Lod Mosaic tells nearly 2,000-year-old story from ancient Israel

The oldest stone mosaic ever discovered—the Pebble Mosaic from Megaron 2, which dates to 850 B.C.E.—was found by the Penn Museum in the 1950s at the site of Gordion in Turkey, so it is only fitting that the Lod Mosaic, one of the world’s largest and best-preserved mosaics, would make its fifth and final U.S. stop at the Museum before traveling to the Louvre.

Discovered near Tel Aviv in 1996 in Lod, Israel, the Mosaic, from 300 C.E., was unearthed while enlarging a highway. Jacob Fisch, executive director of the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority, says a worker at the construction site first noticed the tail of a tiger and halted work. Three more minutes, Fisch says, and the Mosaic could have been destroyed.

The worker, by the way, was given a raise.

Further excavations revealed a pristine, 2,000-square-foot mosaic, filled with striking paintings of plants and exotic animals.

The Museum’s “Unearthing a Masterpiece: A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel” exhibition displays a 13-foot by 24-foot section of the Lod Mosaic. Notwithstanding almost 2,000 years of wear-and-tear, it appears to be near mint condition.

C. Brian Rose, a professor of classical studies at Penn and curator in charge of the Mediterranean Section at Penn Museum, says the man who built and decorated the home that sheltered the mosaic was probably a wealthy aristocrat involved in the exotic animal export industry. The house was destroyed in the 7th century and remained virtually untouched until 1996.

Rose says the exotic animals pictured in the mosaic—lions, giraffes, elephants, tigers, and rhinos—were most likely imported from Africa and the Near East and then shipped off to Italy to be used in Gladiatorial games.

The nationality of the mosaic owner is unknown, as is his religious affinity.

Rose says the most distinctive aspect of the mosaic is the fact that there are no human figures.

“Normally, in this mosaic, you see at least one or two humans,” he says. “And given the fact that we have boats, one of which is under sail, you would expect to see human figures. It’s hard to say why there are no human figures.”

Kate Quinn, director of exhibitions at the Museum, first saw the Lod Mosaic in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“It’s one of the best-preserved mosaics in the world,” she says. “There’s an amazing sense of preservation behind it. You can clearly make out a lot of the ethnography and some of the species in the story that is told are really remarkable, as well. Something this large and in this state of preservation is very unique.”

Quinn was responsible for working with the Israel Antiquities Authority to get the mosaic into the Museum, which was a challenge because of the mosaic’s vast size. Too big to fit through the Museum’s front or side doors, the mosaic was packaged in seven large crates that were lifted by crane onto a platform built above the Museum’s Warden Garden Koi pond.

“When we were unpacking crates, we got to see little bits of the pieces,” Quinn says. “We started to put them together roughly and it was really just breathtaking.”

The Lod Mosaic is at rest in the Museum next to the Israel, Canaan, and Rome galleries. It will remain there until May 12, and will stop in Paris and Berlin before reaching its final resting place, the pending Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center in Israel.

Originally published on February 21, 2013