Ancient splendor

The recent excavation of the elaborate Bird Mosaic in a sixth-century Byzantine mansion has enthusiasts flocking to Caesarea.

Anyone who was anyone in Byzantine times had a mosaic floor. The aristocratic Christian family that lived in a recently excavated sixth-century Caesarea mansion must have been particularly influential. The mansion - atop a hill in a wooded area overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the outskirts of modern Caesarea's old Area 2 neighborhood - included a hall, a second story originally supported by columns, and a remarkable mosaic-paved courtyard. Opened to the public this week, the 16 x 14.5 meter mosaic "carpet" was once the centerpiece of a large 62 x 40 meter expanse. The mosaic's border features a series of running animals including a lion, panther, wild boar, ibex, antelope, dog, elephant, and bull. Interspersed among the animals are fruit trees. Forming the heart of the mosaic are 120 medallions, each containing a single bird, known as the "Bird Mosaic." According to the excavation project director Dr. Yosef Porat, mosaics in Byzantine palaces commonly depicted hunting motifs. These scenes, he explains, could portray animals hunting each other or - as is the case in the Caesarea mosaic - dogs chasing wild animals. The condition and beauty of the floor have generated considerable excitement in the archeological fraternity - yet this is not the first time that the Bird Mosaic has been unearthed. It was first discovered in 1950 by soldiers digging trenches during a military exercise, although excavations of the area were not carried out for another five years. During the 1955 dig, the east wall and the northeast and southeast corners were uncovered. The dig also revealed a strip west of the east wall, where the remains of a wall and a floor were found. The finds became covered with sand in the early part of the 1960s and remained buried under dunes for nearly 50 years. Last year, the Israel Antiquities Authority's (IAA) Conservation Department uncovered the mosaic to gauge its condition and carry out preservation and maintenance work. A preliminary examination of the south, west, and east of the Bird Mosaic revealed that nearby rooms also had mosaic floors. This prompted the need for further investigation. Earlier this year, Porat headed a small-scale dig aimed at charting the room plan to the south and west of the mosaic. The Caesarea Development Corporation invested NIS 600,000 in the project. During the course of the full uncovering of the mosaic, a large cistern was found beneath the floor, though this remains unexcavated. A plastered pool was also discovered at the northwest end of the complex. There is some debate regarding the function of the structure housing the Bird Mosaic. Archaeologists working on the site in 1955 conjectured that the mosaic floor formed part of an unroofed church. Porat, however, believes that the mansion probably belonged to a prominent citizen of Caesarea or an aristocrat associated with the province of Palestina Primae, of which Caesarea was capital. "For sure, it belonged to a very rich family. The building covered at least 1,500 square meters, and at least half of it had two stories," says Porat. He dismisses the idea that the building was a monastery or Christian site by explaining that he would have expected to find religious symbols and inscriptions on the floor. No such objects were discovered. In fact, very few objects of any sort were found. Those that were found include a large number of iron nails, several bronze nails, iron and bronze door hinges, two lion-head handles, and two cross-shaped handles. So far, no identifiable coins have been found among the ruins. What the excavation did reveal is that the villa had been destroyed by fire. Porat has a theory to explain the fire. The Byzantine period in Caesarea ended around 640 CE, when Arabs captured the country. Porat assumes that one of the Arab conquerors' first actions would have been to destroy any buildings located outside the city walls, including this villa. "It was taken, plundered, and set on fire," he says. So far, no inscriptions have been found to support Porat's theory, but only part of the structure has been excavated thus far. "I'm sure an entire palace is waiting for us," he says. Despite the fire and subsequent looting, Porat's latest excavation has unearthed a unique gold-encrusted table. It had been overturned before the mansion was destroyed and was found lying face down. It was covered with rubble from the destruction of the upper story, while its wooden tabletop had been burnt in the fire, leaving only the glass outer layer. "We were lucky to find this table - a very rare find and the first one, to our knowledge, discovered during an archaeological excavation." Jacques Neguer, a conservation specialist with the IAA, is unconvinced that this object is actually a table. "This is just one of the possibilities," he says. Other possibilities are that the object formed part of a window in a wall niche, or the back of a bishop's throne. What Neguer, a specialist in materials and conservation, can clarify is the complicated process used to make the item. He confirms that the table - like the courtyard floor - is a