Saturday 14 March 2015

The iconoclasts

In 2007, the British Channel 4 television series Time Team started an archaeological dig in Coberley, a location in the Cotswolds. The dig quickly revealed a stunning mosaic within a large building, probably built in the early 2nd century AD. It was undoubtedly Roman.

As the archaeologists revealed ever more of the mosaic something strange started to appear. The mosaic showed the usual plow damage, straight lines across it where the tesserae has been ripped out. But by and large, it was still in excellent shape, yet its central piece was gone.

Outrageous sacrilege - a 4th cent depiction of Bacchus

Mosaics in Roman villas are often of similar shape and pictorial content. Experts agreed that the central missing piece was most certainly a depiction of the God Bacchus. If it had not been damaged by plowing, what could have caused the destruction?

On closer inspection it became clear that the picture of the God in the centre of the mosaic had been deliberately taken out and replaced by broken pieces of roof tiles. So, somebody had removed the original picture and substituted it with a crude floor. This indicated that, whenever it was done, the villa was still a functioning building and the floor was still needed. So it was repaired.

The culprits were quickly identified. As Romano Britain declined, early Christians often embarked on iconoclastic destruction. A particular target of theirs were depictions of pagan Gods, like Bacchus.

I was reminded of this Time Team episode and its remarkable window into early Christian iconoclasm when I recently heard of the wilful destruction of the Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq by Islamic State. What struck me are not so much the parallels between religious fanaticism of either creed or conviction, but the ultimate futility of iconoclastic destruction. We still know what Bacchus looks like. In fact, the void in the centre of the mosaic speaks to us just as eloquently about the failure of any effort to destroy the fabric of human culture as a complete mosaic would have spoken to us about its longevity.

Following the destruction of Bacchus portrait, the early Christians in the Roman villa in Coberley patched up the mosaic and continued to live within the building. Whatever they hoped to accomplish by hacking off the picture of a pagan God, all they did is add another layer to the eternal human story of destruction and renewal.

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