While building museum to house stunning Lod mosaic, researchers unearth another

Fresh piece falls into place to the 1,700-year-old puzzle of who was the wealthy — maybe Jewish — owner of a sumptuous Roman villa discovered 20 years ago under a garbage dump

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Uncovering the new Lod mosaic. (Amir Gorzalczany)
    Uncovering the new Lod mosaic. (Amir Gorzalczany)
  • Animal figures in the newly exposed Lod mosaic. (Asaf Peretz, IAA)
    Animal figures in the newly exposed Lod mosaic. (Asaf Peretz, IAA)
  • The edge of the newly exposed Lod mosaic is exposed. (Niki Davidov, IAA)
    The edge of the newly exposed Lod mosaic is exposed. (Niki Davidov, IAA)
  • Animal figures in the newly exposed Lod mosaic. (Asaf Peretz, IAA)
    Animal figures in the newly exposed Lod mosaic. (Asaf Peretz, IAA)
  • Animal figures in the newly exposed Lod mosaic. (Asaf Peretz, IAA)
    Animal figures in the newly exposed Lod mosaic. (Asaf Peretz, IAA)

An additional 1,700-year-old mosaic floor was recently discovered in excavations of the villa of a wealthy merchant in Lod. This new colorful snapshot of sumptuous Roman life was uncovered during preparations for a museum to house the original, massive Lod mosaic, which was discovered under a garbage dump in 1996 and has since toured the world.

New artifacts and architectural evidence from the late third century-early fourth century Roman period uncovered in recent excavation are causing archaeologists to reevaluate the rich merchant’s holdings, according to Israel Antiquities Authority’s dig director Dr. Amir Gorzalczany.

“The excavations at the site exposed a villa that included a large luxurious mosaic-paved reception room triclinium, and an internal columned courtyard, also with mosaics, and a water system. We found evidence for Mediterranean luxury that characterized the Roman empire, including attributes such as fresco wall paintings,” said Gorzalczany in an IAA press release.

With the new mosaic, archaeologists wonder just how large the man’s villa actually was. Could he have been the Mark Zuckerberg of 4th century Lod?

The newly exposed section of the Lod mosaic. (Niki Davidov, IAA)

“The discovery, in close proximity to the earlier hall, raises new questions: How large was the building? Did the villa comprise several reception halls? Where were the private living rooms? Was there a second story? These issues may be resolved in future excavations,” said Gorzalczany.

Much like the other eye-widening mosaics found in Lod, this new floor depicts realistic and fantastical animals and designs, but no human figures.

“Thankfully, the main central panel of the mosaic was preserved. The figures, many similar to the figures in the earlier mosaics, comprise fish and winged creatures. A fairly similar mosaic was found in the past in Jerusalem, on the Mount Zion slopes.

The original Lod mosaic that was uncovered in 1996, and was exhibited world-wide. (Niki Davidov, IAA)

The Lod mosaics, however, do not depict any human figures that are present in the Mount Zion mosaic,” said Gorzalczany, who believes both sites’ mosaics may have been produced by the same artist, or working from similar designs. “This type of mosaic is better known in the Western part of the Roman Empire.

On portions of the new mosaic, Gorzalczany’s team found regular rectangular impressions, which he said could denote the placing of couches upon which guests reclined during feasts. “These marks are common in similar villas and are an indication of the use of the space in the reception halls,” said Gorzalczany.

Gorzalczany said that while the archaeological excavation carried out in July was relatively small, it “contributed significantly to our understanding of the villa building.”

Dramatic footage provided by the IAA depicts the mosaic’s careful removal for conservation so that construction of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center could proceed. It was treated and removed from the site for conservation by a fascinating rolling technique — imagine cookie dough wrapped around a rolling pin — under the guidance of the Conservation Department of the IAA and supervised by head of the Artistic Conservation Branch Jacques Neguer and head of the Mosaics Department Galeb Abu-Diab.

The Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center is currently under construction in the city, near Ben Gurion Airport, and is set to open in another two years, according to the IAA. It is a joint initiative of Shelby White and the Leon Levy Foundation, the Lod Municipality, the Lod Economic Development Corporation and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The idea is to form a modern structure over the 4th century villa, which will preserve the mosaics and the general floor plan from 1,700 years ago.

The villa was originally uncovered by the late IAA archaeologist, Dr. Miriam Avissar, who also unearthed the breath-taking first mosaic. Made up of several panels, it is 17 meters long and 9 meters wide — approximately 180 square meters in area (some 1,940 square feet). Among the colorful illustrations found on the mosaic are animals including elephants, lions, birds, fish and crustaceans. There is also plant life and flowers, boats and geometric patterns.

Centerpiece of the original Lod mosaic, discovered in 1996. (Niki Davidov, IAA)

Found under a garbage dump in 1996, it was recovered and guarded until it was finally excavated and removed in 2009. In line with its seafaring motifs, the mosaic has had an adventure of its own: Following conservation, the mosaic has toured the world, going on display in Paris, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and, most recently and for the first time in Israel, in Haifa.

The original Lod mosaic on display at the Haifa-based National Maritime Museum, April 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

The Haifa exhibit included panels on how the mosaic was made, as well as reconstructions of Roman ships, based on the flooring’s colorful designs.

A Haaretz article on the Haifa exhibit quoted Dr. Zaraza Friedman, an archaeologist and expert on the iconography of ships in mosaics, who said the owner was “involved in the maritime trade” and “had widespread connections with North Africa.” In part because there are no humans depicted in the mosaic, Friedman hypothesized that the owner was a traditional Jew from a family that migrated to Lod following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Animal figures in the newly exposed Lod mosaic. (Asaf Peretz, IAA)

South of the main mosaic, a second colorful mosaic was found in 2015, which will also be incorporated in the museum along with this new third find.

The colorful animal depictions captured philanthropist Shelby White’s imagination decades ago. “The Lod Museum will be a dream come true, that began when my husband Leon Levy and I first saw the magnificent mosaic more than 20 years ago,” she said.

Lod mayor Yair Revivo said he was fascinated by the centrality of his city so many centuries ago. “The establishment of the center exhibiting aspects of the rich history of Lod will provide an impressive gateway to the town,” he said.

Animal figures in the newly exposed Lod mosaic. (Asaf Peretz, IAA)

The center was meant to open in 2019, but is now set for a more vague “in two years.” If it was this new mosaic that is holding up construction, it is well worth the wait. Ahead of its opening, director of the IAA Israel Hasson said he is “happy that the citizens of Israel and worldwide will be able to appreciate the cultural heritage that has waited patiently for world recognition, and will now receive the honor it deserves.”

The conservation experts prepare to remove the newly exposed section of the Lod mosaic for conservation. When the Visitors’ Center is erected the mosaic will be displayed. (Raleb Abu Diab, IAA)

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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