599px-The_Lod_mosaic,_Roman,_about_300_C.E.,_Israel_Antiquities_Authority.Seventeen centuries old, and counting: The Lod Mosaic. (Image via WikiMedia Commons)

It is a masterpiece that might never have been found, a stone tapestry of exotic creatures and merchant ships, buried for 17 centuries. The Lod Mosaic was almost perfectly preserved when the home in which it lay collapsed around it, forming a tomb of mud and brick.

In 1996, when workers in Lod, a town of about 70,000 people near Tel Aviv, began to widen Ha-Halutz Street, they struck a menagerie of exotic creatures, all formed with tiny cubes of stone, glass, and terracotta. Work was halted and the Israeli Antiquities Authority was summoned. The small Israeli city was about to become known to archaeologists worldwide.

The Lod Mosaic, as the 50-by-27-foot section of floor became known, is the best preserved of a cache of mosaics found in the town. Ultimately, they will be housed in a facility set to open this year, the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center, on the site of the discovery. In the meantime, the finely crafted work has been exhibited across the United States. Until May 19 it can be seen at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, its last American stop. From here will travel to the Louvre in Paris.

The mosaic is believed to have been created for the home of a wealthy Roman about 300 CE—the date fixed with the help of coins and pottery shards found in the protective debris. At that time, the area was a Roman colony. Inhabited since the fifth millennium BCE (“before the common era”; that is, before the birth of Christ), the region has at various times been controlled by Romans, Arabs, and Jews.

The mosaic’s size and quality indicate that it was created for a public area in a private home, such as a room where guests were received.

Little can be gleaned about the homeowner, though, because the design contains neither people nor inscriptions nor religious symbols. The mosaic is composed of vividly colored tesserae, or cubed tiles. The overall effect resembles an Oriental carpet, with a central field surrounded by smaller sections, each set off by an interlocking braid.

It includes a small kingdom of African animals, unknown in what is now central Israel, about 10 miles from the Mediterranean. Imagine the mosaic’s center, an octagonal amphitheater populated by lions, an elephant, a giraffe, a rhinoceros, a bull, and a mythical sea creature, the Ketos. It rests in a large square section that is bracketed, top and bottom, by oblong panels. The upper end continues the animal theme, with tigers and leopards attacking prey. The opposite end depicts the sea, with inhabitants familiar to the people of Lod: fish, dolphins, and a fearsome whale, mouth agape, poised to swallow one of two ships. This portion has led some to conclude that the floor was created in thanks for a rescue at sea, while the presence of exotic animals is thought to indicate that the homeowner was a trader, possibly importing creatures for exhibitions or gladiatorial contests.

After its discovery, the Lod Mosaic was reburied for safekeeping. By 2009, plans and funding were in place for the mosaic’s removal, conservation, and for the construction of a permanent facility in which to showcase all of Lod’s mosaics. An exhibit video enables visitors to see the delicate extraction, which involved cleaning the surface and then gluing cotton fabric to it for stabilization. Next, the mosaic was divided into as few sections as possible, lifted from the ground, and rolled onto wide wooden spools for transport to a conservation laboratory, where it was prepared for the current tour. (The Metropolitan Museum, which hosted the Lod Mosaic two years ago, created a fascinating video, which goes from the mosaic’s discovery to its extraction.)

While archaeologists and art historians puzzle over the creation and remarkable survival of the Lod Mosaic, speculating on those who commissioned, designed, and traversed it, the only tangible personal link was found in the mortar: sandaled and bare footprints left by the craftsmen. Their steps, the remnants of which are also on display, serve as their signature and have lasted as long as the magnificent, mysterious result of their labor.

Unearthing a Masterpiece: A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel, February 10­­–May 19, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, www.penn.museumInformation on the Lod Mosaic is available at www.lodmosaic.org.