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New Integrated Knowledge based approachs to the protection of cultural heritage from Earthquake-induced Risk
Projects


Bet Guvrin
Khirbet El-Maqerqesh
Re-reconstruction of the Bird Mosaic
OrdererEretz Israel Museum
DurationJanuary 2008 - January 2009
Implemented by: Jacques Neguer - Conservation Guidance
Galeb Abu-Diab
Majed Diab
Vladimir Bitman
Meir (Mark) Avrahami
Olga Finkelshtein
Shuli Levinboim
Mahmoud Shehada
Nazer Abu-Hader
Curator - Alegre Savariego, National Treasures Dept. IAA

The Bird Mosaic at Bet Guvrin, which was exposed in 1921, is considered one of the most spectacular mosaics ever discovered in the country (Fig. 1). It dates to Byzantine period (sixth century CE) and scholars believe it decorated the floor of a prayer cell (Avi-Yonah 1971). In 1956 the mosaic underwent conservation measures that were carried out by UNESCO and since then some 35% of the floor has been lost.

The mosaic’s poor state of preservation necessitated that it undergo re-restoration on a scale that was unprecedented in Israel. Its re-reconstruction and presentation in the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv have been made possible thanks to a generous grant by the Olenik family, which was arranged by Dr. Orit Shamir, head of the Museums and Exhibitions Branch of the National Treasures Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The remains of ancient Bet Guvrin extend over c. 650 dunams, from Kibbutz Bet Guvrin in the north to the bell-shaped caves in the south. Bet Guvrin is first mentioned in Josephus as a large Jewish village in the Judean Shephelah. According to Dr. Amos Kloner, who excavated at the site in the 1990’s, new evidence has been unearthed in excavations there that suggests that Bet Guvrin was founded in the first century CE. It succeeded nearby Maresha and became the principal settlement in the region after the latter was devastated by the Parthians.

In 200 CE Emperor Septimius Severus elevated the status of Bet Guvrin to that of a colonia, that is to say a Roman city, and changed its name to Eleutheropolis (“city of the free”). Over time the city expanded and was considered the largest city in the Land of Israel (Avi-Yonah 1971). Furthermore, its location along a major crossroads that linked the sea with the settlements in the hill country and the center of the country rendered the city tremendous strategic importance (Kloner 2002). In the Byzantine period (fourth-seventh centuries CE) the city became an important Christian center, of which the remains of churches and monasteries are preserved.

The mosaic was discovered at Khirbet El-Maqerqesh, a site that is situated on a hilltop southeast of Kibbutz Bet Guvrin, within the precincts of the Roman city. In 1921 excavations were conducted there on behalf of the École Biblique Archéologique Française, under the direction of Pére L.H. Vincent, and in 1927 the excavations were enlarged by Pére F. M. Abel, with assistance from N. Makhouly of the Mandatory Department of Antiquities. In both of the excavations remains were discovered at the site that date to five periods. The mosaic, which was 3.50 x 5.00 m, was built above an earlier mosaic floor that was situated c. 47 cm beneath it.

The mosaic is polychrome and decorated with a pattern vine tendrils that issue from a large metallic amphora to form eight circles. A different species of bird is depicted in each of the circles. Next to the amphora are depicted two spotted rams; above them – a bird of prey in the center, a partridge to its left and a quail to its right; and in the upper row from right to left are depicted a goose, pheasant and a crane. Above the mosaic’s border are two peacocks holding a wreath and above them a six line inscription that reads: “In honor of Jesus, King of the Universe, I decorated the floor and the entrance of the house with mosaics, with the help of my disciples. Obodianus, the blameless and kind-hearted priest” (F.M. Abel 1924:596). Obodianus was most likely the bishop of the Christian community (episcopus) in Bet Guvrin (Avi-Yonah 1992).

