definitely not a classical historian, but those mosaics do not look that old to me. Are you sure they are not from the third century CE? A quick check of the wikipedia site for the Hatay Archeological Museum (which I visited in 2008) suggests that the mosaics are from the Roman era, which means the 2nd or 3rd century CE. I think it’s worth checking.

        Kenneth Hayes

        1. I can only base it off the information provided by the agency, but I will keep an eye out for future updates and it’s possible the information being shared will change as the mosaics are researched.

          1. Hello again,

            I’m sorry if you think I’m being intransigent, but I see your article spreading over the web and conveying quite a large error that is not likely to be eradicated any time soon. There are, however, other articles on the web that have gotten it right. This is not a debate about fine points of scholarship – it’s something that most people with an undergraduate art history course might recognize. I suggest that if you are not qualified to make this judgement call yourself, maybe you should not be writing articles about archaeological discoveries, and if you are not able or willing to track down accurate information, maybe you should not be doing journalism.
            Kenneth Hayes

          2. I think the author has been more than considerate to you and explained the source of her information, as well as the fact that she is relying on info from the archeologists involved with the museum. This quote from another source (this from Turkish media) reiterates her point: “[This is] a unique mosaic in Turkey. There is a similar mosaic in Italy but this one is much more comprehensive. It is important for the fact that it dates back to the 3rd century B.C.,” Kara said.
            http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/be-cheerful-live-your-life-ancient-mosaic-meme-found-in-turkeys-south.aspx?pageID=238&nID=98201&NewsCatID=375

            As she said, as soon as she gets new information from her sources (which is journalism), she will update. The museum may be sending out conflicting info, which is possible.

            We encourage the questions you raise, but if you continue to attack her journalistic integrity, I will ban you from the forum. Thanks.

          3. Ban me if you want, but don’t expect me to believe that propagating internet memes is journalism. I may have an overly simple notion of journalistic integrity, but I expect journalists to vet their sources of information, not simply reproduce what is fed to them. The phrase ‘according to reliable sources’ may be a journalist’s cliche, but it contains the promise that information has been independently verified by the journalist before being disseminated. A quick check on the Hatay Museum should have raised general concerns about its reliability as a source, for example: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ancient-mosaics-seriously-damaged-during-restoration-in-turkeys-hatay.aspx?pageID=238&nID=81921. Of course, one might argue that a notorious reputation for commissioning shoddy restoration is not a reason to question a date in a press release. How about reading the first line of the wikipedia article on Antoich’s Mosaics, which says: “The *Antioch mosaics* are a grouping of over 300 mosaic floors created around the 3rd century AD …” It’s not worth my time to take this tiff any further; personally, I find most late Roman mosaics gaudy and trite – they make perfect web fodder.

          4. Archeology by the fact that it’s a science and study of history of something that actually occurred can’t have outliers. That’s called revisionism. Art for arts’ sake has been in bad taste before. Lies are marketing. Truth is art. The minute you sniff the lie it’s over – whether it’s true or not. Someone dropped the ball is all I know for sure. And I’m glad someone cared enough to point it out and you cared enough to defend it. What’s next? The outliers wanna know,.

          5. And worse. Archeology has it’s out and out cultural destroyers and mockers. That’s why archeology is a science and not an art.

          6. Dionysus is a hell of a god right?

            (I doubt any museum that does’t mention the correlation. Kenneth is right to be concerned and I commend him for sticking to his desire to keep art journalism artful not just creative.)

          7. How do you know or why do you believe it was created by an outlier. What is an outlier in that age and culture? If it’s from another time how do you prove it’s an outlier once again? Evidence please.

          8. He did not attack the writer’s journalistic integrity. Perhaps you should be defending that since you brought it up? Just sayin’…

            (the publisher and executive editor are responsible ultimately for the integrity or lack of it – just in case people reading don’t know this.)

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