Mosaics were one of the principle forms of expression in antiquity. They were a functional yet decorative feature of Middle eastern and Mediterranean villas, temples, shops, bath houses, and eventually churches and mosques. The images inspired viewers, complemented architecture, and were considered prestigious assets by their owners.
The production of mosaics arose independently in a number of cultures around the globe. The earliest known mosaics are Chinese. They were carefully arranged pebble-paved mosaics. The Sumerians used cone-shaped rods pushed into pillars and walls to produce geometric patterns. In the Americas, Aztecs covered masks and ceremonial objects in precious stone.
Around 800 B.C., the Greeks began producing pebble mosaics. The designs were originally geometric, usually following rug patterns. They became more and more intricate after 400 B.C., when it became more economical to cut cubes from stone rods.
The Romans first emulated and then took mosaic making to the next level. Roman designs included intricate geometric borders, war depictions, stories of the Gods and their antics, and scenes from everyday life. Pavements predominated, but mosaics were also built onto walls and eventually onto ceilings.
Around 480 A.D., glass and gold began to replace stone as the primary media in mosaics. Subject matter turned to religious figures and iconography. Since then, stone has not made a comeback. Today, mosaics are constructed primarily from ceramic tile and glass.