Solving an Ancient Puzzle

Researcher Reconstructs Wall of Phoenician Villa
Benton Kidd

Benton Kidd, the curator of ancient art at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, examines plaster fragments from an interior wall of what is believed to have been a wealthy Phoenician’s hilltop villa in northern Israel.

Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Departments: 
Art History
Museum of Art and Archaeology

Benton Kidd, the curator of ancient art at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, says there is little left of the Phoenician domination of the Mediterranean region because conquering Greeks and Romans obliterated the Phoenicians’ homes and businesses, and often built their own homes over the ruins. Kidd says what we’re learning about the Phoenicians, many of whom were traders, is that, like their Greek neighbors, they could have very loud taste, at least by contemporary standards. Kidd has reconstructed an interior wall of what is believed to have been a wealthy Phoenician’s hilltop villa.

“They loved color, and a lot of people don’t realize that the white marble statues and architecture of Graeco-Roman culture were painted in part. Color was a way to impress and is synonymous with wealth,” he says. “We are learning a lot about their taste, and it is loud.” Kidd recently published his findings in the final volume of a four-volume series about an excavation that was started 50 years ago by the founders of the museum where Kidd now works.

 The Founders’ Finds

In 1968, Saul and Gladys Weinberg began excavating the site of Tel Anafa in northern Israel; later the Missouri team was joined by the University of Michigan. Saul was a professor at MU who, with Gladys, cofounded the Museum of Art and Archaeology in 1957 and became its first director while she became the museum’s first curator of ancient art. Kidd says Gladys’ specialty was ancient glass, and she and Saul were in northern Israel searching for an ancient glass factory. Gladys had already excavated a fifth-century A.D. glass factory and was among the first to publish on the subject, but she was looking for something earlier. What they found instead was a luxurious Phoenician merchant’s villa with a private bath complex, which Kidd says is highly unusual for the period, even for royalty. The excavators recovered wine jars, bronze and silver coins, pottery from as far away as Italy, bronze tools, and more than 1,000 fragments of brightly colored, gold-leafed wall plaster that decorated a room on the upper floor of the villa. Each fragment was carefully photographed and documented.

Plaster fragments from the merchant's villa in Tel Anafa.

Puzzle Pieces

Kidd, whose specialty is architectural decoration, digitally reassembled the fragments into one of the four walls of the room, which he speculates may have been a dining room or reception area, perhaps even the master bedroom.

“It’s a type of decoration called “Masonry Style,” and by the time this villa is built, around 100 B.C., we already have a couple of hundred years of Masonry Style, so you can study other examples,” Kidd says. “That’s how you go about piecing this together—by looking at other examples and basing it on that.”

The digitally-reconstructed wall of the merchant's villa in Tel Anafa.

Kidd had the pigments analyzed by the mass spectrometer at the MU Research Reactor and found the builders used mercury for a bright, vivid pink paint, making the Tel Anafa villa the earliest occurrence of a mercury-based pigment in the region. The analysis also revealed copper oxide was used for green. Neither copper nor mercury is native to Israel, so it would’ve been imported. In addition to the bright color, certain areas of the wall were embellished with gold leaf, some of which still clings to the plaster fragments. “This was designed to wow visitors, no doubt,” Kidd says. “There are references in literature to golden statues, and you wonder whether they were really gold or just covered in gold leaf,” he says.  He explains that very little gold leafing on statues or architecture survives today because it likely was scraped off and melted down.

The Museum of Art and Archaeology is located at Mizzou North, 115 Business Loop, and is open daily Tuesday-Sunday, free of charge to all visitors (website: maa.missouri.edu).

 

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