As an artist, the thought of making a mosaic gives me a headache. Thousands of tiny pieces of stone painstakingly placed in an adhesive mortar like a jigsaw puzzle with no solution. I can scarcely imagine attempting such an endeavor, let alone completing it. So you can picture my surprise when I heard that the Lod Mosaic, a massive 50×27 ft. Roman mosaic, was being shown at the Penn Museum. The exhibition runs until May 12th, when the mosaic will be shipped to the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, before ending up in its permanent resting place in Lod, Israel. As much as I’d like to, I know a visit to Israel is not in my foreseeable future, so I knew I had to see the mosaic here, while I still could.
The piece is on display in a massive room with plenty of natural light that brings out the different dyes in the little limestone pieces. The Lod Mosaic, whose estimated completion date is around 300 A. D., is one of the oldest, most complete, and best preserved Roman mosaics ever discovered. Upon first sight, I thought the mosaic looked like a huge chunk of floor tiles, but as soon as I walked closer, I became enamored with the intricate patterns. Each piece is precisely cut into the same size—no more than 4×4 millimeters—and organized to create sprawling images.
The floor is divided into three sections. The top depicts animals of prey, some of which are in the midst of being attacked by killer cats. The bottom displays some pretty creepy looking fish, one of which about to devour a damaged ship. Lastly, the center features exotic animals, including lions and elephants.
The floor once belonged to a wealthy Roman merchant who traded exotic animals for gladiator games. Romans usually commissioned mosaics related to their professions. I began to consider both how incredible it would be to have a massive customized mosaic in my home, and what kind of mosaic I would have commissioned to relate to my career path, which is focused on Russian politics. Perhaps an expansive scene from Russian history with famed Russian leaders—a mosaic Stalin would be pretty cool!
As I moved through the exhibit, I was shocked to find that the mosaic was uncovered completely by mistake. Apparently, in 1996 workers were in the middle of building a highway when they discovered a corner of the mosaic and “saw immediately that it was of a marvelous quality.” The floor was uncovered, and within a week of it’s unveiling, over 30,000 people came to view it. Unfortunately, during this time, the Israeli Antiquities Authority did not have funding to properly excavate and conserve the mosaic, so the mosaic was reburied within the year. Over ten years later in 2009, enough funding was finally secured so the mosaic could be excavated and conserved in a museum.
The mosaic was worth the wait and well worth the effort. I’m still going to stick to painting, but any eye can still appreciate the brilliant Lod Mosaic.
Kailey Kluge is a junior International Area Studies Major at Drexel University.
All images courtesy of Penn Museum.