Coming soon after the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology celebrated its 125th anniversary, the news that the West Philadelphia institution had been chosen as the final stop of the United States tour of a major exhibit from Israel could rightly be seen as a valedictory.
As C. Brian Rose, the museum’s exhibition content expert and curator in charge of the Mediterranean section, put it, “We have always had a strong relationship with the Israel Antiquities Authority,” the organization responsible for studying and protecting the archaeological treasures found across the country.
Timing also played a role in bringing Unearthing a Masterpiece: A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel here. When it became apparent that construction delays meant that the not-yet completed Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center — the future permanent home of the mosaic — wouldn’t be ready as scheduled, the authority decided to put the extra time to good use by bringing the exhibition here.
The exhibit opened this week and runs until May 12.
Since its founding in 1887, the museum has placed an emphasis on artifacts discovered in the Holy Land. Semitic treasures were part of the very first collection displayed when the museum opened the doors at its current location for the first time in 1899. The museum has also sent numerous archaeological expeditions to Israel over the decades, including the landmark Beth Shean projects of the 20th century.
As testament to the ongoing focus on Israel, the Lod mosaic exhibition is found on the third floor, adjacent to the permanent Canaan and Israel Gallery.
Once inside the exhibition, Rose and his staff make it clear that you are walking in the footsteps of greatness: One of the first artifacts visitors see is the mortar-preserved footprint of what is assumed to be one of the workers responsible for assembling the circa 300 C.E. mosaic.
Taking up the majority of the gallery floor, the 300-square-foot section (taken from the original 1,900-square-foot mosaic) is stunning. The colors of the tesserae that comprise the design are vivid, and the artwork, especially of animals that would have been exotic in Israel in the fourth century, like giraffes and elephants, is arresting. In terms of both craftsmanship and condition, archaeology experts say that the only mosaic to compare to it is the fourth century example in Villa Romana de Casale in Sicily.
The mosaic, first discovered in 1996 by workmen preparing to widen a street in the central Israeli city of Lod, was finally unearthed beginning in 2009, after the Israeli Antiquities Authority decided that the best course of action was to leave it right where it was.
“We didn’t know exactly what to do with it,” Jacob Fisch, the executive director of the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority, explained, when asked the reason for the 13-year gap between discovery and recovery. “The citizens of Lod are so proud of it — they never would have let us take it out of the city.”
After years of studying the situation, Fisch said that the solution was right under their feet: to build the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center directly on top of the mosaic. This was no small feat, considering that the Lod neighborhood where the mosaic was unearthed, located five minutes from Ben-Gurion Airport, is filled with apartment buildings and businesses built for the first wave of post-independence immigrants.
Fisch is also the man responsible for shepherding the mosaic on its world tour. To take advantage of the delay between eminent domain and completion of the center’s construction, it was decided he would take the mosaic on the road, including stops at the Louvre in Paris and the Altes Museum in Berlin — the first official Israeli exhibition in either museum.
The mosaic is as fascinating for what is unknown about it as what is known. While the size and quality of the mosaic make it obvious that the person who commissioned it had great wealth, the client remains anonymous. Rose notes that the quality of work, not to mention the portrayal of animals unknown in Israel at the time, means that the artisans were likely brought in from another part of the empire. Authority archaeologists Elie Haddad and Miriam Avissar posit that the unusual absence of any human representation suggests that the mosaic was commissioned by a Jew who observed the commandment against graven images.
Rose says that the sheer number and variety of animals depicted suggest that the person dealt with animal trading, perhaps for gladiatorial duties. The presence of ships in the mosaic also leads him to think that the person derived income from maritime shipping — a theory borne out by the fact that the ships appear to be Roman merchant vessels used to transport goods to and from the capital of the empire.
TO LEARN MORE
Unearthing a Masterpiece: A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel
University of Pennsylvania Museum
of Archaeology and Anthropology
3260 South St., Philadelphia
Other events at the museum that will tie into the exhibition including a lecture by Yossi Garfinkel, the Yigael Yadin chair in archaeology of Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The event, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, will focus on “Cult and Politics in Israel at the Time of King David” on Feb. 17 at 3:00 p.m.
For more details about the mosaic, the Lod Mosaic Center and the progress of uncovering other mosaics in Lod, check out the center’s website, www.lodmosaic.org .