Phenomenal find from Israel’s Byzantine past near Jerusalem’s Old City

A 1,500 year old mosaic floor with a Greek inscription, shown at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem's Old City on August 23, 2017. (Photo: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Just north of Jerusalem’s Old City, a project to bring modern, high-tech infrastructure to the area led to an unexpected and extremely unique discovery of an ancient artifact: an almost unblemished mosaic from the sixth century.

The mosaic was unearthed unrelated to a scheduled archaeological excavation, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced.

Earlier this summer, Partner Communications Company Ltd., a telephone and mobile network operator, intended to lay cables in the ground in order to upgrade its infrastructure, but a salvage dig — supervised by the IAA — was conducted first. On the very last day of the rescue mission, archaeologists discovered the mosaic in what is being called a “once-in-a-lifetime dream archaeological find.”

The almost undamaged relic dates back 1,500 years to the beginning of the sixth century. The precision tiles, neatly placed in black and white, spell out in Greek an inscription that dates back to the Byzantine era – the early Christian Empire.

In what appears to be part of a floor, possibly laid out to commemorate the founding of a building, the Hellenistic lettering reads, “In the time of our most pious emperor Flavius Justinian, also this entire building Constantine the most God-loving priest and abbot, established and raised, in the 14th indiction.”

Leah Di Segni of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who specializes in ancient Greek inscriptions translated it and explained that the word “indiction” is a reference to an antiquated method of counting years for taxation purposes. Based on accurate historical records, this mosaic can be dated to the year 550/551 CE.

To have a direct and clear link back to the emperor Justinian the Great or Saint Justinian the Great as he is known in the Eastern Orthodox Church, is significant for archaeologists and Christians alike.

Justinian was the Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565 CE and was responsible for rewriting Roman law, also called the Corpus Juris Civilis. Another claim to fame was his building of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia church which became a mosque and is now a museum. It was under Justinian that the Byzantine Empire converted to Christianity.

Experts believe that the newly exposed mosaic was a dedication for the opening of a pilgrim hostel during the sovereign’s reign.

David Gellman, who was responsible for the salvage excavation, said the discovery of the surviving mosaic is an archaeological miracle and a highlight of his career. Speaking from the IAA’s Rockefeller Museum headquarters in Jerusalem, the Toronto-born archaeologist explained that nobody was expecting to find anything 1 meter below street level where they were digging.

“The excavation in a relatively small area exposed ancient remains that were severely damaged by infrastructure groundwork over the last few decades,” he said. “We were about to close the excavation when all of a sudden, a corner of the mosaic inscription peeked out between the pipes and cables.”

In a heart-pounding moment the excavation director saw what he is calling a direct letter from 1,500 years ago. That the mosaic was completely undamaged just added to the wonder of it all.

“Every archaeologist dreams of finding an inscription in their excavations, especially one so well preserved and almost entirely intact,” he said.

Gellman explained that one area of the mosaic is slightly raised by a tree root growing beneath it and a few small gaps exist between some of the letters in the six-line inscription, but for the most part it is whole.

As it was the last day of their project, Gellman’s team requested a three-day extension on the excavation permit and discovered remains of walls possibly of the pilgrims’ hostel, pottery and coins that date back to the Byzantine era. It is all confirmation for the scholars who already have vast knowledge of that time frame thanks to previous discoveries.

In the 1970s, during other salvage operations for new roads and other infrastructure, a similar mosaic was found under the remains of the Nea Church, or new church, also founded by Justinian, in 543. The inscription was similar in that it also mentioned Justinian and Constantine. The latest discovery gives credence to the possibility of it being part of a pilgrim complex.

Gellman explained that this area of Jerusalem was one of the most important sections of the city and it is no surprise to find so many archaeological remains from this time period. The Byzantine era is associated with the emergence of Christianity, and was a time when churches, monasteries and hostels for pilgrims were built.

“This new inscription helps us understand Justinian’s building projects in Jerusalem, especially the Nea Church,” Di Segni said. “The rare combination of archaeological finds and historical sources, woven together, is incredible to witness, and they throw important light on Jerusalem’s past.”

The mosaic has been removed and is now located at the IAA mosaic workshop where it is being treated and researched by conservation experts.