BMCR 2006.05.31

Corpus des mosaïques de Cherchel. Études d’antiquités Africaines

, Corpus des mosaïques de Cherchel. Etudes d'Antiquités africaines,. Paris: CNRS, 2005. 256 pages, xci pages of plates : illustrations ; 28 cm.. ISBN 2271063590 €39.00.

This long-awaited volume provides an indispensable foundation for the study of the mosaics of ancient Caesarea (Cherchel, Algeria). Located 100 km. west of Algiers between the Mediterra-nean and the foothills of the Zaccar mountains, Caesarea became the capital of Mauretania under Augustus; there Juba II reigned until A.D. 23. Definitively annexed to the empire in A.D. 40, when Mauretania split into two provinces, Caesarea became capital of Mauretania Caesariensis. The city enjoyed its greatest prosperity from the end of the second century through the end of the fourth, when the Mauretanian prince Firmus sacked the city. The Vandals took over at the end of the fifth century, and the Byzantine Empire annexed Caesarea in the sixth.

At its apex Caesarea had 7 km. of walls enclosing 370 hectares; the 195 mosaics in Ferdi’s cata-logue come from 30 vast private houses, two baths, two mausolea, a judiciary basilica and a Christian basilica. The topographical organization of the catalogue assigns nos. 1-148 to the an-cient city (1-93: the east part; 94-142: the west part; 143-148: north and central parts), nos. 149-159 to the modern city, nos. 160-191 to mosaics of uncertain provenance, and nos.192-195 to mosaics from the western necropolis. The catalogue is further organized according to the stan-dards set by AIEMA (l’Association internationale pour l’Étude de la mosaïque antique) for mosaic corpora of the ancient world. The aim of the corpora is to provide essential topog-raphical, iconographical, chronological, and bibliographic information on all mosaics from a des-ignated site. Ferdi catalogues 195 mosaics—all but 8 of them removed from their original sites to the Musée de Cherchel, where some can be viewed in the museum and in the “Parc de la mosaïque.”

Ferdi’s history of the excavations and research from 1840 to the present underscores the unsatis-factory nature of much of the existing documentation of the mosaics. Her catalogue leaves no tessera unturned, so to speak, in gathering together all possible information. Many of the mosaics are entirely lost, with no surviving visual documentation (catalogue nos. 10, 16, 19-24, 35, 38-41, 44, 47, 49-50, 56-57, 65, 72, 75, 85, 88, 91, 102, 105, 108, 110-112, 116, 118-119, 121-122, 130, 143, 148, 152-153, 155, 157-158, 162-168, 172, 174, 177, 189-192). For these lost mosaics, Ferdi provides descriptions gleaned from publications and archives.

The quality of both the black-and-white and the color photographs is generally poor. Often de-tails disappear in a gray haze, or under spots of light, like the image of the horse Muccosus from the house of the same name (pl. 14). In some cases, as in the great mosaic from the House of the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, a clear drawing allows the reader to locate the figures within the composition of the entire room, even though the black-and-white photographs are difficult to comprehend (pl. 16). Particularly frustrating are sketch plans that Ferdi did not redraw (pls. 5, 11, 12, 21, 22, 31, 37, 44, 45, 53, 70, and 82). Sharp lines, consistent scale and north-markers, uniform letter- and number-fonts would have increased the usefulness of these plans. The plan that Ferdi provides for the House of the Two Basins (pl. 47) shows only one basin—most likely the fault of the draftsman or the hurried nature of the 1940 excavation. Yet the two basins are to be seen in the Cherchel Museum: one with Ulysses and the Sirens (cat. no. 149), the other Nep-tune riding two hippocamps (cat. no. 150).

