Marble Medusa Head Unearthed in Ancient Roman Ruins

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A statue of Medusa’s head was discovered at Antiochia ad Cragum in Turkey, dating to the first century. Credit: Michael Hoff, Hixson-Lied professor of art history, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Enlarge

In the ruins of a Roman city in southern Turkey, archaeologists have discovered a marble head of Medusa, somehow spared during an early Christian campaign against pagan art.

The head was unearthed at Antiochia ad Cragum, a city founded during the first century, around the rule of Emperor Nero, that has all the marks of a Roman outpost —bathhouses, shops, colonnaded streets, mosaics and a local council house.

With serpents for hair, wide eyes and an open mouth, Medusa was amythical monster who could turn a person to stone with her gaze. At Antiochia, a Medusa architectural sculpture would have served an apotropaic function, intended to avert evil —but later, her likeness would have been considered idolatrous by the Christians who came to live at the site.

“The people living at Antiochia later were zealous Christians who were destroying art in much the same way that ISIS is destroying remnants of the ancient past,” Michael Hoff, a University of Nebraska–Lincoln art historian and director of the excavations, told Live Science. “These things were meant to be destroyed and put into a lime kiln to be burned and turned into mortar.” [See Photos of the Medusa Head and Ancient Antiochia Site]

Antiochia, which covers more than 7 acres (3 hectares), is located on the sparsely populated outskirts of the town ofGazipaş, atop craggy cliffs in an area that is today dominated by wheat fields. Little is known about the city from ancient sources, and though the archaeological site had been identified in the early 19th century, it had never been given much attention by scholars until recently, Hoff said.

“The fact that it’s somewhat of an unknown city makes it fascinating for us as archaeologists,” he added. The evidence Hoff and his colleagues have dug up so far suggests Antiochia might have actually been an economic player during the Roman Empire, a center for the trade and production of wine, agriculture and glass.

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