Mosaic Tells Nearly 2,000-Year-Old Story

One of the world’s largest and best-preserved stone mosaics has made its final U.S. stop at the Penn Museum.

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, from 300 C.E. Notwithstanding almost 2,000 years of wear-and-tear, the Mosaic appears to be in near-mint condition.

Discovered near Tel Aviv in 1996 in Lod, Israel, the Mosaic was unearthed when an employee at a highway construction site first noticed the tail of a tiger and halted work. Three more minutes, 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.

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.

“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.”

The Lod Mosaic will remain at the Museum 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.

Text by Greg Johnson
Photos by Steve Minicola