Scholars date the mosaic to the sixth century CE based on its style and the details of its decoration, which are reminiscent of the mosaics of Khirbet Shallala [1]  and the mosaic in the synagogue at Ma‘on (Nirim), as well as on a coin from 527 CE that was found in the same stratum (Avi-Yonah 1971:171).

The mosaic was removed in pieces from the site in the 1950’s. Concrete and chicken wire were cast on the back of them (Fig. 2). Over time the wire rusted, cracks formed in the concrete and the tesserae separated from their base. The condition of the mosaic deteriorated so much that by the end of the 1980’s it was not possible to move the carpets from their place without harming the mosaic. It is estimated that during this period of time the mosaic lost some 35% of its area, and its historical and artistic value were damaged.

The conservation process was complicated and it was carried out in several stages:
1. All of the pieces of the mosaic were documented (Fig. 3)
2. Cloth was glued to the surface of the mosaic pieces in  order to turn them upside down and remove the concrete and chicken wire from them
3. The pieces were fitted alongside each other with their surface facing down (Fig. 4)
4. The pieces were glued (Fig. 5) and set in a supporting frame
5. The mosaic was turned right-side up; the cloth was removed from the mosaic surface and the rest of the glue was cleaned
6. The re-reconstruction was based on the historical documentation (Fig. 6).

 
The work of the re-reconstruction took about a year and was completed in January 2009. The presentation of the mosaic in the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv will allow the general public to enjoy its beauty. This impressive mosaic is one of many that were conserved and restored by the Conservation Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority and are on display in museums and public institutions. There are other mosaics in the storerooms of the Israel Antiquities Authority for which a home has yet been found. The Israel Antiquities Authority gladly welcomes initiatives for placing these mosaics on permanent exhibit, with the aim of bringing to the public’s attention Israel’s rich historic, cultural and artistic heritage assets.
 
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[1] Khirbet Shallala is located on a hill north of the Eshkol National Park, in the northern Negev. During the First World War Australian soldiers discovered the remains of a Byzantine church and the mosaic there. In 1971 the mosaic was brought to Canberra, Australia where it was inlaid in a memorial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  

 
References
Avi-Yonah M 1971. Bet Guvrin. In B. Mazar, editor. The Encyclopedia of Archaeological
 Excavations in the Holy Land. Volume. I, Jerusalem. 39-42 (Hebrew).
Avi-Yonah M 1992. Bet Guvrin. In E. Stern and A. Lewinson-Gilboa, editors. The New
 Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land
. Volume. I, Jerusalem. 170-
 171 (Hebrew).
Kloner A. 2002. Bet Guvrin. Articles and Data Bases – Sites and Tours in the Country, National
 Parks
. www.snunit.k12.il/www_teva_trips/gan22.html  (submitted 23.12.2008).
Abel F.M. 1924. La mosaique des Oiseaux et L’inscription, in J. Gabalda, Editeur Revue Biblique
 33. Paris. Pp. 592-596.

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Shuli Levinboim, February 2009
 


To view the figures, click on the figure caption
Fig. 1 - Photograph of the complete mosaic (from Avi-Yonah 1971)

Fig. 2 - A section of the mosaic that was affixed to a surface of reinforced concrete and chicken wire (Photograph: Nicky Davidov)

Fig. 3 - Connecting the pieces of the mosaic and their documentation – a computer simulation (Photograph: Nicky Davidov)

Fig. 4 - The back of the mosaic after the concrete and wire were removed (Photograph: Nicky Davidov)

Fig. 5 - The mosaic after it was glued together and the supporting frame was built (Photograph: Nicky Davidov)

Fig. 6 - Conservators working in the mosaic laboratory of the Israel Antiquities Authority (Photograph: Nicky Davidov)

Fig. 7 - The mosaic upon completion of the re-reconstruction (Photograph: Nicky Davidov)

Fig. 8 - Placing the mosaic in the Eretz Israel Museum – a computer simulation (drawing: Nicky Davidov)


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