Mercury Rising

The Roman Emperor Diocletian’s need of idolatry may have created it and the Emperor Constantine’s need of heat may have despoiled it, but a seventeen-hundred-year-old Serbian mosaic was given new life in 2014 by a restoration team that included two University at Albany art history students.

Hear More from Quilong MinLynne Merrihew and Jordan Scott, undergraduates from the Department of Art and Art History, traveled to Serbia as part of a pilot summer internship in 2014 to restore a mosaic pavement depicting the Roman god Mercury in the circa 300 AD-built Sirmium Imperial Palace, located in the town of Sremska Mitrovica.

Merrihew, a junior art history major, and Scott, a sophomore anthropology major, heard about the internship from Art and Art History Professor Michael Werner, a Roman archeologist who received a Fulbright Award to research Serbian sites in 2011-12. Werner was part of the restoration project through a grant from the U.S. State Department.

The students were the first from America to participate in the restoration work in Sremska Mitrovica. They became the toast of local media, but the educational experience was rarer still.

“The Sirmium Roman Mosaic Internship offered our students a unique opportunity for hands-on experience in restoring ancient art objects under expert tutelage of certified professionals,” said Werner. “Few students get access to historic preservation within an ancient imperial palace.”

“The internship gave me confidence as a future archaeologist,” said Scott, who plans to eventually become a museum curator.

Merrihew, who is looking toward a master’s degree in Mediterranean archaeology or art conservation, saw this internship as ideal for gaining experience in both fields. “I have always loved studying ancient Greek and Roman culture, and it was awe-inspiring to be able to work on an ancient Roman palace that Emperor Constantine once lived in,” she said.

The UAlbany students learned how to clean and gently sandblast the Mercury Mosaic to remove dirt and debris, and to replace and paint broken tesserae (mosaic tiles).

Sremska Mitrovica lies on the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Sirmium, which was made one of the four capitals of the Roman Empire by Diocletian. The Mercury Mosaic was a small part of what must have been an imposing palace collection of portraits of pagan gods and goddesses, all severely damaged when a radiant heating system was installed, likely during Constantine’s residence in the palace (306 – 337 AD).

The restoration project began as part of the celebration of the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan (313 AD), which legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire.