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Museum Of Fine Arts Unearths History In Its Own Backyard

Almost three decades ago, officials with the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg buried a pair of ancient mosaics for storage purposes. 

Now, a temporary excavation site has been set up just off Bayshore Drive, as they begin a months-long process of unearthing and restoring the 2,000-year-old relics. 

The pieces came from an area that is now the border of Turkey and Syria and were acquired along with three others, from Princeton University in the 1960s by the MFA's first director, Rexford Stead. 

Two of the five mosaics are on view at the museum, one is in storage and two were buried on the east side of the museum since 1989. 

Kristen Shepherd is the museum's executive director. She remembers seeing some of the mosaics years ago, but learned about the hidden pieces after joining the museum staff in 2016.

"It's a mosaic that I remember from my childhood, growing up in this area," she said. "In learning that we had more, naturally I asked the question, where are they?"

The mosaics eventually will be put on display inside the museum. For now, visitors will be able to watch as the restorers do their delicate work right outside on the lawn. 

Credit Tim Fanning / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A Greco-Roman mosaic, similar to this one, will be unearthed and restored from the back lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. The restoration process will take months.

"When you're dealing with something that is ancient, your intervention needs to be a lot more measured," said Rosa Lowinger, the senior art conservator for the firm restoring the mosaics.

Credit Tim Fanning / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Rosa Lowinger, a senior art conservator carefully cleans a 2,000-year-old Greco-Roman mosaic. Her organization was hired by MFA to clean and conserve two similar relics buried in the museum's back lawn.

"Our knowledge of history is contained in the material itself. You have layers of grout that were mixed by ancient hand," Lowinger said. "You have little bits of stone that cut by ancient stone. All of that information is as important as the ascetic component."

Museum officials said the mosaics feature intricate geometric patterns with the image of a face visible on one of the pieces. The relics would have been on display in ancient villas in Antioch, a Greco-Roman city that was a stop on western caravan routes between Asia and the Mediterranean.

Saving these mosaics and returning them to public view is vitally important, Shepherd said, adding that the Islamic State is trying to systematically destroy works of cultural significance in the Middle East. 

"This project is an opportunity for us to recognize our own responsibility to care for world heritage and cultural heritage," she said. 

Editor's note: Copy has been corrected to indicate the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts is off Bayshore Drive, not Bayshore Blvd.

Tim Fanning is a WUSF Public Media Stephen Noble intern for spring 2018.
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