The construction and modernization of Israeli infrastructure across fields, suburban blocks, highways and streets has seen an unprecedented wave of ancient structures and mosaics surface over the past few decades. This year alone, the archeological communities of Israel and news sites around the world have reported on a number of amazing discoveries, of which some of them have been reported here and here . One should not be surprised that the discovery of a mosaic in Israel last year in Lod, 15km southeast of Tel Aviv, has everyone giddy with excitement, as it went on display last week.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority announced that this mosaic (pictured above) was unearthed during the construction process of a new visitors’ centre that is meant to display another mosaic, first discovered in the same spot in 1996. (Interestingly, that 1996 mosaic is the now-famous Lod mosaic that has toured the world.) What are the odds of that happening? Quite good, I suppose – after all, the chance discovery of the newer mosaic was situated at the southern most point of the Roman Byzantine-era villa that once stood there.
Mosaic floors in the Roman world were not unique to Israel, they were in fact found throughout the empire from Britain to Italy in the western provinces to North Africa and Persia in the east. Roman mosaics usually adorned private homes and public buildings, and during the Christian era, in places of worship such as churches. I would assume that with St.Helena’s visit to the Holy land in 326 AD, dedicating church after church in honour of Christ, the array of church floor mosaics would have been plentiful. In a time when Christian Romans ruled over Israel, it is important to note that many synagogues too, were known to be decorated with mosaics. I am aware of one great example of a mosaic found in Galilee, on the floor of the Beth Alpha synagogue, that is stupendous. Interestingly too, following the Arab conquests of Jerusalem in the seventh century, the Dome of the Rock was richly coloured with mosaics to match anything from the Byzantine world.
As I have briefly explain, the floors of churches were, of course, not the only place where mosaics were prominently featured in the Holy Land. In Lod (ancient Lydda), which was rededicated as Diopolis during the Roman period, there is archeological evidence that is plain for us to see, in both Lod mosaics. The mosaics are dated to roughly the beginning of the 4th century, when Lod was a thriving city. During this period there would have been presumably many wealthy families and residents that settled and built luxurious villas in Lod. These villas would have been a grand statement of their wealth, and how best to boast about one’s wealth, than to have commissioned wonderfully decorated mosaic floors. The Lod mosaics are an interesting example of the length the Romans went to decorate their homes and where they were prominently displayed. The older discovered mosaic is understood to have adorned (the northern end) of what was the villa’s living room, while the recently discovered mosaic floor is believed to be the courtyard (at the southern end).
The iconic Lod mosaic was discovered in 1996.
An amazing series of animals are depicted on both mosaics. The older discovered Lod mosaic with the central panel depicting wild beasts, a giraffe and elephant is striking. Though, my favourite section of the mosaic has to be the marine scene (below the central panel) with two Roman merchant ships sailing amongst common fish, that the Romans would have caught daily, and what appears to be some sort of creatures from the deep. The newer mosaic also seems to have similar themes with various animals. Although that it appears a little worse for wear, it is still surprisingly naturalistic, aesthetically pleasing and quite suited as a courtyard mosaic with its geometric pattern.
Interestingly, many critics have commented about how there doesn’t appear to be any clear religious or idolatry imagery (both mosaics do not contain any human figures). This curious observation has left many experts perplexed about the identity of the wealthy villa owner who commissioned the mosaics. Was he a Christian, a Jew or a pagan? I wonder whether on the newer mosaic, the image of a pair of birds atop a vase hints at Christianity? In Christian symbolism, for instance, peacocks depicted drinking from a vase is usually associated with eternal life. Could the pair of birds have a similar meaning? Nonetheless, its location in the heart of Israel will remain a talking point for decades to come and we may yet still learn more about it. The new mosaic will now be added to the new visitor’s centre being built in Lod.
The header image is licensed under the Getty images embedding service, while the 1996 Lod mosaic appears to be in the public domain. No known restrictions are listed and I believe it is fair use in highlighting a culturally important mosaic.