A NOTE ON THE ROMAN MOSAIC AT MAGDALA ON THE SEA OF GALILEE
Israel Antiquities Authority
The discovery in 1986, of the ancient fisherman’s boat on the shore of the lake of Galilee,1 drew attention to a Roman Mosaic floor which was excavated several years ago in Magdala on the same shore of the lake.2 This mosaic depicts, among other things, a boat with sails. Recently, A. Raban discussed this mosaic with particular interest in the depicted boat, which he described extensively, yet devoted only a brief mention to the other depicted items.3 I would like to present a new interpretation for one of the depicted items on this mosaic floor. Raban describes the mosaic as follows: “within the border, six slightly stylized items are placed without any attention to a common direction or relative size”.4 The item located at the upper left corner he sees as: “a flower or bud lying on its left side, placed between two leaves”, following the excavator’s opinion.5
I would like to suggest a different interpretation for the upper left item as follows: depicted is a group of artifacts connected by a ring of semicircular shape, which is on the right hand side. Both objects which bear the shape of a crescent, and were interpreted by Raban as leaves, should be interpreted as two strigili (scrapers) of the type used in bath-houses, gymnasia and other places where gymnastics were practiced in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
These utensils, which were designed as elongated and curved ladles, were used for scraping off the oil with which the body was anointed and the dust which adhered to it. Supporting this identification is the fact that the artist was accurate in portraying these implements since he depicted each of them as being made of two parallel lines, in accordance with the shape of real objects of this kind which have handles made of twoparallel stripes of metal.6
The object depicted between the strigili, identified by Raban as a “flower or bud” should be identified as an aryballos (ointment bottle), connected by a chain to the ring.7 Another object, not depicted in the mosaic, was usually included in these sets of bathing objects – a patera (pan-shaped plate),8 into which the oil could be poured for the process of anointing. The handle of such an object is usually perforated, to facilitate its connecting on the ring. It is possible that the round object which is seen to the right of the ring, might be an object of this kind, however, the mosaic is damaged on its lower part, preventing us from knowing whether a handle was depicted there.
Complete sets of anointing objects were discovered in the Roman realm, usually including several strigili, an aryballos and a patera, all attached on a circular, or semi-circular ring as in the present case.9 Similar sets are also depicted on contemporary mosaics10 and decorated objects.11
This interpretation solves the problem of the direction of the depicted items on the mosaic, since we do not face a “flower or bud lying on its left side, placed between two leaves”, but rather a set of objects with no meaning as to the direction in which they were put. We do not see here “slightly stylized items” but rather some care devoted to details, as far as this could have been executed in mosaics, especially in the present one which is made of rather large stones.
The identification of two other items in the lower right hand side of the mosaic present no difficulties: a kantharos, and below it a fish holding a sea weed in its mouth. The kantharos is an object frequently depicted on mosaics, whether placed on a table in front of diners, or in depiction of stilllife.
The fish seems to be not in the water but rather served on the diners’ table. Objects of this kind are found e.g. on the mosaics in Antiochia,12 where the Greek inscription ΚΑΙ ΣΥ is seen,13 identical to an inscription found near the presently discussed mosaic.14
Still we remain with the identification of the object on the upper right hand side of the mosaic. Raban saw here: “black disc, behind which are two containers (wicker vessels?) attached by a pole. Perhaps this is some sort of device for carrying loads on two sides of a pack-animal’s back (donkey or mule).” This explanation seems to be unsatisfying, especially due to the straight shape of the connecting line. It ignores also the round disc on its left side. For the time being I have no other adequate explanation. Perhaps these objects represent gaming pieces or musical instruments?15
Raban claimed that “the artist intended the ship to be a central motif in the mosaic; the remaining elements are only secondary”, as common in contemporary mosaics. Actually, one cannot get the impression of this tendency in the present mosaic. It is sufficient to claim that the artist intended to depict a model of a boat or a vessel in the shape of a boat, thus we conclude that all the objects depicted on the mosaic are in fact of the same order of magnitude, without any preference for a certain object. In fact, objects in the shape of boats were in use in the Roman period, especially multi-wicked oil lamps (polycandela). A group of these objects was found e.g. in Delos.16 It is interesting to note that the Rabbinic literature mentions a “boat of pottery” ספינה של חרס which cannot become impure as it is not a vessel (a container) although made of pottery 17.
