Marvelous Menagerie Unmasked

In 1996 construction workers accidentally uncovered a mosaic while widening a road in the modern Israeli town of Lod, near Tel Aviv. A preliminary excavation immediately conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) revealed that three feet below the modern surface there was a mosaic floor dating to about AD 300. The three most complete and impressive panels from the floor are on view at the Legion of Honor through July 24.

Mosaic floor central panel, Roman, ca. AD 300. Excavated at Lod (Lydda), Israel. Stone tesserae. Israel Antiquities Authority and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center. Image courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Despite being 1,700 years old, the mosaics are extremely well preserved. They are believed to be from a large house owned by a wealthy Roman living in the Eastern Roman Empire. The floor likely adorned a richly appointed room used to greet and entertain visitors. Tesserae, or small stone cubes, of various colors were juxtaposed in painstakingly intricate arrangements to produce the astonishingly complex figurative scenes found on the mosaic.

The origins of mosaic art go back to remote antiquity and are found in Crete, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Roman mosaics were rich in nature subjects, and numerous species of birds, fish and other animals are often found. Trees, plants and fantastic sea creatures were also commonly used themes. Some Roman mosaics were even designed with a trompe l’oeil scene to make the floor appear to contain the detritus left on it after an elaborate meal (these pseudo dirty floors were very popular).

The Lod mosaic’s main panel depicts a scene of wild African animals. A lion and lioness facing each other, an elephant, a giraffe, a rhinoceros, a tiger and a wild bull are all situated before a background of a mountainous landscape, while mythical sea creatures, known as a ketos, emerge from the water between the cliffs. It has been suggested that these two mountains represent the eastern and western Ethiopian mountains, indicating the sources of the Nile. The surrounding animals are set in a geometric design made up of smaller squares and triangles surrounded by an interlocking cable or guilloche pattern.

Mosaic floor central panel (detail), Roman, ca. AD 300. Excavated at Lod (Lydda), Israel. Stone tesserae. Israel Antiquities Authority and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center. Image Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Two smaller rectangular panels flank the central floor at the top and bottom: one is decorated with a wide variety of animals and the other is filled with a lively nautical scene.

Mosaic floor side panel with hexagonal medallions, Roman, ca. AD 300. Excavated at Lod (Lydda), Israel. Stone tesserae, 13 feet x 5 feet 3 inches. Israel Antiquities Authority and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center. Image courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Mosaic floor side panel, Roman, ca. AD 300. Excavated at Lod (Lydda), Israel. Stone tesserae, 13 feet x 5 feet 3 inches. Israel Antiquities Authority and the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center. Image Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Thanks to the San Francisco Ancient Numismatic Society, we are able to show another menagerie found in Roman coins featuring animal imagery as well as coins with maritime pictures of fish and ships, both similar to those on the Lod Mosaic.

Bronze as of Antoninus Pius, AD 138–161, Rome. Reverse: African elephant (Loxodonta africana) walking right, in full armor. Anonymous loan

Coin of Septimius Severus, AD 193–211, Corcyra. Reverse: Galley right, under full sail. Anonymous loan

Also on view in conjunction with the Lod mosaic is this Sarcophagus with Seasons and Dionysiac Imagery (AD 260–280), from our permanent collection. This Roman example contains imagery symbolic of both the agricultural seasons and Dionysiac ritual. The lively figures sculpted in high relief, include youths holding plants and the bounty of the harvest who frolic with animals associated with Dionysus, the god of wine, vegetation and resurrection. Several of these wild and domestic animals also appear on the Lod Mosaic, suggesting Dionysiac imagery on both this sarcophagus and the mosaic.

Season Sarcophagus, AD 260–280
Italy, Florence, Roman. Marble with traces of polychrome. 19  x 19  x 70  (48.3 x 48.3 x 177.8 cm).
Museum purchase, M. H. de Young Endowment Fund. 54662

The scenes you see on the coins and the marble sarcophagus in this gallery as well as those on the Lod Mosaic are found throughout Rome and its provinces. These renderings reveal the close observation of the artists, who vividly illustrate how animals used for show and pleasure were an integral part of Roman life. It is also likely that some elements of the Lod Mosaic drew on standard pattern books, perhaps compiled elsewhere in the Roman Empire. The craftsmen certainly had these books at their disposal, especially for figure compositions, which accounts for the close correspondences between mosaic scenes throughout the Roman world.

In 2009 a major gift from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Foundation enabled the IAA to remove and conserve the Lod Mosaic, to allow it to travel and to establish the Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Archaeological Center, which will house the Lod Mosaic when it returns to Israel.