Stunning Ancient Mosaic Found Near Tel Aviv Returns Home After World Tour

After being on display in the likes of the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the magnificent 1,700-year-old Lod mosaic – featuring animals, plants and fish – is back on show at the purpose-built Shelby White and Leon Levy Mosaic Archaeological Center

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A detail of the Lod mosaic, which has now returned to its original home.
A detail of the Lod mosaic, which has now returned to its original home.Credit: Nikki Davidov, IAA
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

For an inanimate picture, the Lod mosaic has been about. The exquisite stone carpet, 57 feet (17 meters) long, shows animals, plants, fish and banquet-ware, and was made 1,700 years ago to ornament the floor of a Roman mansion in central Israel. And now it is back home in Lod after a lengthy world tour.

The mosaic is the pièce de résistance at the Shelby White and Leon Levy Mosaic Archaeological Center in Lod, built especially to shelter, house and showcase this unusually fine set of images. The center is conveniently near the route to Ben-Gurion Airport and the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, it points out for the sake of tourists.

While the general public has to pay, Lod residents get in for free – and it is for greater good of the city that White decided the small museum should not have its own restaurant. Let visitors eat at local places, she explains.

The city itself seems enthused: "Our dream for this city, itself a mosaic of cultures, is being realized today right before our eyes as we dedicate this most important museum, placing Lod on the world tourism map," stated city mayor Leon Revivo.

The Lod mosaic had been discovered in 1996 by Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Miriam Avissar, now deceased, during a salvage excavation in the modern city center. Happily for posterity, it had lain all these centuries beneath about a meter and a half of dirt and debris of the ages, protecting it from the elements, says Amir Gorzalczany of the Antiquities Authority.

When the Lod mosaic was uncovered: note the diagonal of destruction across it, and the ornate strip where a wall had once stood before a Roman-era renovationCredit: Skyview , באדיבות רשו

Yet again, this discovery happened because of modern travel-mania and the desire for new roads, and sewage systems. Many a treasure has been discovered in Israel as the population expands and infrastructure works ensued.

After being serendipitously discovered in 1996, the mosaic – actually a series of mosaics – was immediately reburied until budgets for its preservation could be found.

In late 2008, an agreement was reached with White, says Raanan Kislev, manager of the mosaic preservation project on behalf of the IAA.

“The mosaic was found here and should stay here, after it flew around the world like a magic carpet,” White told Haaretz on Monday.

Shelby White at the Shelby White and Leon Levy Mosaic Archaeological Center in Lod on Monday.Credit: Ruth Schuster

She donated the wherewithal to build the handsome museum around the mosaic, which features interactive workstations suitable for kiddies, among other things to help understand the process of mosaic making. She has also sponsored the excavations at Ashkelon for years, and supports the work of the IAA in general, White says.

Then its excavation resumed, its preservation was pursued and it was displayed to the Israeli public for one weekend. Following this, its travelogue began in 2010.

Meanwhile, while working on gingerly excavating the mosaic in 2009, they expanded the area of the dig and identified the edge of another gorgeous mosaic now outside in the museum courtyard. No travel for it: “That one remains really in situ,” Kislev quips.

Rather more weather-beaten than the one inside, in fact there had been a modern road over this courtyard mosaic, built of course before the antiquity was known to exist. Approval was finally granted in 2014 to remove that road, Kislev says, and removed it was.

The courtyard mosaic is also magnificent, but isn’t quite as wondrous as the one decorating the interior hall. Asked if it had been in the mansion’s courtyard, like it is in the museum’s today, Kislev confirms that it was a peristyle courtyard mosaic. Roman villas typically had a roofed courtyard with pillars around the perimeter. “We found the foundations of these pillars,” he says.

Then, in 2018, while digging the foundations for the museum, the IAA archaeologists found another mosaic, Kislev says. It too was the floor of a Roman-period house, owned by somebody who was evidently extravagantly wealthy.

