In both ancient and modern interpretations, Medusa is often known as a monster — a Gorgon with tresses of serpents whose stare turned men to stone. This version typically appears in children’s movies and fantasy thrillers, but her image hasn’t always been so awe-inspiring. In late June, archaeologists in Western Spain uncovered an Ancient Roman mosaic floor that depicts Medusa with tiny wings and flowing locks of hair, thought to have been used as a protective symbol.
The mosaic was found in the city of Mérida’s Huerta de Otero archaeological site. Ancient Romans established a colony there in 25 BCE named Augusta Emerita. Traces of its former inhabitants — including an amphitheater and a bridge — can be found throughout the modern-day city. “[The site] is of an exceptional nature due to the level of conservation of the ruins and, above all, the ornamental elements that decorate the well-preserved house: not only the mosaic of the Medusa but also paintings and sculptural motifs,” said archaeologist Félix Palma in a statement.
The Huerta de Otero location was excavated in 1976 but lay untouched for decades. Research picked back up in 2019, when the city employed professional archaeologists and students from its Barraeca II Professional School to explore the ruins. Since then, the team has uncovered an Ancient Roman defensive wall, a road, and the home of a wealthy family.
The Medusa mosaic adorned the floor of this home. Depictions of fish, peacocks, and carefully tessellated patterns surround the artwork’s central figure: a human-like Medusa, her gaze turned to one side.
Although this image diverges from some contemporary renditions of the mythological figure, the mosaic’s winged version was common in Ancient portrayals of Medusa. While early Greek depictions of the mortal-turned-monster, cruelly punished for being raped by the god Poseidon, show her as grotesque, Medusa’s image softened by the time of the Ancient Romans. Beginning in the Classical Greek period, her face acquired more human attributes. It started to be rendered with symmetry and youthful beauty in the following centuries.
Other Ancient Roman mosaics featuring the head of Medusa have been discovered throughout Spain. Medusa again comprises the focal point of an Ancient Roman mosaic in a 115–150 CE work found in Rome, where she can be seen sporting human curls and a snake around her neck. A 1st-to-2nd-century ornament from a chariot pole shows a young woman with curly locks (although a couple of snakes still peer through her tangle of hair).
In Ancient Greek mythology, Perseus killed Medusa to avoid being turned to stone. Medusa, in her early terrifying form, was used as a protective symbol — “an image of evil to repel evil,” Madeleine Glennon writes in a 2017 essay for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The goddess Athena famously included a representation of Medusa’s severed head on her protective cloak or aegis. In Ancient Rome, her beautified image was still employed as a protective symbol, although the depiction shifted into a form more similar to a woman than a monster.