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Prize Find: Mosaic Masterpiece Dazzles Sepphoris Volunteers, BAR 14:01, Jan-Feb 1988.

Sepphoris MosaicOn the final few days of last season’s dig at Sepphoris in the Galilee, the fortunate volunteers who stayed to the end exposed a 23- by 40-foot area of a huge mosaic floor. The floor dates to the third century A.D., according to the archaeologists.

Set in the white ground of the mosaic floor at one end—like a beautiful rug—is a 20- by 20-foot area of colored mosaic. The colored area consists of a rectangle flanked along part of its length on two sides by panels illustrating processions. The processional on one side (bottom right foreground of the picture below) is quite intact, depicting people carrying agricultural produce. The large rectangular section of the mosaic includes three center panels surrounded by 12 rectangles, probably representing scenes from the life of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry. Each of the separate scenes is labeled with a Greek inscription. The scenes include Dionysus engaged in a drinking competition with Hercules, the marriage of the god, and a number of scenes showing Dionysus with Pan, god of music and shepherds.

A border of medallions formed by trailing acanthus leaves surrounds the 15 panels. Within most of the medallions appear animals in hunting or fighting scenes.

In one of the medallions, centered at one end of the rectangular “carpet,” is the most exquisite feature of the mosaic—an elegant, delicately shaded portrait of a woman crowned with a wreath. The captivating woman, who gracesthe cover of this issue, was once matched on the opposite side by another portrait—now destroyed.

The quality of the mosaic woman is extremely high, as reflected in the tiny stone tessarae (4–5 mm square) in a wide range of natural stone colors. Using these colored stones, the mosaic artist portrayed subtle variations between her bright earrings, the trim on her garment, the sheen on her lips, and the flush on her cheeks.

Approximately 15 percent intact, the floor was discovered in a remarkably well-preserved building with walls standing as high as six feet in some places and with some plastered surfaces decorated with frescoes.

Sepphoris was probably destroyed by an earthquake in 363 A.D. The mosaic floor was protected because it was in a building built into a hill. As a result of the earthquake, the mosaic was buried and left undisturbed beneath the rubble that fell from above. The building, originally two stories high, possibly served as the governor’s palace or residence. The room with the mosaic was probably a banquet room, or triclinium, where diners reclined on couches around the mosaic floor.

Sepphoris—the chief city of the region from about the first century B.C. to the fifth century A.D.—was a mixed community of pagan Romans, Christians and Jews. Important as a Jewish spiritual center, Sepphoris was the home of Rabbi Judah the Prince (Judah Hanasi), patriarch and leader of the Sanhedrin, the central body of Jewish legal and spiritual authority during Roman times. It was in Sepphoris that Rabbi Judah compiled the Mishnaha in about 200 A.D.

Archaeological evidence of the close relations between Jews and Romans at Sepphoris in the third century is the proximity of contemporaneous Jewish structures to the palace containing the Dionysus mosaic. This closeness is also suggested by a talmudic legend—actually from a Babylonian folktale—that tells of an unidentified Roman emperor who was so smitten with the wisdom of Rabbi Judah Hanasi that he exclaimed, “Would that I served as a mattress for thee in the world to come.”

As early as the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66 A.D., the Jews of Sepphoris demonstrated their special affinity to Rome by refusing to take up arms against the Romans. Flavius Josephus, the historian who lived and wrote in those times, described the residents of Sepphoris as “the only people of that province who displayed pacific sentiments. For with an eye to their own security and a sense of the power of Rome they offered a cordial welcome to the commander-in-chief and promised their active support against their own countrymen.”

The lovely mosaic floor adds a new dimension to what we know about Sepphoris. Formerly understood as the spiritual and agricultural center of the Galilee, Sepphoris may now also be seen as a center—or at least a major consumer—of pagan art.

Next season’s volunteers will complete excavation of the triclinium as well as the entire palatial building. Co-director Ehud Netzer guardedly expresses the hope that the 1988 season will uncover more finds as startling as the mosaic that was the prize of the 1987 season. The excavation at Sepphoris is sponsored jointly by Duke and Hebrew Universities and is co-directed by Netzer from Hebrew University and Carol and Eric Meyers from Duke.

a. The Mishnah is a collection of Jewish legal traditions. It is the basic part of the Talmud.

Posted in: Roman Period II

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