During Roman rule, the city of Lod, also known as Lydda, flourished as the regional capital with a very diverse and cosmopolitan population, including Jews, pagans and early Christians. Sometime in the third century, a member of the wealthy elite, perhaps a merchant or political leader, commissioned the construction of a lavish villa in what was then the affluent quarter of the city, replete with floors made of the most impressive mosaics of its time.
The villa underwent various changes and renovations over the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic periods, with rooms and mosaics added, walls taken down and put up, until apparently it all came tumbling down in an earthquake in 749 CE.
The mosaics were uncovered almost completely preserved 1,700 years later in 1996 during a rescue excavation led by late Antiquities Authority archaeologist Miriam Avissar prior to road construction work in an area adjacent to Ginton junction in the northeast of the city.
“It was the biggest and most impressive and unique mosaic discovered in Israel,” Mark Avrahami, head of the IAA Art Conservation Unit, said Monday at the dedication ceremony of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center.
The mosaic will go on public display at the center beginning this summer, following its exhibition worldwide since 2010, including at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The ceremony took place in the presence of donor Shelby White and representatives of the Leon Levy Foundation, senior representatives of the IAA, the Tourism Ministry and the Lod Municipality.
“It is very impressive in its artistic style, and its state of preservation was perfect,” Avrahami said, adding that the mosaic details includes shadows of the animal images as well as blood dripping from a bull in one panel depicting a hunting or fighting scene with a lion.
After its discovery, the mosaic was documented and photographed in situ by the IAA Art Conservation Unit team, which was led by Jacques Neguer at the time. Due to a lack of funds for its continued conservation and development of an exhibition space, the mosaic was re-covered at the conclusion of the excavations.
In 2009, funding for conservation of the mosaic and construction of an exhibition center came in the form of a donation from the Leon Levy Foundation and Shelby White, chairwoman of the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority. In collaboration with the Lod Municipality and the IAA, they established the modern archaeological complex.
The decision to create the museum for the mosaic required that it be moved while construction took place. After further conservation and documentation work at the IAA’s Rockefeller Museum conservation lab, the mosaic went on its international museum tour starting in 2010 until the complex was completed.
In addition to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was shown in other prominent museums, including the Louvre in Paris, the Altes Museum in Berlin, the Legion of Honor, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
"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."
“From the moment Leon and I saw this historic mosaic, we knew how important it was for the town of Lod and the world,” Shelby said at the official opening ceremony. “The mosaic was found here, and we wanted it to stay here.
“It took so many people to make it happen and everybody took part, and were so enthusiastic. My intent was to bring it back to the neighborhood where it was found to help the local economy and local residents. We want to local community, the school children to take pride to be in Lod.”Shelby White
They decided not to include a restaurant at the center so that nearby restaurants can benefit from the presence of the center’s visitors, she said.
WHILE THE mosaic itself is impressive, the finds discovered underneath the foundation and near it were no less impressive, Avrahami said. They included footprints, a handprint of a fist where somebody placed his hand to steady himself as he worked and several examples of a colored sinopia – the mosaic model sculpted in fresh plaster used to lay out the design before the mosaic is made. Normally, the sinopia is monochromed, and it is the first time such a colored technique was found here, he said.
“It is like meeting the Roman people who worked here,” he added.
The opulence of the mosaic is indicative of the Roman tendency, much like in today’s world, to always have the best, most impressive homes and possessions, Avrahami said.
“There was a competition between the rich and the ruling elite,” he said.
While the names of the skilled artists who created this magnificent mosaic have been lost to time, based on the sumptuous style, motifs and quality, it could only have been made by the renowned school of artists who roamed throughout the Roman empire during that period, making similar creations in places such as Carthage and Sicily, IAA senior research archaeologist Hagit Torge said.
“This is the Rolls Royce,” she said. “This is the most visually impressive mosaic we have found. This is the whole point of archaeology – not just the structures, but trying to understand the people who built them and lived in them, their social structure and environmental relations.”
During construction of the center in 2014 and 2018, two other mosaics were found at the site, said Amir Gorzalczany, director of the excavation and head of the scientific evaluation branch of the IAA. One was an additional colored mosaic that was part of the mansion’s courtyard. Left in place, it is also included in the center as part of the visitors’ experience. The other is exhibited on the walls.
The central square panel of the main mosaic once graced what was probably a large audience room. Within a 17-meter-long and about nine-meter-wide area there are smaller squares and triangles depicting various birds, fish and animals that surround a larger octagonal scene with ferocious wild animals, including a lion and lioness, an elephant, a giraffe, rhinoceros, tiger and wild bull.
These depictions also hint to some of the entertainment or events people of that social strata experienced or saw, Torge said.
A northern panel continues with the same theme of wild creatures, while a southern panel features a single marine scene of fish and two Roman merchant ships. A striking feature of the mosaics is that none contain a human figure, and there is no overt religious content, making it difficult for experts to determine whether the owner of the luxurious villa was pagan, Jewish or Christian.
The design of the main mosaic was influenced by that of North African mosaics, Gorzalczany said. A smaller one found later with its images of fish in circles and semicircles is reminiscent of mosaics found in Western Europe, he added.
“The mosaic is impressive, and the effort put into making the mosaic is very apparent,” Gorzalczany said. “But beyond the mosaic itself, there is also the contact with the people who lived here and the simple laborers who worked here. It is very human.”