We have, therefore, a Roman mosaic floor from the type depicting stilllife with a group of objects which seem as if lying upon a table. It is not impossible that the objects depicted have in fact a common underlying conceptual denominator. Unfortunately, we do not know the precise meaning of two of the six objects. Assuming they are gaming pieces or musical instruments, it seems that the assemblage could have stood for and expressed values which the landlord of the house cherished and wished they would not be wanting, like his livelihood (expressed by the fishing boat by which he probably made his living); food and beverages, the Roman bath-house and his time of leisure. It is possible that the nearby inscription, which was interpreted in Antiochia as possessing apothropaic virtues, was meant to protect all these assets for the landlord.
1. S. Wachsman, The Excavations of an Ancient Boat in the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret),(= ‘Atiqot, English series XIX), Jerusalem, 1990.
2. V. Corbo, “Piazza e Villa Urbana a Magdala”, LA 28 (1978), p. 238, Pl. 76:5, 7. This mosaic was not included in the recently published corpus: A. Ovadiah – R. Ovadiah, Mosaic Pavements in Israel, Roma, 1987, pp. 110-111, No. 186.
3. A. Raban, “The Ship from Migdal Nunia”, Sefunim (Bulletin) VII (1988), pp. 48-56; J.R. Steffy – S. Wachsmann, “The Migdal Mosaic Boat”, in: S. Wachsmann (above, n. 1), pp. 115-118.
4. Ibid., p. 49
5. Corbo (above, note 2).
6. On strigili discovered in a Roman tomb in Natanya, see: R. Reich, “Archaeological Sites within the Boundaries of the City of Natanya”, in: Sefer Natanya (eds. A. Shmueli – M. Brawer), Tel-Aviv, 1982, p. 106, Fig. 11:17-18 (Hebrew). On Strigili found in a tomb near Yavneh, see: Hadashot Arkheologiyot 20 (1966), p. 18 (Hebrew). On the opinion that the Jewish population in Eretz-Israel in the Roman period, practiced occasionally in gymnastics, and therefore it is not impossible that these objects belonged to the Jewish population of Yavneh, see: S. Libermann, Greek and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, Bialik Institute – Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, Jerusalem, 1984, pp. 70-73 (Hebrew).
7. Similar to the Object from Natanya, see: Reich (above, note 6), p. 108, fig. 12.
8. Similar to the object from Nataniya, see: Reich (above, note 6), p. 108, fig. 11:6. It seems therefore that the identification of a similar object published in: U. Zevulun – Y. Olenik, Function and Design in the Talmudic Period, Tel-Aviv, 1978, Fig. 188, p. 72, should be corrected accordingly.
9. Cf. a set of objects from Pompeii which were found connected by a ring identical to the situation depicted on the present mosaic: H. Roux Aime, Herculanum et Pompei, Paris, 1870, Vol. VII, pp. 178-180, Pl. 87. This type of ring is referred to in the Rabbinic literature as twdrgmh ywlt (Mishnah, Kelim 12, 6) and Tos. Kelim BM 2, 12.
10. On the depiction of three strigili on a semicircular ring like the ring on the present mosaic, depicted on a mosaic from Aquincum, Hungary, see: A. Kiss, Roman Mosaics in Hungary, Budapest, 1973, Pl. V:1. I would like to thank V. Sussman for this and the following reference on the objects from Delos.
11. On the design of two strigili and an aryballos, in a disposition similar to the one seen on the present mosaic, see: V. Sussman, Ornamented Jewish Oil-Lamps, Jerusalem, 1982, Nos. 85, 86.
12. D. Levi, Antioch Mosaic Pavements, Princeton, 1947, Pls. I:a, VIII:c, XXIII:b, XLII:b. For the fish, see Pls. XXIV:a, CLII:a.
13. Ibid., Pls. IV:a, c.
14. Ibid., Pls. 10, IV: a, c.
15. See, e. g., the weights hold by the gymnastics on the mosaics from Piazza Armerina in Sicily: A. Carandini – A. Ricci – M. de Vos, Filosofiana la Villa di Piazza Armerina, Palermo, 1982, p. 151, fig. 73, foglio XVII.
16. P. Bruneau, Les Lampes, Exploration Archéologiques de Délos, Fasc. XXVI, Paris, 1965, pp. 107-109, Nos. 4535-4550; The Art of Jordan, Treasures from an Ancient Land, (ed. P. Bientkowski), Liverpool, 1991, No. 86 Boat-Shaped Lamp from Amman, p. 79.
17. Mishnah, Kelim 2, 3; and see: Y. Brand, Klei Haheres Besiffrut Hatalmud (Ceramics in Talmudic Literature), Jerusalem, 1953, pp. 385-388 (Hebrew); D. Sperber, who compiled all the material in the Rabbinic literature which relates to seamanship, does not discuss this term!; D. Sperber, Nautica Talmudica, Bar Ilan University Press, Ramat-Gan, Brill Leiden, 1986.