Newly unearthed ancient Roman mosaic on view at Penn Museum

An ancient Roman floor recently discovered in Israel has come to Philadelphia.

There are no human figures in the mosaic. No religious symbols. Nothing to show if the owner was Jewish, Christian or pagan.

Instead there are animals. Fish and fowl, giraffes and tigers and elephants and rhinoceros; predator and prey. But the lion does not lie down with the lamb here. The imagery, rendered in tiny cubes of colored stone, includes a sequence showing a lion stalking an antelope, pouncing upon it and then bringing down its prey, finally devouring the dead animal in a pool of blood.

“It’s not unlikely that the owner of the house that this mosaic decorated was a dealer in the exotic animal business — importing animals from different parts of Africa and the Near East, and shipping them to Italy where they would be used in the gladiatorial games,” said Brian Rose, a curator in the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology where the mosaic exhibit will open Sunday.

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“It was a lucrative business. If you think that after the dedication of Colosseum in 80 AD there were about 10,000 animals sacrificed over the course of a few months. So one needed as many exotic animals as possible.”

The complete floor, circa 300, measures 50 feet by 27 feet. It was discovered in 1996 in the Israeli city of Lod during an excavation for a Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. It was immediately covered back up for 13 years while the Israel Antiquities Authority figured out what to do with it.

Philadelphia stop part of international tour

Three years ago, a portion of the floor — about 300 square feet — was pulled from the ground and sent on an international tour with its most recent stop at the Penn Museum. The rest remains underground in Lod.

Tile floors from this era, the Late Roman Period, are not particularly rare, but this one is notable for its nearly pristine condition and the quality of its artistry. The different colors of stone were sourced from different quarries at considerable expense and the owner likely imported artisans and employed them for years to finish the floor.

“There was a lot of money floating around. People liked enormous houses with mosaic floors,” Rose said. “There was a system of aristocratic competition. You wanted to be sure the decoration in your house was even grander than the decoration in your neighbor’s house.”

It likely got attention 1,700 years ago, and it’s getting attention now. The mosaic floor has been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and, after the Philadelphia stop (until May 12), it will travel to the Louvre in Paris. Then it will go back into its hole in Lod, a depressed city near Tel Aviv where political tensions can run high.

A new museum, to be called the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center, is under construction on the site of the excavation. The mosaic will be the centerpiece, viewed in the exact spot where it was originally laid 1700 years ago.

“The mosaic was discovered in a residential area,” said Jacob Fisch, executive director of the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Buildings abut the new museum being built. It’s right there, a few yards away. They are very proud to have one of the greatest treasures discovered in Israel discovered in their backyard, and for the mosaic to lift the condition of the city of Lod, which is in economic hard times.”

Ancient floor may signal better future for Israeli city

There is some evidence that old floor could revive the city. After the mosaic was discovered in 1996, the public was invited to take a look before the Israel Antiquities Authority buried it again to buy some time. Fisch says on the final two weekends of the public viewing, 50,000 people came.

“It was a sensation,” Fisch said.

The floor is remarkably well preserved, with only one spot — about a square foot — damaged by time. Fisch says the conservators have cleared it to be walked upon, even by the public.

But the Penn Museum feels differently. The mosaic is roped off. You can look, but don’t tread.

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