Tour des Fouilles (19): the mosaics of Gilly-sur-Isère

Let's talk mosaics a little bit. Discovering a mosaic floor is among the most rewarding experiences of field archaeology. This starts with the moment you realize you are actually finding some fixed concrete floor level - which in itself is already a great (and rare) experience - and then follows with the discovery that the floor has some decorative pattern. From that point, the story slowly unfolds, day after day: the pattern becomes a motif, the motif becomes a composition, and the composition becomes a story. We were lucky to have this experience in Pompeii, in 2007 (see the picture below), and though the mosaic essentially proved irrelevant to the main aim of the campaign, it was the most exciting discovery we did that year.

Gilly, Villa Gallo-Romaine: Detail of mosaic from room M -

The excavators of the Gallo-Roman villa of Gilly, between Albertville and the Col de Tamié, had the same lucky experience. This is in itself nothing remarkable, as mosaics have been found in many villas and houses throughout the Roman world. The mosaics themselves are not really spectacular: they consist of a variation of geometrical patterns, and only use black and white, which is typical for more everyday mosaics of the imperial period. No Roman art-historian will get excited about these mosaics. Yet, in this specific region - the high alps - large villa's with well-preserved mosaics - even simple ones - are rare. The villa of Gilly is an important place for our understanding of this region.

Gilly, Villa Gallo-Romaine: Plan of the villa -

The villa consisted of a central court around which living quarters were situated. As you can see on the above plan, room M, from which the mosaic comes, is the main residential room, situated directly opposite the main entrance to the courtyard. With its wide entrance, and its central location, it is likely to have dominated the complex. Directly next to it was another, smaller room with a mosaic - this is something you would also find in Pompeian houses: a main reception room (for the big dinner party) and a smaller room next to it (where you could withdraw to do the business. Not sure whether this worked the same in Gilly, but the arrangement is there. Apart from the mosaics, the villa also had its own bath complex (top right), and several rooms had wall-paintings. 

The intriguing thing is that the mosaics are early: they are dated (on stylistic grounds) to the start of the second century, when there were few mosaicists working in the region. Moreover, the villa closely follows Italian models in stile and execution. It is possible that the artists who made it, actually came from Italy. In other words: looking carefully at mosaics does not only tell you something about villa life and luxury, but also about the broader movements of globalization that characterized the Roman empire. 

The opus signinum mosaic we found at Pompeii in 2007:

Pompeii, 21: The SALVE mosaic of shop VI 14, 21 - Photo taken standing on the ancient threshold. (Photo: Miko Flohr [2007])

Bibliography

Barthélémy, H. (1986) 'Un site gallo-romain alpin: Gilly (Savoie)'. RevArchNar 19, 211-244.
Flohr, M. (2008) 'Cleaning the Laundries II. Report of the 2007 campaign'. FOLD&R 111, 1-13.
Lavagne, H. (1986) 'Les mosaïques de Gilly (Savoie)'. RevArchNar 19, 245-258.