BMCR 2007.11.12

Tunisian Mosaics : Treasures from Roman Africa. Translated from the French by Sharon Grevet

, Tunisian mosaics : treasures from Roman Africa. Conservation and cultural heritage. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2006. 138 pages : color illustrations, color map ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0892368578 $29.95.

Table of Contents

Tunisian Mosaics is the seventh volume in the Conservation and Cultural Heritage series of the Getty Conservation Institute. It was published in 2006 and relates to the exhibition, ‘Stories in Stone: Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa; Masterpieces from the National Museums of Tunisia’, held between 26th October 2006 and 30th April 2007 at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California.1 The exhibition was co-organised by the Getty Conservation Institute, the Institut National du Patrimoine, Tunisia, and the Getty Museum, and curated by the author of this book, Aïcha Ben Abed Ben Khader.

The aim of the book is to provide an introduction to Tunisian mosaics and the current methods of their study and conservation. It raises awareness of their importance and provides the contextual information needed to better appreciate them. Each chapter is lavishly illustrated in colour. The text was written by Ben Khader and excellently translated by Sharon Grevet. Part of the section on conservation was written by Thomas Roby, a Senior Project Specialist at Getty Conservation Institute and also the manager for the mosaic training program in Tunisia.

There are some English-language publications on Tunisian mosaics.2 This book will appeal, for example, to the interested non-academic reader and students requiring an overview of the subject. The price is fair, especially considering the quantity and quality of the colour images, so important to the study of mosaics. It is a shame that there is no index but, that said, Tunisian Mosaics goes beyond being merely an adjunct to the exhibition and, I believe, will have a broad audience and long shelf-life.

The first chapter, ‘An Ancient Art’, introduces the subject. Emphasis is placed on the quality, quantity and large chronological spread of the surviving material, while there is also mention of the commissioning process, material acquisition and the main iconographic themes. Furthermore, reference is made to the development and spread of the African style across the Mediterranean and the current challenges of preservation and display.

A chapter entitled ‘Ancient Tunisia’ follows, supplying a general historical context. This starts with prehistory and ends at the Islamic conquest. A dateline runs along the bottom of each page, giving the reader the main events up to the proclamation of the Republic in 1957. There are also textboxes containing further discussion of particular issues; this is a useful feature, which is employed in the later chapters too.

Undertaking such a large chronological span restricts comment until the beginning of the first millennium BCE, following is a more detailed narrative through to the 7th century CE. Social commentary is included, often illustrated with mosaics such as those showing leisure pursuits, as is an overview of religious changes and their effect upon architecture and society.

The third chapter, ‘The Development of Mosaic Art’, deals with the main technical and iconographic developments, from 5th century BCE pebble mosaics in Greece through to the 7th century tessellated mosaics of Byzacium. This includes recent work on early Punic pavements employing tesserae at Carthage which are contemporaneous with the pebble mosaics of the eastern Mediterranean.3 The descriptions of the Punic pavement types lack consistency, something which may confuse the reader.4

Hellenistic and Republican mosaics are briefly mentioned, the latter in the context of black and white mosaics, which, although rare, are found in Tunisia until the latter half of the 2nd century CE. The main thrust of this chapter, however, is to document the development and spread of the African mosaic repertoire from the end of the 2nd through to the 5th centuries. Although elsewhere in the book the importance of external dates are stressed, here Ben Khader takes the traditional route of associating changes in geometric motifs and colour with chronological developments.

Ben Khader discusses the later pagan mosaics, bringing out the fashion for particular images or compositions, while at the same time including the series of palaeo-Christian mosaics and recent finds dated after the Muslim conquest. One textbox, ‘A Heritage Lost and Found’, gives a history of discovery and excavation, setting up the later chapter on conservation and display. Another provides a short background to workshop production. There is also an account of mosaics from the other North African provinces. Although providing the general reader with a glimpse beyond Tunisia, it looks only west to Algeria and Morocco.

In the fourth chapter, ‘Mosaics in their Original Settings’, Ben Khader emphasises the importance of context to the study of mosaics, with an acknowledgement that Tunisia has suffered from the removal of whole floors or sections, the remains being left to degrade. Academic publications, such as the excellent Corpus des Mosaïques de Tunisie (Tunis, 1973- ), showcase this contextual approach. The chapter is divided by site where mosaics have been excavated in a systematic fashion: Carthage, Thuburbo Majus, El Jem, Utica, Pupput and Dougga. Each is given a general historical background, brief excavation history, and description.. This is useful but the discussions of their significance is less so, as it rarely goes beyond praising the expertise of the mosaicists and the wealth of the patrons, and the importance of each mosaic in the development of the art.

