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Lost & Found In Lod, Israel

Stumbling upon archaeological digs in Israel is a wonderfully common experience. Many times I have been walking down a street on some random errand, or trying to find a parking spot in Tel Aviv and have almost overlooked the temporary billboard announcing that I am within yards of some treasure being unearthed for the first time in perhaps millennia. It’s a thrilling and humbling experience, putting your little life into proper perspective according to History (with a capital ‘H’.)

This time though, I was invited to join a group heading to Lod on a quest to inspect what is being hailed as “one of the most beautiful mosaics ever seen in the country.” (see the brochure text at the end of this article, www.antiquities.org.il)

Not to knock the magnificence of this find – but I was almost more intrigued by the process of just getting in to see it, the temporary structures erected for the project and the people’s quiet and pensive reactions – oh, and the mystery of its origins… but we’ll get to that part later. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Lod, to quote an Israeli, “is a dump.” Low rent, higher than average crime rate, old and unkempt housing, etc. It is July in Israel. It’s so humid and hot, even a lukewarm breeze would be a welcome relief from the intensity of the Middle Eastern Sun. It’s only 10am, and already you cannot imagine how it could possibly get more hot as the day progresses. Set amongst the previously mentioned unattractive housing, is a screened off area with armed guards at the entrance doing double-duty as they direct the cars weaving through the impromptu gravel “parking lot” set just off the side of a narrow paved street.

We manage to get in line under the makeshift tent, grabbing a bit of shady relief. We come to realize that they’re only letting in 50 people at a time. Rules like ‘no smoking’, ‘no food’, etc. are posted around to read while we wait, only they’re in Hebrew of course, so I guess I’m off the hook? (Ok, so I can read Hebrew – but I only understand maybe every third word.) Two groups go in ahead of us, and after about 30 minutes it’s finally our turn.

Inside, we walk to another waiting area under another temporarily erected tent and are given an introduction by a Hebrew speaking guide who is an archaeologist involved in the project. Looking ahead, I could see the previous group of 50 standing around a tent further down and I realize that we are being entertained while they finish snapping their photos of the mosaic which is now maybe 20 feet away from us. My Israeli companions gave me a real time, though intermittent, translation of what the guide was saying and I will attempt to coherently piece it together here.

The origins of the mosaic are a mystery. They do not know who built it, or why. They’ve established that it contains no religious motifs and that the structure surrounding it was not large. According to our guide, the structure’s intimate size is odd, because such an elaborate mosaic would more likely be found in a larger place. This leads them to speculate that it was a private retreat for some rich Roman – a Caesar perhaps, or someone like that.

There are approximately 1.5 million individual pieces of tile in all. Each one handpicked and broken from original stone – because none of them were painted, the colors have been well preserved over the last 1700 years.

Now for my own speculation (pardon the very rough estimates):  if the mosaicist laid down a thousand pieces of tile per hour, covering about 1/2 of a square foot, it would have taken 1500 hours to cover the entire 590 sq. ft. This would be 150 days straight, working 10 hour days. I imagine it probably took more like one whole dedicated year to finish. I found a small clue on the web regarding this:

“‘Mosaic is a slow technique…In painting you see the results immediately; in our art you have to wait.’ A mosaic altarpiece can take two to three years to make. A master of this art must have ‘great manual dexterity as well as a sensitive understanding of color…One must be in part a painter in order to be a good mosaicist.’”

So perhaps my estimation is too low… it may have taken more like five years. For some perspective, the Sistine Chapel took Michelangelo four years to paint, according to this article.
Enough speculation… onto the mosaic itself {drum roll please}…

With all to ‘to-do’ leading up to the point where we were actually in front of the mosaic, would it meet or even exceed our very built-up expectations? Quite. But I have to say, that trying to take photos of something that is on the ground, behind a wire fence, surrounded by 49 other people, under a mesh ‘ceiling’ which throws obstructing shadow patterns across the whole thing – was a tad difficult. Here’s what I got (click each image for a larger version):

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

“Thirteen years ago one of the most beautiful mosaics ever seen in the country was discovered in Lod, but was covered over because of the lack of a budget. Today the Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with the Municipality of Lod and with funding provided by the Leon Levy Foundation and the Jerome Levy Foundation, is carrying out conservation work on the mosaic prior to its presentation to the public.

The mosaic floor, which is one of the most magnificent and amazing ever discovered in Israel, was exposed in 1996. The mosaic covers an area of 180 square meters (590 square feet) and is of exceptional beauty and rare craftsmanship; it is extraordinarily well-preserved and dates to the Roman period (end of the third century and beginning of the fourth century CE). The mosaic is composed of colored “carpets” that depict in detail mammals, birds, fish, a variety of flora and the sailing and merchant chips that were used at the time.

After the mosaic is completely exposed it will be removed from the site and transferred to the conservation laboratory of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem. The conservation process will take many months during which a section of the mosaic will be sent on exhibit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. During this time the planning work will proceed and a visitor’s center will be erected. The mosaic will be returned to its place when the visitor’s center is finished and the site will be open to the public within the framework of an overall program that will turn Lod into a center of tourism.”

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