2,000-Year-Old Mosaics Unearthed Under Florida Art Museum

The relics came from ancient Antioch and were buried by museum officials in 1989 for storage purposes

After five mosaics dating back to ancient Antioch were acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in the mid-1960s, museum officials buried two of them in the east lawn near the sculpture garden.

The reason why the Hellenistic art ended up underground has been lost in the subsequent decades. But as Maggie Duffy reports for Tampa Bay Times, a restoration project is underway to revive the mosaics and their history.

Duffy reports that mosaics were first discovered by a team from Prince­ton University in the 1930s during a dig in the ancient Greco-Roman city's ruins near the modern-day borders of Turkey and Syria.

According to the museum’s website, it acquired the pieces in 1964 from the university. It was one of the first purchases made by the then-fledgling museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1965. Three of the mosaics were incorporated into various spaces in the brand-new museum: one was added to fountain in the museum’s sculpture garden, one was put on display in the membership garden, and one was placed under a stage.

And the two remaining pieces, for unknown reasons, were buried in 1989.

According to Duffy, Kristen Shepherd, who became executive director of the museum in January 2017, had a longtime fascination for the mosaic embedded in the membership garden and began researching its history. Learning about the location of the other four pieces, she set out find the ones buried in the lawn.

An excavation successfully re-discovered the two mosaics in early March.

As Tim Fanning reports for WUSF News, the mosaics show complex, geometric patterns. On one of the pieces, a face is visible.

"These mosaics give us a virtually unmatched opportunity to talk about how important conservation of antiquities is," Michael Bennett, the museum’s senior curator of early western art, tells Fox 13 News. "We’re fortunate to have them but we’re also responsible for preserving and caring for objects from antiquity. What a gift these are to the community."

A three-phase restoration project is now underway for the mosaics, called “Antioch Reclaimed: Ancient Mosaics at the MFA.”

The process is open to visitors, as it’s taking place at an outdoor lab at the museum. According to the museum's website, it plans to temporarily exhibit the mosaics in the fall of 2020 before permanently installing them as part of a renovation.