The Current

A farmer uncovered a remarkable Byzantine mosaic. Here's why one expert wants to bury it again

A farmer in the Gaza Strip has uncovered a Byzantine mosaic that offers a window into the past, but raises concerns about how best to protect it.

Mosaics uncovered on Gaza farm may be roughly 1,500 years old

A man cleans a dirt and dust from a mosaic that has been unearthed a couple of feet below ground level.
Salman al-Nabahin discovered a large mosaic on his farm in the Gaza Strip that experts say dates back to the Byzantine Empire. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

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Salman al-Nabahin and his son were digging up their farm in Gaza this spring to investigate why an olive tree wasn't flourishing — when their axe hit something hard beneath the dirt. 

What they uncovered was a remarkable Byzantine mosaic depicting animals and birds, estimated to be around 1,500 years old.

Journalist Ahmed Zakot travelled to meet al-Nabahin at his farm in the Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, about a kilometre from the border with Israel. 

He said the farmer hopes the mosaic would be life-changing for his family.

"They are poor people," Zakot told The Current's Matt Galloway. "He told his son that [he] felt that our life will be changed because [of] this discovery."

"He asked for some help to turn his farmland to a bazaar or to help the foreign tourists to come to the area — but this is a big project, requires proposals and requires a lot of plans," Zakot said.

A man cleans a dirt and dust from a mosaic that has been unearthed a couple of feet below ground level.
The mosaic depicts both wild and domesticated animals and birds. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

For now, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has told al-Nabahin to simply guard over the discovery, and cease digging until further archeological study can be made.

The mosaic is estimated to date from the 6th century during the Byzantine period, an empire which controlled much of the eastern Mediterranean for roughly 1,100 years following the split of the Roman empire at the end of the 4th century.

Art historian Emily L. Spratt said she was initially excited to learn of the depictions of birds and animals, "given the overall scarcity of Byzantine art and architecture that has survived."

"My next thought, however, was one of great concern," said Spratt, a professor in art history at Sotheby's Institute of Art in New York.

Spratt pointed to the instability of the region as one factor putting the archeological find at risk. The Gaza Strip has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took control of the territory 15 years ago. 

We're probably going to have to rebury them just to keep them safe.- Emily L. Spratt

But she added that there is also a danger to leaving the mosaics exposed as winter weather approaches, and said there needs to be an emergency plan to preserve the find.

"If that's not possible to do, then what really needs to happen is the mosaics need to be recovered with the dirt," she said.

"We're probably going to have to rebury them just to keep them safe until a proper archeological team can give them their true study and investigation in a proper way."

'Put down the shovel'

The mosaics rested about 60 cm below ground surface, but that earth has now been stripped away. Spratt fears that means the loss of key insights from the site's stratigraphy: the layers within the soil that show how the land has been used over the centuries. 

"When you just dig right in through all the layers, you demolish our ability to understand the stratigraphy," she said. 

"And this makes the job of dating the mosaic much harder, so my second thought was definitely: put down the shovel."

A man cleans a dirt and dust from a mosaic that has been unearthed a couple of feet below ground level.
Al-Nabahin was digging around an olive tree that wasn't growing well, with the hopes that he could figure out why and plant more. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

She said there are strong clues that date the depictions. They are "highly stylized," and composed of strong outlines that represent the essential qualities of each animal or bird. 

This is in contrast to the naturalism of Roman and early Christian art, and the art after iconoclasm, when Byzantine art moved away from depictions of nature.

"My guess is that they're 6th century," she said. "This is the last flourishing of representations of nature in this way, within early Christian and Byzantine art and architecture."

A man cleans a dirt and dust from a mosaic that has been unearthed a couple of feet below ground level.
Al-Nabahin's son Ahmad Salman Nabahin cleans the mosaic. He was helping his father when they made the discovery. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images)

Spratt said the mosaics show us that people living at the time felt a connection to nature, a theme repeated in other archeological finds elsewhere from the same period. 

"This type of mosaic decoration is also found throughout ... the Mediterranean basin, and it shows you that there is a shared visual language," she said. 

"And in that regard there's a shared visual culture, even if people are not necessarily speaking the same languages." 

Further study needed

Spratt said the mosaics could be part of a larger monastery complex, or even part of a villa, but that can't be confirmed without a general archeological survey of the area. 

Such a survey is complicated by Israel and Egypt's blockade of the Gaza Strip, which tightly controls the movement of goods and people, and limits the expertise available locally.

The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities approached the  French School of Biblical and Archeological Research (FSBAR) in Jerusalem, and the international aid organization Première Urgence Internationale (PUI) for help with the discovery.

In a joint statement, the PUI and FSBAR said their experts evaluated the site in late September, and are in the process of preparing emergency steps to identify the size, nature and age of the mosaics, as well as taking steps to protect them from winter rainfall. The group is assessing whether the mosaics can eventually be moved for safekeeping.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated the mosaics were thought to be 1,700 years old, due to a mathematical error.
    Oct 03, 2022 4:22 PM ET

With files from Reuters. Audio produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo

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