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.