Villa of the Birds Mosaic Conservation

Vob banner

Project Director: Dr. Wojciech Kolataj

Historic era: Early Roman Empire

Project Location: Alexandria, Egypt

Project Duration: February 1998 – June 1999

In the heart of Alexandria, amongst the ruins of an ancient town, the Kom el-Dikka archaeological site houses a protective shelter encasing four sets of mosaic floors from the Early Roman Empire. The mosaics in question are not only a rare illustration of the domestic architecture of this period, but they are also a testament to the conservation efforts of Project Director, Dr. Wojciech Kolataj and his team, who sought to reconcile the mosaics’ conservation with their original context.  

The project is built on the work of the Polish Archaeological Mission in the 1970s, which partially excavated the mosaic floors, documented, and conserved them. Dangerous conditions made it impossible for the mission to draw a plan for House Alpha (also known colloquially as “Villa of the Birds”) or to have a full understanding of the archaeological context at the time. Noting that much of the early Roman villa was destroyed in antiquity due to the systematic retrieval of building material, Dr. Kolataj and his team endeavored to continue the work of their predecessors. Tracing the course of walls, identifying the functions of rooms, and collecting evidence on the chronology of the building itself, as well as each of the mosaic floors.  

The ruins of late Roman buildings (Byzantine era) were superimposed on residential architecture from the early Roman period (1st-3rd centuries AD), including House Alpha. While some of the walls were seamlessly incorporated in the shelter design, the need to uncover the full sets of mosaic floors necessitated the systemic dismantling (destruction) of earlier ruins.  Each set of mosaic floors represents the interior decoration of a single room, demonstrating examples of different classes, sizes, motifs, and designs employed in the Roman Imperial period. The most notable is mosaic A5, being the source of House Alpha’s popular name “Villa of the Birds” as each of its panels represents a different bird species. The most significant developments within the course of this project included the uncovering of previously unrevealed parts of the mosaic floors. Notably mosaic A3, which was executed in opus sectile technique (as opposed to the more common opus tessellatum found throughout the villa) and the central panel of mosaic A6, which depicted a (distorted in antiquity) panther hunting iconography. As inferred by Grzegorz Majcherek, this is a rare theme for Egyptian mosaic floors. 

The adopted conservation approach reflects an increasingly well-regarded tradition within cultural heritage preservation, which reconciles the artifact within its archaeological context. The in-situ conservation (carried out by Ewa Parandowska), coupled with a shelter design that incorporated the surrounding Byzantine ruins allowed visitors to engage in a dialogue between the different archaeological layers of this historic site. The construction of a shelter was a critical conclusion to this conservation project, protecting the conserved mosaics from potential threats like rainfall, air pollution, and mechanical destruction. The project aimed to seamlessly integrate the various archaeological features within the shelter. In the words of Dr. Kolataj, the shelter is “a kind of glass box inserted among Byzantine walls, the irregular forms of which form the background for the display”.  Its interior also includes a footbridge, allowing the safe viewing of the mosaics without the threat of damage from visitors.   

Disclaimer 1: Various project outputs such as maps, plans, architectural drawings, illustrations, and other materials have been embedded within the project's reports. Users who wish to explore the full scope of the project's outputs and documentation are encouraged to use the "Series" field within the sidebar to find all of the collection's reports 

Disclaimer 2: Large drawings of the Villa of the Birds are not digitized yet. They are available for in-person research at ARCE’s Cairo center. For more information, please consult our Access and Use Policy.

See Villa of the Birds on Google Maps here

Additional Resources:

Conservation and Display of Roman Mosaics at Kom el Dikka
Villa of The Birds Mosaics
There is no Place Like Home
Can you Name These Birds?
Kom El |Dikka
Stroll Through the Villa of The Birds
Putting Together the Pieces