mosaic, although the tabletop is made from glass, not stone. The process of creation was, he says, very complex. "The technology to make this glass was known from Byzantine times. It was extremely complicated, so the price of these objects was very high. Every piece was made to order, with meticulous shapes expressly for this purpose." The table is shaped like a capital D - straight at the bottom and rounded at the top. This was a common table shape in the Roman and Byzantine periods. It is inlaid with gold-encrusted glass platelet. These squares, rectangles, and triangles form a repetitive pattern. Each glass square bears a flower or a cross that was stamped into it, a difficult method that required reheating the glass. Neguer does not believe that the process could have been performed locally, rather in Alexandria or Italy. Like so much else at the site, this theory has yet to be proven. The table is undergoing preservation. The Bird Mosaic, however, is open to the public, who can see it in situ free of charge. The floor has been strengthened so that visitors can not only admire it from afar but also walk freely on the 1,500-year-old tiles. In the heat of the day the colors of the mosaic are quite muted. Once the birds and animals are wetted, however, they come to life in an extraordinary way, displaying an astonishing variety of hues. To get the best view of the floor it is perhaps worth postponing a visit until winter and waiting until just after a rainstorm to see the mosaic in its full glory. Caesarea: A historical perspective Caesarea's rich history makes it one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in Israel. The town's spectacular archaeological remains include a restored Roman theater, massive Crusader fortifications, and the harbor. King Herod constructed arched storehouses behind the port that can still be seen today. Above the storehouses is the site of the temple to Augustus Caesar and the Goddess Roma, destroyed to make way for a church during the Byzantine period and subsequently replaced by a mosque during the Arab rule. Caesarea's famous theater is the oldest in Eretz Israel, and entertained the city for 500 years. With a diameter of approximately 100 meters, it could seat up to 4,000 spectators. Located close to the sea in the southern part of the city, the theater originally staged plays of Greek and Roman origin, though later mimic plays, known for making fun of the Jewish community and religion, were performed there. Many cities in ancient Rome were called "Caesarea." To distinguish the port city built between Dora and Joopa (modern-day Tantura and Jaffa), it was named Caesarea Maritima or Caesar's city on the sea. The area was first settled during the Hellenistic period (third century BCE) by the Phoenicians, who built a small port city named Strato's (or Straton's) Tower (Turris Stratonis). After Alexander Jannaeus (king of Judea 103 - 76 BCE) captured Strato's Tower, the city remained in Jewish hands for two generations until the Roman conquest of 63 BCE. Herod the Great (73 - 4 BCE) rebuilt the city and dedicated it to his Roman patron, Augustus Caesar. He constructed it according to the plan of a traditional Roman city, including fortifications, palaces, marketplaces, an amphitheater, hippodrome, forum, and bathhouses. The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius illustrates the reconstruction of Caesarea in his chronicle The Jewish War. "[Herod] rebuilt it entirely with limestone and adorned it with a most splendid palace. Nowhere did he show more clearly the liveliness of his imagination." In 22 BCE Herod began the construction of a deep-sea harbor, considered at the time to be one of the most modern in the world, which he named Sebatos - Greek for "Augustus." Josephus describes the process in detail. "[Herod] first marked out the area for a harbor of the size mentioned, and then lowered into 20 fathoms of water blocks of stone mostly 50 feet long, nine deep and 10 broad, but sometimes even bigger." When the foundation reached water level, Herod built a mole - a massive stone wall - half of which acted as a breakwater. He also built huge towers, the largest and most beautiful of which is named Drusium, after Caesar's stepson. During the Byzantine Empire (324 - 640 CE), much of the land to the south of the city was used for agriculture. The area continued to be farmed until the Crusader conquest in the 11th century. Over time, shifting sands buried this agricultural land as they would eventually cover the port. Caesarea was captured during the first Crusade in 1095. Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the Crusade leaders, levied heavy taxes on the city's residents. To quell the subsequent protests, Godfrey's brother, Baldwin I, pillaged Caesarea and slaughtered its inhabitants in 1101. After attacks on the city by Saladin in 1187 and the Mameluke sultan Baybars in 1265, the Crusaders gave up defending Caesarea and fled. The Mamelukes, fearful of the Crusaders' return, razed the city to the ground. Caesarea lay in ruins until the 19th century. Following a failed attempt by Circassians to claim the land, a Bosnian fishing village was established among the ruins in 1884. It was later taken over by Arabs and inhabited until 1948.