February 21, 2011

The Roman Mosaic from Lod - At the Met

It is not often that I make a trip to a museum just to see one specific work, but last weekend I decided to walk over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and view the much publicized Roman Mosaic from Lod, lent by the Israel Antiquities Authority and on view in New York until April 3rd.

I wasn't really sure what to expect. The reviews referred to this artifact as remarkable and historic but it was, after all, just one piece from a region that is steeped in antiquities. As I walked through the Met's Greek and Roman galleries, not my usual department in this multifarious museum, I checked out the marble sculptures of emperors and the terracotta vases with black figures of gods and bronze vessels for transporting and storing water and was once again amazed at the civilization that existed long before the initials "A.D. Anno Domini" were even necessary. Then I came into the room with the mosaic from Lod and I realized what all the fuss was about!

There on view was an enormous mosaic tile floor as colorful and intricate as a Persian rug. The three component panels together measure fifty by twenty seven feet and are in almost pristine condition considering they are probably about 1,700 years old! Discovered in 1996 by a highway construction crew working near the city of Lod, formerly Lydda, a modern city not far from Tel Aviv, the mosaics had laid buried under literally centuries of rubble, forgotten but protected. A top archaeological team was dispatched and the newly revealed treasure was carefully excavated. But what to do next? Removing the debris had exposed the mosaics to the dangers of the elements and they were rather inconveniently located in the middle of an area cited for development.

The process of removing and conserving these ancient mosaics is documented in a short video playing continuously next to the pieces themselves. The fascinating film shows the team carefully lifting sections of the floor to be transported to a lab where they could be cleaned, preserved and studied. Discoveries such as ancient footprints in the mortar present new clues for archaeologists to ponder and may offer insights into the construction process itself.

What I found the most intriguing about the mosaic were the components and complexity of the design. Animals, birds and sea creatures co-exist on the canvas of this stone "carpet" separated into panels by intricate cable and scroll decorations. Exotic African beasts such as rhinoceros', giraffes and tigers pose on rocky landscapes. Merchant ships sail amid schools of fish, dolphins and sea monsters. Peacocks preen, lions roar and a leopard attacks a gazelle. The animal kingdom is represented in every form.

What was once an important decoration in a wealthy person's home is now a fascinating clue to ancient society. While we cannot determine whether the resident was pagan, Jew or Christian, we can certainly tell that he was a cultured man and a lover of the finer things in life. What luck to have this legacy to marvel at so many centuries later!

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