A rare, colorful mosaic dating from the 2nd-3rd century was recently uncovered in the ancient port city of Caesarea, located halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. It is one of the few extant examples of mosaics from the time period in Israel and its craftsmanship is compared by archaeologists to the fine artistry found in Antioch.
During work on an expansion of Caesarea National Park in what is arguably Israel’s largest conservation and reconstruction project to date, the mosaic was discovered under an opulent commercial structure from the Byzantine period. According to archaeologists Dr. Peter Gendelman and Dr. Uzi ‘Ad, directors of the excavation for the Israel Antiquities Authority, the mosaic predates the shopping structure by some 300 years and was once part of an even earlier building from approximately 1,800 years ago.
There are three figures depicted on the uncovered section, as well as typical multicolored geometric patterns, which were formed using small tesserae (mosaic pieces) placed densely at about 12,000 stones per square meter.
“The figures, all males, wear togas and apparently belonged to the upper class. The central figure is frontal and the two other face him on either side,” said the archaeologists in an IAA press release.
“Who are they? That depends on what the building was used for, which is not yet clear. If the mosaic was part of a mansion, the figures may have been the owners. If this was a public building, they might have represented the donors of the mosaic or members of the city council,” said the archaeologists.
Of potentially even more interest than the beautifully formed images is a long inscription in ancient Greek. It was unfortunately damaged by the Byzantine building constructed on top of it, but is being studied now by epigrapher Dr. Leah Di Segni from the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology.
Gendelman hailed the find as “important” to the physical historical record on show in the popular archaeological park. The mosaic dates from when the area was the Roman Empire’s administrative center in the Judaea Province. During excavations at the multilayered coastal city, archaeologists have uncovered ample evidence of the Herodian and Crusader periods. “This time period is not often found in Israel,” Gendelman told The Times of Israel on Thursday.
“Sadly, the inscription is very harmed [by the construction],” said Gendelman. While the team is still awaiting Di Segni’s expertise to decipher the ancient Greek text, he said that there are several visible letters of what appears to be a very long, multiword inscription.
Di Segni told The Times of Israel that she has sent a tentative reading to the excavators, but needs more information before making public any hypothetical reading.
“It is very hard to read the inscription, for lots of letters are missing and many of those that are not, are unclear,” said Di Segni.
Currently, the mosaic is being treated by the IAA’s conservation wing with the intent to show it to the public in situ in Caesarea, said Gendelman. While it is too early to know the conservation plan, it is possible that like comparably important mosaics such as the ones discovered in Lod, it may need to be removed from the site and returned after having been preserved and prepared for public viewing from a new promenade in Caesarea.
The facelift and expansion of the Caesarea National Park, known for its Roman theater and Reef Palace, is made possible by a NIS 100 million donation from the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation and the Caesarea Development Corporation.
“Old Caesarea never stops surprising, fascinating and thrilling us, time after time revealing slices of history of worldwide significance. This amazing mosaic is a unique find in Israel,” said Guy Swersky, Vice Chairman of the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation.
The mosaic was uncovered during an IAA archaeological excavation, in cooperation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which is part of reconstruction work on a Crusader-era entrance bridge. A new promenade, under construction by the Caesarea Development Corporation, will include the mosaic, and is planned to extend from the town of Jisr a-Zarqa to the Caesarea National Park.
Even ahead of the park’s expansion, over 700,000 visitors wander through its wonders every year, according to Michael Karsenti, CEO of the Caesarea Development Corporation. He added that the historically rich multicultural site is being preserved with an eye to keeping its archaeological history in situ, in the locations where findings are uncovered.
Karsenti stressed that in addition to this mosaic, the expanded sections of the park will have many new finds to display.
“The impressive mosaic joins the many other important recently unearthed archaeological finds. Among these is the altar of the temple built by Herod 2,000 years ago and mentioned by the ancient historian Josephus Flavius; a mother-of-pearl tablet etched with a seven-branched candelabrum, as well as the statue of a ram, which was a symbol of a Christian congregation in the Byzantine period,” said Karsenti.
Israel Hasson, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, welcomes the “fruitful cooperation” between the different institutions working on the archaeology and its preservation.
“Work over the past few years will make this city’s magnificent heritage accessible to an even broader public and will restore Caesarea to its glory days as a thriving and cosmopolitan port city, rewarding all visitors with a rich cultural experience,” said Hasson.