The subsequent two chapters deal with the Bardo museum, and the regional museums including Sousse, El Jem, Nabeul and Gafsa. Ben Khader highlights not only the art historical significance of the collections but also the information they provide on the history of collecting, and of conservation and restoration. There is also a discussion of the problems created by the desire to collect and display, especially the lack of documentation. In each case a number of pavements are chosen which illustrate points about date and context.

The final chapter deals with the issue of preserving the numerous mosaics which have been excavated since the early 1800s. Increasing tourism has highlighted their fragility and the need for scientific research into the best methods of conserving and preserving them. This has resulted in the establishment in Tunisia of a program of scientific study and conservation, as well as the organisation of exhibitions and the raising of public awareness, of which the Getty exhibition and this book are admirable examples.

There follows a history of conservation practices, detailing the lifting and resetting of mosaics until the 1970s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, there was an international movement to undertake scientific studies and develop and disseminate new techniques. It became clear that the old methods were not only outdated but also causing considerable damage to the mosaics they aimed to preserve.

Ben Khader describes the current collaboration between the Getty Conservation Institute and the Institut National du Patrimoine. They are developing a program which emphasises the training of personnel who can stabilize and maintain the mosaics in situ. Thomas Roby gives a general account of the training: documentation in the form of graphic, written and photographic records, and practical maintenance such as stabilization procedures. The goal is to create technicians who can work autonomously as part of an overall site management plan. The project is already having visible effects and there are future plans for further courses on conservation and management.

There are a few minor errors. One image has been reversed: the Labours of Hercules (p. 93, fig. 5.5). In the text Bacchus is incorrectly identified as riding on a panther when it is Mercury on a ram (p. 74, fig. 4.21). The mosaic from the House of the Laberii refers to Ikarios as ‘Icarus’ (pp. 95-98). The word ‘chivalrous’ is used to refer to scenes containing the loves of the gods on the mosaic from a house at El Jem, which appears to be a mistake in translation (p. 121). The description of the relief from Ostia mentions compass and ruler (p. 38), when there is only a hammer and hardy, and an unidentified object in the hand of the man to the right. The mosaic of Athena and Marsyas from a house at Kélibia is described here, as elsewhere, as Athena taken by surprise by Marsyas (p. 126-7, fig. 6.15). Surely Athena is, instead, shocked by the reflection of herself with the pipes.

Ben Khader acknowledges at the end that there “are no doubt present many challenges. Nevertheless, an appreciation of these mosaic treasures has fostered a profound desire to preserve them for the enjoyment of future generations.” Tunisian Mosaics is testament to this objective, since not only does it document the mosaics but it also brings their significance to a wider public. It does not dodge the past but rather sets previous mistakes in the context of a well-developed programme of current conservation activity which will ensure the survival of these mosaics into the future. This book and the project should be highly commended for detailing a vision to which we should all aspire.


1. There is also a separate exhibition catalogue: Aïcha Ben Abed Ben Khader (ed.), Stories in Stone: Conserving Mosaics of Roman Africa (Los Angeles, 2006).

2. K.M.D. Dunbabin, Mosaics of Roman North Africa (Oxford, 1978); D. Parrish, Season Mosaics of Roman North Africa (Rome, 1984); M. Blanchard-Lemée, Mosaics of Roman Africa: floor mosaics from Tunisia (London, 1996); K.M.D. Dunbabin, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World (Cambridge, 1999), Chapter 7: The North African Provinces; Aïcha Ben Abed Ben Khader, Mosaics of the Bardo Museum (Tunis, 2000); Aïcha Ben Abed Ben Khader (ed.), Image in Stone: Tunisia in Mosaic (Paris, 2003).

3. For example, see K.M.D. Dunbabin, ‘Early pavement types and the invention of tessellation’, in R. Ling (ed.), Fifth International Colloquium on Ancient Mosaics held at Bath on September 5-12, 1987 (JRA suppl., 9; Ann Arbor, 1994), 26-40.

4. They are variously referred to as ‘pavimenta punica’ (p. 12, fig. 2.4), ‘cocciopesto’ (p. 18) and ‘opus signinum’ (p. 31). In one case the text refers to floors of ‘red concrete’ (p. 11) while the illustration gives the term ‘opus signinum’ (fig. 2.5).