A link with ancient artisans

     Archaeologists excavating the remains of an ancient site in Israel found a surprise hidden under a floor.  The 1,700-year-old footprints of artisans who laid an exquisitely detailed mosaic floor have been discovered beneath the tiles.  The discovery gives scientists an idea of how the floor was created.  The footprints and sandal prints were found near Lod, south of Tel Aviv, during conservation of an important earlier discovery.

      Thirteen years ago, a huge mosaic, apparently the floor of an ancient Roman villa, was uncovered only about three feet under an asphalt road.  The mosaic covered 215 square yards and featured colorful scenes with birds, fish, exotic animals and merchant ships in exquisite detail.  The mosaic floor was put on display for a single weekend and attracted thousands of visitors.  Then it was covered until funding was available to preserve it.

     Recent donations have allowed archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority to begin the work of disassembling the millions of tesserae (mosaic tiles) that make up the floor, in order to transport the mosaic to restoration labs.

This 1,700-year-old mosaic, a floor of a Roman villa, had a surprise hidden underneath it.

     As the mosaic was disassembled, the conservators noticed something unusual.  Beneath a piece depicting vine leaves, they discovered that the builders of the mosaic had incised lines that indicate where the tesserae should be set, giving the experts more insight into how ancient artisans crafted the mosaic.  An even more exciting discovery followed.

     During careful cleaning of the layer where the lines were located, petrified imprints of bare feet and sandals emerged.  According to Jacques Neguer, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority conservation department, the placement of foot and sandal prints indicate that builders packed the mortar in place with their feet.  In addition, the sandal prints ranged in size, suggesting that children might have been working at the site. 

     “The footprints are scientific material to be studied by anthropologists and archaeologists, but for conservators they are a symbol of continuity,” Neguer told “Discovery News”.  “Some 1,700 years ago, the mosaic-makers walked on the same bedding mortar we are working on today.”

     Neguer added that at least one imprint resembled the sole of a modern sandal.  “It looks like little has changed in the fashion world,” he said, noting that further scientific investigations will be carried out on the prints.

     Andre Veldmeijer, an archaeologist specializing in ancient Egyptian leatherwork, footwear and cordage, it’s not possible to know what a sandal looked like simply on the basis of prints.  The imprints can only tell us what shape the sandal was, and, if the print is exceptionally good, whether the sandal was made of vegetable fiber or other material. 

     The footprints are being removed for conservation.  They’ll be exhibited along with the mosaic floor at a museum in Lod, and part of the mosaic will be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next year.

     The art of making mosaic floors was developed by the Greeks in the Mediterranean area as early as the fourth century BC.  In Greek and Roman times, it was widely used in public and private buildings to decorate floors and walls.  The tesserae, small cubes of stone, were cut and set in cement mortar.  The range of colors was usually limited to locally available limestone, ranging from white and cream to red-brown, brown, and black.  In some areas craftsmen used marble, brick and even blue, yellow and green glass cubes.  Because of the limited color range, craftsmen used value to make the mosaic designs “pop.”  They would set off a figure from the background by making it in dark colors against a light background or vice versa.  Another method of adding contrast and interest was to outline all the shapes in a very dark color.

     Over 500 mosaic floors have been found in Israel, in ancient synagogues, churches, palaces, villas and baths.  Israel is rich in mosaic art because of the many religious and cultural groups that have lived there over the centuries.  The Lod floor is just one of many wonderful discoveries in this tiny country.  For example, a synagogue floor discovered in 1928 in the Valley of Jezreel has an Aramaic inscription indicating it was laid during the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian (518-527 BC).  That floor is actually signed by two craftsmen, Marianos and his son Hanina.  It’s believed that they were not trained mosaic artists, but were unusually gifted folk artists living in that rural area.  Their mosaic synagogue floor has a childlike directness and simplicity, giving it a sense of joy and reverence. 

     Although the petrified footprints at the Lod site are unique, many echoes of artists from the past have been found at mosaic sites, including tools, sculptures, bits of pottery, oil lamps and coins.  These things, made by hand so long ago, not only tell us about the people who lived in those times but also remind us that although a civilization may disappear, its art survives to speak to future generations.

By Kay Sluterbeck/AAPJ

Published by on August 2015. Filed under Art-to-Art Palette Journal, People and Places, Potter's Shed Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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