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Speaker uncovers Roman mosaics

Tunisian archaeologist Nejib Ben Lazreg speaks about the wealth and complexity of Roman mosaics in North Africa. Photo by Megan Pachner

In Tunisia, the discovery of an ancient mosaic is such a routine occurrence that it doesn’t even merit a news broadcast.

“The mosaics, you know, are everywhere,” said Nejib Ben Lazreg, an archaeologist and senior researcher at the National Heritage Institute of Tunisia. “It’s a question of square miles.”

Tunisian archaeologist Nejib Ben Lazreg speaks about the wealth and complexity of Roman mosaics in North Africa. Photo by Megan Pachner
Tunisian archaeologist Nejib Ben Lazreg speaks about the wealth and complexity of Roman mosaics in North Africa.
Photo by Megan Pachner

Ben Lazreg spoke to an audience of about 60 Grinnellians in JRC 101 Thursday, April 9, at 7:30 p.m., during a talk titled “The Roman Mosaics of Tunisia.” His visit was sponsored by the Classics Department and the Center for International Studies. In addition to yesterday’s talk, Ben Lazreg is also teaching a short course on city life in Roman North Africa that will run through April 17.

In his talk, Ben Lazreg emphasized that Roman culture cannot be understood without studying the Empire’s provinces.

“North Africa has many things to show and to offer in matter of variety, ruins, quality,” he said. “A student cannot [comprehend] the Roman Empire just by focusing on Rome or Italy, as if you understand America through Washington, D.C.”

Tunisia’s history is long and predates the Romans, Ben Lazreg said, explaining that the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians and others had developed a rich culture centuries before the Romans settled there in 146 BCE.

“In Africa, there had been mosaics since the Carthaginian time, since the fifth century BCE,” he said.

Ben Lazreg’s talk, while confined to Roman mosaics, did not lack in substance. He explained that Tunisia’s position on the Mediterranean Sea made it a center of trade, and a rich nation—the kind that could afford expensive mosaics.

“These were sponsored by people who were rich, or pretended to be rich,” he said.

For the most part, these mosaics display themes of daily life—food, the gods, daily rituals, theater—and, of course, water. Numerous mosaics of the sea god Neptune illustrate the importance of the ocean in ancient Tunisian society.

Over time, Tunisian depictions of deities like Venus, the goddess of love, departed from the European standard of beauty common to Roman art and took on local characteristics, like curly hair, tattoos and darker skin.

Ben Lazreg also explained that the Romans were superstitious, and would leave coins in their floors under mosaics as offerings. Often these coins allow archaeologists to date the ruins when they are uncovered.

As an archaeologist and excavator, Ben Lazreg has firsthand experience with these ruins. His career is extensive, and he had his sights set on archaeology from a young age.

“When I was in high school, I was interested in archaeology, [from] reading about discoveries that were in Egypt at that time which convinced me to choose this field,” he said. “I could become a lawyer or judge … but I chose research.”

Ben Lazreg’s knowledge and passion for archaeology was what inspired Professor Joseph Cummins, Classics, to invite him to Grinnell. His visit to Grinnell came about through a chance encounter with Joseph Cummins and his wife, Professor Monessa Cummins, Classics, when the two were visiting Tunisia in 2013.

“This happened at random, you know?” Ben Lazreg said in an interview with The S&B. “Joe and his wife, Monessa, in fact, they decided to come to Tunisia in the last moment when they saw this publicity about a tour in Tunisia.”

Ben Lazreg was their guide on that tour, and afterwards Joseph Cummins decided to bring him to Grinnell.

“The grand plan was that one day at lunch in Tunisia I simply asked him,” Joseph Cummins said, describing the process of bringing the prominent scholar and archaeologist to central Iowa.

On his digs, Ben Lazreg can get fired up when he finds an especially impressive artifact. He described an excavation he did of a Christian catacomb which contained mosaic representations of the dead—an extremely rare find. But the tomb was under a modern house, he said, and the owner was screaming at him that the foundation would collapse and crush his colleague.

Ben Lazreg smiled when he told the story (in the end the excavation went off without a hitch). He had his answer.

“It was worth it,” he said.

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