Unique 1,700-year-old Lod Mosaic From Israel to Visit Russia

A tractor building a road serendipitously uncovered a tiger's tail, leading to a stone menagerie.

Not only rock stars go on global tours. Great works of art do so too, and after being buried for 1,700 years, the Lod mosaic is taking the world by storm.

The ancient masterpiece, one of the largest and best-preserved Roman mosaics ever found, will be exhibited at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, starting December.

It is the first joint archeological exhibition of Israel and the Hermitage, renowned for its vast collections of antiquities and paintings, say the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Hermitage.

"We have never had a mosaic of such quality and size in St. Petersburg," said Anna Trofimova, head of the Hermitage classical antiquities department.

Discovered in 1996 in the central Israeli city of Lod, the mosaic has been on the road since 2010. It has been drawing crowds at major museums in the United States and Europe, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre in Paris and, currently, Berlin's Altes Museum.

Archeologists were astounded when a bulldozer doing road works in Lod fortuitously uncovered the image of a tiger's tail. The dig went on to reveal a series of exquisitely-designed scenes of animal life covering 125 square meters.
Experts dated it to around 300 C.E. The mosaic is believed to have graced the main halls of an opulent private home in what was then the Roman town of Lydda.

"Beyond the preservation and the quality of the mosaic, the location is part of what makes it unique," said Gideon Avni, head of the IAA's archeology division. "What was such a villa doing there?"

Could it have belonged to a Jew?

The little archeological work done beneath modern Lod had, until that point, painted a picture of a small provincial town. But the mosaic has rekindled the debate among scholars on the character and state of development of ancient Palestine's hinterland in the second and third century, Avni told Haaretz.

The identity of the villa's owner and the meaning of the mosaic remain unclear.

Divided into panels, the mosaic depicts a menagerie of birds, fish and exotic animals such as lions, tigers, elephants and even an imaginary sea monster. The "tesserae" – as the tiny stone tiles that make up a mosaic are called – sketch the figures in vivid colors and minute detail, including blood gushing from wounded animals as predators sink their fangs into them.

Unusually for a mosaic of that period, the work is mostly devoid of human presence, except for two merchant ships sailing in the distance amongst the marine wildlife. Some scholars have suggested this absence may indicate that the owner of the house was Jewish, based on the Torah prohibition on depicting humans.

Others see the work as an allegory of "Pax Romana," the peace and order that Rome purported to bring to the peoples it conquered.

By this interpretation, the central image represents the Roman Empire, in which predators and prey coexist peacefully together, while chaos and violence reign in the bloody hunting scenes that surround them.

Bloody hunting scene - the first collaboration

While the scholarly debate continues, the IAA estimates more than a million people have seen the travelling mosaic so far.

The artifact will be displayed at the Hermitage from December 19 to April 25 as part of a set of exhibitions celebrating the 250th anniversary of the museum founded by Catherine the Great, the IAA said in a statement.

Officials believe the event will open the door to further exchanges and cooperation with Russia.

"Most of our cooperation in research and exhibitions goes to the U.S. or Europe. We have very few scientific collaborations with Russia," said Avni. "The Hermitage is one of the leading research institutions in Russia so we really hope this will encourage joint work in the future."

Trofimova, the Hermitage's antiquities head, said that such future collaborations could include fellowships for researchers, joint excavation projects and shared exhibitions. She is in talks to bring an exhibition on Alexander the Great to Israel: so far it's travelled to Amsterdam and Sidney.

After its stay at the Hermitage, the mosaic will return home to Lod, to be housed in a museum being built on the site of the discovery.
 

Nicky Davidov, Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority