Mysteries surround the enormous, ancient and well-preserved Roman mosaic that will debut Wednesday at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Art in Miami.
Measuring 50 feet long and 27 feet wide, the 1,700-year-old stone floor depicts a menagerie of wild birds, domestic mammals and mythical sea creatures, all grouped around an octagonal centerpiece of lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes. The mosaic, on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority, comes to Miami through an international museum tour.
Frost museum director Jordana Pomeroy says every individual tile is fascinating, not just for its well-crafted images of wild and domestic animals, but for what the mosaic is missing.
"It's not your typical Roman mythological themes," Pomeroy says. "You see mammals, birds, but what makes it so unusual is a total absence of human figures. You see a boat on the open sea, but no sailors. You can't tell if the owner was Jewish, Christian or Pagan."
Archaeologists discovered the mosaic in 1996 while widening a highway in the small Israeli town of Lod, near Tel-Aviv. The Israel Antiquities Authority rushed to action to prevent its destruction, and covered up the floor before unearthing it again in 2009. The Israel Antiquities Authority's Lod mosaic (LodMosaic.org) says the floor, composed of thousands of stone tiles stuck to lime mortar, was probably housed inside the audience hall of a grand villa belonging to a wealthy Roman merchant.
Fish and fowl dwell in other mosaic panels, sharing space alongside Roman shipping boats at full sail. Pomeroy says the panels reveal a narrative about late-Roman Empire gladiator games, which demanded transporting exotic animals from northern Africa to Lod, formerly the Roman colony Lydda.
"It was really an event to see one of these exotic animals fought by a gladiator," Pomeroy says. "We really don't know anything else about the [mosaic's] iconography, but it does seem to support that."
The Frost's hosting of the mosaic comes after archaeologists unearthed a second Roman slab in Lod last November, in the courtyard of the same villa that once housed the first mosaic.
"This gives us a unique opportunity to show an ancient mosaic that probably won't go on tour again," Pomeroy says. "It's a fascinating thing of ancient beauty."
"Predators and Prey: A Roman Mosaic from Lod, Israel" will open with a reception 5-8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10, at Florida International University's Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Art, 10975 SW 17th St., Miami. Admission is free. The show, which closes May 15, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Call 305-348-2890, or go to Frost.fiu.edu.