Grumbling About the Lod Mosaic Exhibit

I’m sure this sort of thing could be said about a number of exhibitions … from the Daily Pennsylvanian:

The “Lod Mosaic” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has garnered a lot of praise, but has also drawn criticism from Penn faculty.

The mosaic is on the last part of its tour in the United States. After the exhibits ends on May 12, it will head to the Louvre museum in Paris.

Limited information is known about the history of the Lod Mosaic, but a number of Penn faculty have voiced concern that the piece is presented without any archaeological context. “We don’t want to celebrate a master work in isolation,” said Professor of Roman architecture Lothar Haselberger, who initiated the conversation on how the mosaic is presented.

“Nothing is conveyed to the public that [the mosaic] is more than a carpet,” Haselberger said, referencing the fact that mosaics like the “Lod Mosaic” were popular in this time period as floor decorations in many buildings.

“This is an exhibit that really focuses on the meticulous conservation by the Israel Antiquities Authority of a dazzling Roman mosaic that was found during highway construction,” said Brian Rose, Curator-in-Charge of the Mediterranean Section at the Penn Museum.

On March 28, Haselberger met with colleagues from the Penn Museum, as well as the art history, classics and building conservation departments to draft and submit a statement to the Director of the Penn Museum, Julian Siggers, outlining their critiques on the exhibit.

Haselberger said they are still waiting on final approval, but that sometime this week the statement will be published on the Penn Museum’s website and will be featured on a poster set up in conjunction with the exhibit.

In 1996, the Israeli government was expanding the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv when they unearthed the remains of a Roman villa dating to about 300 A.D. — now known as the “Lod Mosaic”. “It took 13 years to assemble the money to excavate and conserve the mosaic,” Rose said, making this a prime example of “rescue archaeology.”

Jacob Fisch, executive director of the Israel Antiquities Authority — the group that has custody over the mosaic — said this critique of the exhibit was a first for him, but he does not see it as a serious issue.

“The theory behind what he says is relevant,” Fisch said, but he said the mosaic will be shown in its original context and location when it returns to Lod, Israel after its tour, where it is to be permanently housed in a new museum exclusively devoted to the mosaic.

The new Shelby White and Leon Levy Lod Mosaic Center will be open to the public in 2014, but Fisch pointed out that not everyone would have the opportunity to visit the mosaic in Israel. The benefit of this tour is that “you can see an incredible work of art produced 6,000 miles away from 2,000 years ago,” he said.

Siggers agreed that he didn’t see a problem with the presentation of the mosaic’s context. He described the exhibit as a “story in progress” that displays the immediate story of the discovery and conservation of the mosaic itself.

Additionally, since very little information is actually known about the context of the mosaic, “It is presented in the fullest context we have the ability to do,” Rose said.

While it can’t be known for sure, Rose said that the mosaic likely came from the reception room of a villa owned by a wealthy businessman.

“It’s very possible that the combination of fish and exotic animals point to the fact that the owner was a wealthy Roman who lived in Lod and who somehow dabbled in supplying animals to the gladiator games,” Fisch said. Rose agreed that this is the theory that most experts have agreed upon so far.

Next year, an excavation report will be published to provide an “in-depth exploration of this mosaic in the context of the Roman world,” Siggers said.

Haselberger added that he is glad that the faculty were able to “articulate misgivings in a collegiate and forward-looking way” so that the debate surrounding the mosaic can be used as a teaching and learning opportunity.

“I’m happy to say that I initiated the conversation on this and I’m happy to see that we seem to come to a reasonable result,” he said.

Deciphering the Lod Mosaic

A short video from the UPenn Museum folks … here’s the tease:

Highway construction in Lod, Israel in 1996 accidently unearthed a large and well-preserved Roman mosaic that probably once decorated a large audience room. The mosaic dates to circa 300 CE and features a kind of arena of ferocious animals, including a lion and lioness, an elephant, a giraffe, a rhinoceros, a tiger, and a wild bull. In this lecture, Dr. C. Brian Rose, Curator-in-Charge, Mediterranean Section, explores why decorative motifs of this kind were held in such high esteem during the Roman Empire. That exploration leads us into the world of gladiatorial games, the wild animal export industry, and mythological charades in ancient Rome.

