First unearthed in 1996 in a rescue excavation in Lod, ancient Diospolis, Israel, a large and extraordinarily detailed floor mosaic was recently lifted from its site and conserved. Found in a large villa believed to belong to a wealthy Roman, the exquisitely preserved floor dates to about AD 300. This glorious mosaic is in the United States for a limited time before it returns to Israel to become the focus of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center. The Legion of Honor is one of only four museums to display this treasure before its final and permanent installation in Lod.
Sometime in the 3rd century AD, a wealthy Roman commissioned an ensemble of floor mosaics for his villa in ancient Lydda, part of what was then the Roman province of Palestine and part of the ancient kingdom of Israel (now contemporary Israel). Move forward almost two thousand years to 1996. A road was being built between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem which unearths the mosaics and prompted an immediate rescue excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
They uncovered a series of mosaic floors that measured approximately fifty by twenty-seven feet. Debris covering the floors contained pottery and coins of the third and fourth centuries A.D., suggesting that the mosaics had been laid about A.D. 300. The large rooms in which the mosaics were found probably belonged to a private house and served as a series of reception or audience halls where visitors were met and entertained. The mosaic on display is the most magnificent one found at the site. There are other mosaics in adjoining rooms but they are not of such superior quality.
Exhibition curator Renée Dreyfus says, “Other Roman mosaics have been found in Israel, but this one is exceptional in its lively imagery and its excellent state of preservation. We are thrilled to be able to display such an amazing work of art in our museum and think about what a great city Lod must have been in Roman times. Each excavated work in the Holy Land reveals so much about the history and people who lived in this remarkable land.”
While working on detaching the mosaic from the ground, Antiquities Authority workers discovered the footprints and sandal prints on the plaster bedding below. Experts believe the prints belong to the builders of the mosaic, and further speculate that they had used their feet to pack the plaster.
Sandal prints in sizes 34, 37, 42 and 44 were discovered.
“We were very excited,” said Jacques Neguer, head of the IAA Art Conservation Branch. “It is fascinating to find 1,700-year-old personal evidence of people who, just like us, worked on this very mosaic.”
The mosaic was designed as two rectangular end panels flanking a large square medallion. The medallion and one of the end panels contain delightful depictions of a menagerie of common animals and exotic beasts. The animals depicted are not part of a peaceable kingdom. The tiger ferociously bites a horse, the snake attacks a fish. There is a separate panel of a peacock who is separated from the carnage around it. The lower panel includes two ships, one under sail and another not, The second ship is slightly damaged. There are also menacing sea creatures, of which one seems to be a fantastic whale, and assorted small fish. Miriam Avissar, the archaeologist who discovered the mosaic, thought that the exotic animals might allude to public spectacles in regional amphitheaters, where such creatures could occasionally be seen.
The absence of human figures, typical in the work of the time, makes this mosaic particularly unusual. Measuring approximately 300 square feet, the splendid work of art commands almost the entire footprint in Gallery 1, but visitors will be able to walk on three sides for ample viewing.
Gallery 2 serves as a preface to the exhibition with a rare look at works from the permanent antiquities collections, including a Roman marble sarcophagus, glass vessels and two mosaic panels. There are also coins of the era with images of animals and ships borrowed from the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society. A short film and interactive workstation are also located in Gallery 2 for additional context and orientation.
Legion of Honor: April 23 to July 24, 2011,