A ship and fish in a detail from the Lod mosaic. Unlike other featured creatures, the fish never got their day in the Roman Colosseum.Credit: Ruth Schuster

An artisan from Africa

Given that the central mosaic inside the mansion chiefly features African animals that have not existed in Israel for a very long time, it may have been created by a master artisan hailing from North Africa, likely Carthage itself, Kislev and Gorzalczany say. Meanwhile, the 2018 mosaic has a somewhat different style, more French-Western, and was likely made by somebody else.

While the 2018 mosaic and courtyard mosaic never went, and aren’t going, anywhere, the interior, 57-foot-long mosaic has been to places you wish you could see.
Its tour included the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: “It was such as thrill to see the name Lod on the Metropolitan Museum,” White says. Its itinerary also included the Louvre in Paris; the Altes Museum in Berlin; Waddesdon Manor (a country house popular among tourists) in England; the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg; the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio; the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology in Philadelphia; the Field Museum in Chicago; Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice; and the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami.

How does a 57-foot-long mosaic fit into the belly of a plane? In pieces of course, Gorzalczany the master-restorer explains.

Extraordinary fish and Roman merchant ships in a mosaic strip adjacent to the main mosaicCredit: Nikki Davidov, IAA

Ancient mosaics were built on top of a layer of large stones covered by fine stones and plaster, on which the artisan would sketch and then etch the outlines of the forms. Then, before laying the actual tesserae (mosaic tiles), a model would be created on the surface – and the tesserae are fit on that.

To transport the Lod mosaic overseas, the restorers carefully carved it up and packaged it together with hefty chunks of the supporting ancient flooring. At each display site, it would be lovingly reconstructed.

Now back home, sort of in situ anew, one cannot see any signs of it having been monkeyed with for display abroad. The restorers did a perfect job hiding the signs of its dismantling and reconstruction.

On the other hand, one clearly sees a diagonal stripe over a foot wide which, Gorzalczany says, is a bitter reminder of how the mosaic was found in the first place. That stripe, bald of tesserae, is where digging, during the initial salvage, destroyed this part of the mosaic.

The lighter diagonal bit is the modern damage caused when finding the thing. The upper-rightmost bird is reconstructed as a quail.Credit: Ruth Schuster

Yet in that diagonal of ruin, one sees the postulated restoration of a quail, the identification of which Gorzalczany is confident. It’s all about the tail. Quails were popular in Roman-era cuisine.

As for the ornate mosaic strip stretching the width of the mosaic and about a couple of feet wide, its style is different – and its colors are very different. It features green and yellow tesserae, some of them gilted (which the other mosaics don’t have). That strip section of this extraordinary whole was created during a Roman-era home renovation. There had been a wall there, which was torn down and the mosaic built in its place, Gorzalczany says.

And thus, the ancient homeowner wound up with a giant hall featuring basically five magnificent mosaics, with another (a sixth one, as it were) in the courtyard.

An aerial view of the site where the Shelby White and Leon Levy Mosaic Archaeological Center was constructed around the mosaic.Credit: Vlady and Limor Ben Dor

Were you a Jew?

What do all these mosaics show? Not any human beings, or any sign that could be reasonably interpreted as religious affiliation. They show somewhat stylized but recognizable animals, birds and fish, vegetation, and mythical creatures (something hopefully supernatural is apparently lurking in the vase between the two lions).

What is inside that vase? The lions of LodCredit: Ruth Schuster

In the main mosaic, the animal images surround an octagon featuring yet more exotic animals from the farthest-flung parts of the Roman Empire and beyond, from a lion to a giraffe, from a rhino to a tiger, bulls, and more. In other words, animals that hailed from Africa and India during the Roman period.

All the depicted animals were, it has been observed, known and appreciated in Rome chiefly for being done to death in gladiatorial arenas.

The artist's sandal-print on display at the Shelby White and Leon Levy Mosaic Archaeological Center in Lod. The artist had pretty big feet.Credit: Ruth Schuster

Today, popular opinion might not view a giraffe as particularly ferocious and worthy of gladiatorial attention. But the truth is they can be deadly, using their multiple-horned heads to butt and their feet to kick when attacked.