(Not Recently) Looted Odyssey Mosaics Followup!

Even though I’ve been wandering along the internet superhighway for a couple of decades, I still marvel at the communication opportunities it offers which would have boggled the minds of folks even three decades ago.  Outside of several instances of me watching assorted international sporting events from my comfy chair in Southern Ontario while chatting about same with fellow-Classicist Terrence Lockyer in South Africa, yesterday’s events are a prime example. As folks know, I had mentioned the looting of 18 mosaics depicting scenes from the Odyssey in my Explorator newsletter and here at rogueclassicism (Odyssey Mosaics Stolen!!!) . In the latter format, I noted how it was rather strange that none of the reports (and the AFP item spawned quite a bit of coverage) mention where or when these things were looted. So after posting all that, I went out to run some errands prior to visiting my mother in hospital (she’s fine) and was sitting down for a hamburger lunch and was reading through my twitter feed. Our friend Dorothy King (of PhDiva and Lootbusters  fame) is currently sojourning in Istanbul and mentioned that the stories of looting at Hamas were less-than-accurate. And so began a twitter/email conversation between two Classics/Archaeologist bloggers, neither of whom were in their ‘home port’ about some mosaics in Syria.

As Dr King mentioned, these mosaics don’t seem to have been recently stolen. They are already in Interpol’s database and were taken from the Hama museum in Apamea last year, it seems (if I’m reading Interpol’s news release from May of 2012 correctly). There are several pages of photos at the Lootbusters site …

An article in Time magazine last September was one of many news reports suggesting antiquities were being sold to fund the rebels (Syria’s Looted Past: How Ancient Artifacts Are Being Traded for Guns).  That said, however, the clearly deliberate vagaries of the most recent announcement suggest  that Syria’s ‘official’ channels are clearly playing up the looting aspect to gain political points in the Western media and as such, cause me to genuinely wonder who is doing the looting, the extent of it,  and for what purposes.  Indeed, in yesterday’s post we mentioned that many of the articles about this ‘Odyssey’ incident were accompanied by a photo of rebels sitting under a Roman mosaic … here’s the photo:

via France24

… what is being implied? The France24 coverage also includes this one:

via France24

Some poking around suggests these photos come from the Musée de Ma’aret el-Nu’man, which appears to have been shelled, like many museums in Syria. There’s a very interesting facebook page: Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger which has a number of other photos of this particular museum, e.g., this page from three months ago: Musée de Ma’aret el-Nu’man … and this one: Musée de Ma’aret el-Nu’man, which includes a photo of the museum six months ago prior to the shelling (and it includes a photo of the mosaic the rebels are sitting beneath). The photos are also at the facebook page of the Musée de Ma’aret el-Nu’man.  Some photos from ‘more peaceful times’  are available here. Clearly, this museum is full of mosaics. Has it been looted? Or have the rebels been actually protecting it? I really don’t want to venture an opinion on this, but we’re clearly not getting the full story and judgement must be suspended on what’s being pillaged, when, and by whom.

UPDATE (a few hours later): here’s Dorothy King’s views: Syria … Looting?

Mystery Mosaic

Last night I was lazily pondering the Cleveland Museum’s recent acquisition (and chatting with David Gill on twitter) and decided to poke around the Phoenix Ancient Art site — something I haven’t done in quite a while. While they do have a lot of interesting items that we will probably be mentioning in a later post, I was particularly struck by a couple of mosaic panels … the first is of an athlete:

click for the Phoenix Ancient Art page

Then there’s a theatre mask:

click for the Phoenix Ancient Art page

At the Swiss site of Phoenix Ancient Art one finds this satyr and maenad (although this particular picture comes from Artfinding, since I can’t seem to grab the original; clicking on it takes you to the Phoenix Art page):



What these three panels have in common is that they were all acquired from Asfar and Sarkis in the “early 1960s” (which might suggest a Syrian origin), but beyond that, the borders/frames around them all suggest they were all part of the same floor at some point and there are likely more. If so, it’s truly sad that they’ve been broken up and we can only imagine what the ‘program’ of the floor actually was … we have a theater mask and  a satyr and maenad, then someone identified as an athlete. Maybe the athlete is actually an actor? Sadly, when mosaics are broken up like this and we don’t know where they actually came from, we’ll never know …