Ancient coins may provide a new date for the Roman mosaic from Lod, Israel
In 1996 the construction of a road in Lod, Israel, revealed a sumptuous Roman mosaic floor depicting wild animals, sailing ships, and marine scenes. To protect the find, which the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) called an “archaeological gem,” the road was rerouted and the mosaic reburied until 2009 when it was re-excavated, removed from the site, and conserved. The mosaic is now on a multi-venue tour while a new center is being built in Lod to house it.
The mosaic’s first stop is New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it has been on view since September 2010. The massive work, comprised of three panels—measuring a total of 24×13 feet—is displayed in the Met’s Roman galleries, partially out of practicality. Even though the mosaic was divided into seven individual pieces and set against an aluminum backing for easy shipping, “We couldn’t get them upstairs,” says Met curator Christopher Lightfoot. “There weren’t elevators big enough!” More important, however, the Roman galleries provide an appropriate setting for the piece. “It’s surrounded by art of the period,” he says. “It’s also on the floor, as it was meant to be seen.”
Lightfoot had the opportunity to appreciate the mosaic as it was really meant to be seen, in situ during a July 2009 visit to the site. “I was fortunate enough to be able to walk on it,” he says. “They didn’t even make me take off my shoes!” The floor is made of stone tesserae, he points out, making it quite sturdy.
I wasn’t nearly as lucky when I dropped by the site the month before to report on the excavation of an Ottoman khan, or roadside inn, on the other side of town in Lod’s Old City. The site of the mosaic’s discovery was fenced off at that time (photo at right), as the IAA was in early stages of preparing to move the work to its Jerusalem conservation laboratory.
Research is ongoing on the mosaic’s guilloche-trimmed menagerie—of panthers, lions, tigers, birds, even a sea monster and a peacock—and its scene of dolphins and fish swarming around ships with detailed rigging. “This mosaic is really quite unique, particularly for that area,” says Lightfoot. “The Israelis say, and I agree with them, that there seems to be a North African influence on it.” What strikes me, however, is the area where they disagree: the mosaic’s date—whether it was made in the third or at the beginning of the fourth century A.D.
According to the preliminary excavation report, Lightfoot says, the majority of coins found in rubble atop the floor date to the third century. “I’ve asked the Israelis to be more specific because they want to date it to around A.D. 300, the very beginning of the fourth century,” he says. “Well, if the ‘third-century’ coins are Tetrarchic and post [coinage] reform [A.D. 294], that’s fine. But if they are antoniniani [215–294], then it rather suggests it can’t be 300, it’s got to be earlier.” He’s also asked the IAA if material found underneath the floor may further help date the mosaic. “Unfortunately, I haven’t had any reply to that query,” he says. “Hopefully they will investigate that because I’m not sure, then, whether they dated the mosaic on those criteria or on stylistic grounds. I would look at it and ask, ‘Why not say it was earlier, in the third century?’”
After all, Lod (ancient Lydda) was awarded the rank of a Roman colony in A.D. 200 under Septimius Severus who hailed from North Africa, from Libya. “Again, that makes me wonder whether there is a more appropriate time to place this than around 300,” says Lightfoot. “In A.D. 296, there was a big revolt in Egypt under the Tetrarchs, so there would have been a certain amount of destruction—from North Africa, through Egypt, to Lod,” which would make the presence of such a beautiful, well-preserved North African–inspired mosaic difficult to explain.
In light of current events, there couldn’t be a more relevant time to hope that history does not repeat itself—and that the Middle East remains full of beautiful things.
The Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel, is on view at the Met through April 3.