This central mosaic was sandwiched between two smaller panels: one showing more exotic animals; the other a seascape brimming with fish, some identifiable in species, and two Roman merchant ships.

While Byzantine churches in Israel and synagogues featured mosaics, archaeologists believe the edifice housing this art was not a place of worship, just the manse of a very wealthy family who could afford the best. What faith its owners may have been affiliated with, if any – Jewish, early Christian or persisting pagan – remains a mystery.
"Community tourism in an area of conflict is both an extraordinary experience for the tourist, and an opportunity for the local people to tell their story to the world," said Yossi Graiver, head of the JLM TIM tourism group, which runs the mosaic museum. "It's also an opportunity to develop tourism based on circular economics: people will set up tourism-based businesses telling their stories to the world."

While building the museum, they came to realize just how proud the people of Lod are in their mosaic, across all communities, Graiver adds: "That mosaic isn't Jewish, Christian or Islamic. Everybody can love it."

All these beloved mosaics were made using small tesserae, enabling the artisans to achieve a vast range of hues and special effects such as shadowing and volume. The fish look 3-D.

“The smaller the stones used in the mosaic, the more you can put into the picture and the better the quality – it’s like pixels,” explains Gorzalczany, who had led this second mosaic’s preservation. “This quality was outstanding, featuring a vast range of colors and gorgeous artwork, with shadowing, volume, plays on light and dark, and even use of gold-gilted stones and glass tiles, which was very rare.”

As for the absence of human forms, Gorzalczany confirms that this means nothing. One might speculate that the affluent commissioner of the art was deliberately eschewing the human form in keeping with the Jewish prohibition on depicting the image of humans made in the image of God. Or that the depiction of fish could suggest that the owner was an early Christian. But there’s no support for either hypothesis in the evidence to date. Maybe the owner just thought fish and other life forms are pretty.

All we can say based on these two great mosaic finds, and other items in the vicinity, is that ancient Lod, aka Lydda in the New Testament, clearly had an elite district.

An aerial shot of the 57-foot-long mosaic at Lod.Credit: Nikki Davidov

Today, the city of Lod is better known for its proximity to Israel’s international airport, but in history its role was more exalted. The area in general has been occupied since deep prehistory. Much later, Lod would be mentioned in Chronicles, in the context of the genealogy from Benjamin to Saul – as in “Shemed, who built Ono, and Lod, with the towns thereof” 1 Chronicles 8:12. Lod would also become a major center for ancient Jewish scholarship as much as 2,500 years ago.

Moving on a bit, the book of 1 Maccabees notes the city in the context of magnanimously being confirmed as a fief of the Jews by the Macedonian King Demetrius (who ruled from 294 to 288 B.C.E.): “We have decided to treat the nation of the Jews well. They are our friends and keep their obligations to us. ... We have confirmed, as their possession, the territory of Judea and the three districts of Aphairema, Lydda, and Rathamin.”

The Lod mosaic's traveling days are now over.Credit: Nikki Davidov / IAA

Lod is also cited as the site where Peter the Apostle reportedly healed a paralytic:

“When Peter was going around to all of God’s people, he came to those who lived in the city of Lydda. In Lydda Peter found a man named Aeneas who was paralyzed and confined to a cot for eight years. Peter said to him, Aeneas, Jesus Christ makes you well. Get up, and pick up your cot. Aeneas immediately got up” Acts 9:32-34.

Rather less edifying is the city’s fame as the site where Saint George was killed. It houses a Greek Orthodox church named for him, built partly atop a Crusader-period structure and Byzantine-period basilica, and the saint is why the Crusaders, at the time, renamed the city St. Jorge de Lidde.

Yet the beautiful mosaics hint at none of these religious motifs. They are what they are, beautiful pictures of animals that the Romans enjoyed watching kill each other, and sometimes undesirables as well. And fish, who never did get their day in the stadia of ancient Rome.

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