Mosaic fragment from the east lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida (all photos courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg)

For almost three decades, buried treasure lay beneath the lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in St. Petersburg, Florida. Conservators recently unearthed two ancient mosaics, originally excavated from the ancient city of Antioch, that the museum had acquired in the 1960s. It turns out that those responsible for placing them beneath soil were actually museum officials, who did so as an unorthodox and mysterious storage solution that puzzles staff to this day.

Mosaic fragment from the east lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida

“I don’t know why the mosaics ended up under the lawn, but I assume this was considered the best option under the circumstances at the time,” Dr. Michael Bennett, the museum’s senior curator of early Western art, told Hyperallergic.

Bennett is spearheading a longterm project to conserve and exhibit the mosaics, called Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA. The museum, in fact, owns five mosaics from the same site in modern-day Turkey, two of which have been on permanent display since the acquisition of the group in 1964. A third was also placed in storage, albeit indoors, beneath a stage in one of the museum’s rental spaces.

Each was once installed as attractive flooring in five different villas, which had very distinct names such as the “House of the Drinking Contest” and “House of the Evil Eye.” Archaeologists with Princeton University had excavated them in the 1930s; MFA purchased the group in 1964, as one of its very first acquisitions. All five date between 100–300 CE and are made of limestone and marble tesserae. Decorating their surfaces are, for the most part, various intricate, geometric patterns, although one mosaic includes a partially preserved human figure and a portion of an inscription.

“It is clear to me that the founders had a vision that the new museum would be an encyclopedic art museum,” Bennett said. “And you don’t have an encyclopedic art museum without antiquities. They represent the foundation of the permanent collection.”

Mosaic fragment showing partially preserved human figure and a portion of an inscription

View of mosaic floor from House of the Drinking Contest (c. 100-300 CE), as photographed in the 1930s

Two of these mosaics went on display — one, on a garden wall, and the other, embedded in the basin of a fountain. The buried pair went underground around 1989, and were forgotten about over time. That is, until last year, when the museum’s executive director Kristen Shepherd decided to research the garden mosaic. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Shepherd found documentation on the buried mosaics, but these records offered minimal information. She then interviewed previous directors and staff members to learn more about them.

“My understanding is that this was museum lore,” Bennett told Hyperallergic. “Several people seemed to know that mosaics had been buried, but no one presently at the museum knew exactly where.” Excavators began surveying the lawn, and their work eventually revealed a corner of one mosaic.

Mosaic fragment from the House of the Evil Eye, as photographed in the 1930s

Burying ancient mosaics might seem like a less-than-ideal storage option, but this pair could have suffered a worse fate. As the History Blog notes, in 1951, Princeton University had installed one of the Antioch mosaics on the exterior of its School of Architecture, “where it was pummeled by the New Jersey elements and the tromping of thousands of feet for six decades.” The History Blog continues:

When, as was inevitable, the tesserae were dislodged or loosened, layers of cement were slapped on top. It continued to be brutalized in this manner until finally in 2011 it was raised and conserved. Significant portions of it were lost beyond repair.

In comparison, the mosaics buried at MFA are “in generally good condition,” Bennett said.

The museum has since set up an outdoor conservation lab, where visitors can witness the restoration of all five mosaics. Once stabilized, they will be displayed in a temporary exhibition that places them within the larger tradition of Greco-Roman mosaic art, scheduled for the fall of 2020. MFA is also considering the possibility of permanently installing all five on the walls of its “Membership Garden,” leaving space for rotating long-term loans of mosaics from institutional and private collections, Bennett said. While the museum has outlined this timeline, it has not yet secured all the necessary funds to realize all these endeavors. It is currently accepting donations to support this multi-year project.

Ongoing conservation on the mosaic fragments

Excavation of a mosaic fragment

Mosaic fragment from House of Ge and the Seasons (c. 100-300 CE)

View of House of the Drinking Contest in 1939, excavated down to mosaic level with Mount Casius in background

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article had the headline “Florida Museum Unearths Ancient Mosaics It Buried Years Ago and Forgot About.” This has been changed to reflect that the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in St. Petersburg, Florida did not forget about the mosaics entirely, but had in fact lost track of where they were located. 

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...