Mosaics of Greek Medusa found in ancient Greco Roman villa

Restorers Maria Teresa and Roberto Civetta work on a mosaic at the Villa of the Antonines archaeological project, directed by Deborah Chatr Aryamontri and Timothy Renner of the Center for Heritage and Archaeological Studies at Montclair State University. (Image credit: Courtesy of Deborah Chatr Aryamontri)

Archaeologists uncovered something unusual while recently excavating an ancient Roman villa: Two mosaics depicting the Greek mythological figure Medusa.

In Greek mythology, Medusa is one of the three Gorgons. According to myth, Medusa has hair made of serpents and turns anyone who looks at her into stone.

The mythology tells of how Athena, the goddess of wisdom, put Medusa's head on her shield and breastplate after she had been beheaded, but she isn't the only goddess to be depicted this way. Zeus, king of Olympus and other gods such as Ares, god of war, were also depicted with Medusa emblazoned on their shields.

While excavating a villa used by ancient Roman emperors in Italy, archaeologists uncovered something unexpected: two mosaics that depict the Greek mythological figure Medusa, whose hair was made of snakes and whose gaze was said could turn people into stone. 

The team found the mosaics in a circular room in the Villa of the Antonines, so called because it was used by members of the Antonine dynasty who ruled the Roman Empire from A.D. 138 to 193. The mosaics likely date to the second century A.D. the researchers said at a presentation at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, which was held in New Orleans in January. 

In both mosaics, Medusa is looking off into the distance, perhaps leaving observers to wonder, "What are these ladies thinking?" Timothy Renner(opens in new tab), a professor of classics and general humanities at Montclair State University in New Jersey and co-director of the team that is excavating the site, said during the presentation. 

Sifting through ancient remains

"Finding those mosaics [was] a pleasant surprise," Chatr Aryamontri said. She told LiveScience that most of the villa's more magnificent pieces were removed in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Unfortunately, there has been a significant amount of damage and disturbance to the site. "We actually found some World War II artifacts" during the excavation, Chatr Aryamontri said. 

Medusa in the east  

A 1,800-year-old military medal with the head of Medusa on it was discovered by archaeologists in Turkey in October 2022.

The medal was found in the city of Perre which is one of the five big cities that were part of the ancient Greco-Iranian kingdom of Commagene.

 “The medal with a Medusa head appears as an award given to a soldier for his success,” said the director of the Adiyaman Museum Mehmet Alkan.

“It is a medal that a soldier wears on his shield during a military ceremony," he added.

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