The curious case of the ‘jovial’ skeleton mosaic in Turkey

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People did have a sense of humor (with a dash of hedonism) in the 3rd century BC, or around 2,300 years ago. At least that is what is evident from an incredible ancient mosaic discovered in 2016 at Hatay, a Turkish province that just borders Syria from the north. The artwork in question features a seemingly jovial looking skeleton casually holding a drink, while a Greek inscription by his head reads – “Be cheerful, enjoy life.”

According to state-based Anadolu (news) Agency, Hatay province is already home to the most number of mosaics found in Turkey. As for this particularly jovial artwork, it was originally positioned along the dining area of a contemporary house. The residence (probably a domus) was located in Antiocheia (or Antioch), a city that possibly grew to be the third largest in the Roman realm. As Demet Kara, an archaeologist from the Hatay Archaeology Museum, said (in 2016) –

Antiocheia was a very important, rich city. There were mosaic schools and mints in the city. The ancient city of Zeugma in [the southeastern province of] Gaziantep might have been established by people who were trained here. Antiocheia mosaics are world famous.

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As for the symbolism behind the entire set of these mosaics, including the cheerful skeleton, Kara made it clear –

There are three scenes on glass mosaics made of black tiles. Two things are very important among the elite class in the Roman period in terms of social activities: The first is the bath and the second is dinner. In the first scene, a black person throws fire. That symbolizes the bath. In the middle scene, there is a sundial and a young clothed man running towards it with a bare-headed butler behind. The sundial is between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. 9 p.m. is the bath time in the Roman period. He has to arrive at supper at 10 p.m. Unless he can, it is not well received. There is writing on the scene that reads he is late for supper and writing about time on the other. In the last scene, there is a reckless skeleton with a drinking pot in his hand along with bread and a wine pot. The writing on it reads ‘be cheerful and live your life.

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Reconstruction of ancient Antioch. Source: Rebrn

The article was originally published on our sister site HEXAPOLIS.

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