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Decorating Floors: The Tesserae-in-Mortar Technique in the Ancient World

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

Decorating Floors: The Tesserae-in-Mortar Technique in the Ancient World

By Birgit Tang (AnalRom Suppl. 51). Rome: Edizioni Quasar 2018. Pp. 475. €32. ISBN 978-88-7140-932-0 (paper).

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Decorating Floors takes as its subject mortar floors with inset tesserae decoration. This work is a deliberate effort to break away from the common treatment of these floors according to modern geographical boundaries and to reconsider the technique as a phenomenon that extends across the Mediterranean from the late fourth century BCE to ca. 400 CE. While the vast majority of extant tesserae-in-mortar floors are from Italy, this wider scope allows the author to pursue questions about regional and chronological motif preferences, variations in context, the origin and spread of the technique, and the influences of decorative trends and traditions. Tang’s ambitious goal, which she surely achieves, is to lay the foundation for future comparative work through the collection and cataloguing of 1,873 known tesserae-in-mortar floors and their decorative motifs.

In the introduction (ch. 1), Tang defines the material, its parameters, and relevant terminology. She situates her approach in relationship to major questions and problems in the history of research, including, for instance, the difficulties of precise dating and the incomplete nature of the archaeological record. She also mounts an effective critique of the uncritical use of “Romanisation” to describe the spread of the tesserae-in-mortar technique (14); Tang prefers “Mediterraneanisation,” which, following A. Mullen (Southern Gaul and the Mediterranean: Multilingualism and Multiple Identities in the Roman Period, Cambridge 2013, 12–13), emphasizes interconnectivity and exchange without privileging one identity as its primary driver. This concept of Mediterraneanization is particularly helpful in her move away from what she calls the “either/or” theories (14, 185) that attempt to locate a single origin for the tesserae-in-mortar technique—an issue she returns to in greater detail in chapter 5. Chapter 2 lays out the repertoire of motifs, which Tang organizes first into type (geometric or figural) and then into layout (linear, isotropic, centralized, or single; mortar floors featuring tesserae scattered at random are not part of this study): a swastika-meander, for instance, is designated GL28, the 28th motif in the Geometric-linear type. Each entry includes a description of the motif, the number of occurrences by geography, a chronological range, and a brief discussion with reference to specific examples. Chapter 3 considers the technique by geographical distribution. Entries are organized by country and include discussion of repertoire, regional context, architectural contexts, layout in relation to room functions, and dating, along with more focused discussions of selected sites.

“Patterns of Patterns” (ch. 4) offers some conclusions on general trends in the geographical and chronological popularity of the technique and in motif preferences; for example, while certain motifs are widespread, one marked variation in motif usage seems to be between Punic and non-Punic contexts. In chapter 5, Tang returns to the question of the technique’s origin. Through comparative chronologies of its earliest appearances (in the late fourth or early third centuries BCE), she argues that it is not possible to locate a single site or center of development and suggests instead consideration of the technique as a shared development of the central Mediterranean. The “Conclusion” gives a chronologically structured overview of the variations in motifs and contexts. Tang ends with brief remarks on the function of paved floors as markers of space and social behavior; this area in particular may offer fruitful paths for further research.

The second half of the book is dedicated to the organization and presentation of the catalogued material. Sixty tables show the distribution of imagery organized by motif and by country and region; navigation is assisted by a concordance of abbreviations for the floors and contexts, listing of site abbreviations alphabetically and then by country, and a key to the abbreviations used in the tables. The text is illustrated with 214 figures of high quality, many of which are printed in color. Further supplementing the volume is a database, available online at An entry for each of the 1,873 floors includes information sorted by location, context, mortar typology, decoration, design, date, publication reference, illustration, and additional notes.

As these numbers suggest, Tang organizes and presents a considerable amount of information in impressive detail, and it takes some practice to gain fluency in its navigation. Most easily accommodated will be questions that move from a particular geography outward, since countries and sites structure the organization of the tables and of the database. A search for particular iconographic or design parallels requires a somewhat different approach. An index of motifs would have been useful to direct readers to the appropriate motif category in chapter 2 and to any further appearance of selected motifs in the more general discussions in chapters 4 and 5. The online database proves, here, to be invaluable, since all instances of a motif can be located through a basic search. But the motif category is not listed in the database, so a searcher will still need to visit the tables by geography in order to arrive at the proper motif entry in chapter 2. Searching for parallels among the figures will meet with mixed success. Given the challenge of differentiating between geometric forms in written description, the line drawings (figs. 2–40) that show motif patterns and their variations are extremely helpful. But not all motifs are illustrated in this way, which limits visual navigation of, and comparison between, categories and subcategories (e.g., GL29, “spaced swastika-meander, each space with square,” does not have a corresponding line drawing in the figures, despite having multiple subtypes, while GL33, “spaced double latchkey meander,” which appears on only one floor, is illustrated by a line drawing in fig. 16).

These comments should not detract from Tang’s extremely ambitious and careful work; time spent navigating this impressive volume and the depth of information that she has collected and organized will certainly return the effort. This is an important work for the study of architectural mosaic decoration, the development and spread of the tesserae-in-mortar technique, and for the discernment of patterns and variations of the technique across the Mediterranean.

Hallie M. Franks
New York University

Book Review of Decorating Floors: The Tesserae-in-Mortar Technique in the Ancient World, Birgit Tang
Reviewed by Hallie M. Franks
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.Franks

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