The discovery of the finest mosaic in the Middle East causes a sensation in Israel, but poses a problem.
A few months ago a new street was planned for the city of Lod, not far from the Tel Aviv airport, but when excavations began for the road the inevitable happened – antiquities were found and the Israeli Antiquities
Authority was advised. The department immediately sent a team under Miriam Avissar to mount a rescue operation. Initial digging did not expose anything unusual but then the team was delighted to find some white mosaics. These are common in Israel and are to be dated to the Byzantine perrid. But then in the corner Miriam noticed something that looked like the tail of an animal. Further excavation exposed a full colored mosaic which proved to be one of the best preserved, the biggest and most beautiful ever found In the whole of the Middle East.
The mosaic is 18m in length and 10m wide with no walls or bases for pillars cutting through it. It is made up of three kinds of “carpets”.
There is an entrance carpet containing depictions of birds, fish and wild animals. This leads into a second short but wide carpet containing a large crater in the middle with twigs growing out of it and birds sitting on them. This section is composed of exotic tessarae (the small stones that form the patterns on the mosaic) including turquoise, black glass, and even semi precious stones. The theme links the entrance carpet to the triclinium and its mosaic.
The third section is the largest. A large, wide carpet decorates the triclinium floor. The sides are white and plain where the sofas were originally placed. The centre contains two types of subjects: the first shows fish, animals and birds. The scene of the fish depicts everything from sardines to a whale and includes a rare and detailed depiction of ships from the Roman era. The second type shows a wide variety of animals, birds and a few fish. In the centre is an octagonal frame, with a magnificent collection of mainly African wild animals.
Who Lived in this Villa?. The original owner of this villa was obviously very rich. The size and style of the mosaic and the incorporated semi-precious stones all indicate that. But the mosaic lacks any human images and inscriptions that could hint at the ethnic origin of the dwellers.
Two candidates could be proposed: Lod was a flourishing
Jewish centre after the destruction of the Second Temple and became a temporary seat for famous Jewish teachers. On the other hand, Lod was also an important Roman city, which Hadrian named “Diospolis”, meaning the “city of gods”.
Although Lod is also famous for being the burial site of S. George, the patron Saint of England (the monastery with his tomb is just half a kilometer from the mosaic) it is most unlikely that an early Christian community created the mosaic because it lacks any Christian symbols. Mrs. Avissar assumes the mosaic belonged to a Roman resident, possibly the city’s mayor. The only direct evidence to support that suggestion is a small emblem on the eastern edge of the mosaic which depicts two urn -jars used in Roman times to contain the ashes of the dead ancestors of the family.
Dating the mosaic is also a challenging task. Li-Hi Havas, from the Hebrew University, who is an expert in dating mosaics in the Levant, stated that the mosaic contains stylistic features that are familiar in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. A few coins found on top of the mosaic when it was excavated may indicate that the mosaic is not earlier than the 3rd century.
Uncertainty about basic issues seems to characterize not only the history of the mosaic but also its future. It is located in a local neighborhood and on the route of a new road needed to solve the traffic problems in Lod. More than that, exhibiting the mosaic to the public requires creating proper facilities to protect it, a project that cannot be financed by the Lod Municipality or by the Israel Antiquities Authority IAA is a institution and its budget is limited to excavating and documenting antiquities found during construction projects.
An option is to remove the mosaic to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, but that would also require a generous donor, for the cost of moving it are estimated to be $500,000, and both IAA and Lod residents object to that solution. Moving any mosaic causes some degree of damage to it and Lod residents would want it to be left in their city because of its tourist potential. Since no solution could be found it was decided that the mosaic would be carefully documented and covered over again with special protective sand. The decision caused a national pilgrimage to the site to get a glimpse of the mosaic before it was buried. So many people visited the site that it looked more like the international airport, which is not far
any anyway. People crowded the fences surrounding the mosaic, all
trying to see and photograph it. Guides like me gave guided tours every 15 minutes. Police estimated that during the week-end over 50,000 visitors came to see the sire.