Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

A piece of the puzzle

Given how thoroughly explored the world seems to be, it's easy to assume that we've found pretty much everything there is to be found.  Yeah, we continue to stumble across small, obscure, well-hidden stuff -- frog species living in the deep parts of the rain forest, fossils buried under meters of sedimentary rock, a cache of flint tools out in the middle of the steppe.  That sort of thing.

The fact that sometimes we find something big and flashy sitting, as it were, right under our noses should give everyone hope that we are far from understanding everything there is to understand, and that we're not yet down to the level of simply cleaning up the minuscule details.

The latest example of this continues along the archaeological path we've been following for the past week or so, and looks at the discovery of a huge intact mosaic, made over two millennia ago, in Rome.  Not just in Rome, but on Palatine Hill, surely one of the best-studied, most thoroughly excavated historical sites in the world.

The mosaic, which has been described as "a jewel" by archaeologists, is estimated to be about 2,300 years old.  It was constructed of a variety of materials, including chips of marble and travertine, shells, pearls, coral, and pieces of a rare and expensive blue-green glass paste thought to have been imported from Alexandria, Egypt.  (The latter, Egyptian blue faience, is a semi-vitrified, or sintered, opaque quartz material colored with calcium copper silicate -- the exact recipe for which was a closely-guarded secret known only to a handful of master artisans.)

So whoever commissioned the mosaic -- at this point, unknown -- had money to burn.  The design appears to commemorate land and naval victories that were probably funded (if not actively led) by the project's patron.  There are also intricate decorative motifs, and fanciful representations of mythical creatures, including sea monsters swallowing enemy ships.  The wall holding the mosaic is thought to have been part of a large, ornate banquet hall.

A detail of the Palatine Hill mosaic [Image courtesy of photographer Emanuele Antonio Minerva]

“This banquet hall, which measures 25 square meters (270 square feet), is just one space within a domus (the Latin word for house) spread on several floors," said lead researcher Alfonsina Russo, head of Rome's Colosseum Archaeological Park.  "In ancient times, when powerful noble families inhabited the Palatine Hill, it was customary to use rich decorative elements as a symbol to show-off opulence and high social rank...  We have also found lead pipes embedded within the decorated walls, built to carry water inside basins or to make fountains spout to create water games."

Further excavation into the site might not only turn up more artifacts, but could reveal who had the structure built -- likely a Roman senator.  "The person was so rich they could afford to import such precious elements from across the empire to decorate this mansion," Russo said.  "We have found nothing so far to shed light on their identity, but we believe more research might enable us to pinpoint the noble family."

It will be fascinating to see what else the researchers find out about this site, occupied by a fabulously wealthy Roman at the height of the Roman Republic.  (When this was built -- if estimates of its age are correct -- the Empire was still in the future; the first Roman Emperor, Octavian/Augustus, was born in 63 B.C.E., at which point this mosaic would already have been over two hundred years old.)

So this should provide some incentive for people to keep looking.  We are far from finding everything there is to find, even here on the Earth's surface, much less out in space.  And whatever new bits we come across -- like this mosaic, hidden beneath one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world -- will add one more piece to the puzzle of the complex and beautiful universe in which we live.


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