The color illustrations are, if anything, more disappointing than the black-and-white photos and graphics. Aside from the cover photo—the well-known image of spring plowing and sowing from the House of the Agricultural Labors—none of the color plates accurately reproduces the colors of the originals (pls. 83-91). It is lamentable that Ferdi did not engage a photographer to docu-ment the remaining mosaics in clear images with meter markers and consistent points of view—documentation that scholars have come to expect in other volumes of the AIEMA corpus. Even if one were to concede the impossibility of such a photographic campaign, the editors could have improved existing images with PhotoShop and other digital graphics- and color-management software.

These concerns aside, Ferdi has performed a great service in bringing together what is left of the mosaics of Cherchel. Her discussions of important figural mosaics judiciously engage the exist-ing scholarly literature (e.g., the mosaics of the House of the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis [pp. 67-73], the mosaics of the House of the Agricultural Labors [pp. 113-121], House of the Legend of Achilles [pp. 127-132]). Her bibliography is quite useful, and complete up through 2002. Ferdi’s final interpretive essay includes a general characterization of the three major phases of the site (pp. 213-214). Although she provides no precise dates for phase A, she notes that it includes black-and-white tessellated pavements that seem to originate in Roman Italy. Phase B, from the end of the second century to the end of the third, is characterized by a taste for polychrome com-positions in a great variety of geometric, vegetal, and figural schemes—most of African inspira-tion. Phase C includes the majority of the pavements from the rich houses of Casearea and ex-tends from the beginning of the fourth century through the fifth and possibly extending to the middle of the sixth century. In this phase the repertory remains rich and varied with an emphasis (common in late-antique mosaics) on sharp contrasts between light and shade. Geometric and vegetal decorations tend to become schematized.

Ferdi provides useful information on techniques and materials (pp. 213-214), and an all-too-cursory account of the relation of pavements to their architectural setting and to the viewer (pp. 214-215). Much more could be done with this aspect—especially using computer modeling tech-niques for reconstructing viewer address. There follows a more ample description of decorative motifs, summarized according to the schemes catalogued in the “bible” of decorative motifs, Le décor géometrique de la mosaïque romaine (pp. 216-219).1 The more interesting topic of the themes in figural representations gets rather short shrift (pp. 220-221); one must return to the individual catalogue entries for further description and discus-sion. Ferdi states that the mythological images demonstrate how Greco-Roman culture and my-thology permeated the society of Caesarea. She also notes that the principal subjects come from Homeric epic: the cycle of Theseus, the legend of Achilles, Thetis and Peleus, the Judgment of Paris, the story of Ulysses. Beyond these are scenes inspired by the Bacchic cycle, centauro-machies, and the myth of Orpheus. Divinities represented above all are those associated with the sea: Ocean, nereids, Venus, the triumph of Neptune, and the marine thiasus. Other divinities in-clude the Muses, the Three Graces, Minerva, and winged Victory.

Non-mythological motifs tend to be those that would have appealed to the great landowners: working the earth, the hunt, and vintage scenes. The popularity of the munera accounts for ani-mal combats, horse races, and scenes from the amphitheater. As for the twenty inscriptions pre-sented here, one finds dedications, apotropaic formulas, and signatures.

Ferdi is able to distinguish eight workshops (221-222). As for the patrons who commissioned the pavements, we have at the most six families recorded in the dedicatory inscriptions in the mosa-ics themselves. Ferdi then asks, “For whom were these mosaics comprehensible? Who could de-cipher them? All the visitors to the house, or only initiates, friends and owners?” She concludes that there were also those who were able to familiarize themselves with methods of allegorical interpretation through reading and study.

The mosaics of Cherchel are one of the primary ways that we understand the mentality of Romano-African domini who established themselves in this far-flung province. Ferdi’s publica-tion is to be applauded for providing the raw material for deeper study of the processes of accul-turation discerned through the contextual study of the mosaics.


1. Catherine Balmelle et al., Le décor géometrique de la mosaïque romaine. vol. 1, Répertoire graphique et descriptif des compositions linéaires et isotropes. Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 1985; Catherine Balmelle et al., Le décor géometrique de la mosaïque romaine. vol. 2, Répertoire graphique et descriptif des décors centrés. Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 2002.