A new exhibition at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, entitled Predators and Prey: a Roman mosaic from Lod, Israel, showcases one of the world’s most dazzling mosaics. Richard Hodges, director of the Roman site of Butrint in Albania, was invited to the launch.
Waddesdon Manor, like the Lod Mosaic, which is now on display in its Stables, belongs to a world of vaunting internationalism. Baron Rothschild’s Victorian ‘manor’ is in all but name a majestic Loire Valley chateau set on a Chiltern ridge. I first visited the great pile, staying in its guest rooms, when we were planning the Butrint project in Albania. The present Lord Rothschild believed that the precious spirit of the partnership between the National Trust and his family was a model for the Butrint project that we were planning in the impoverished aftermath of the collapse of Communism in Albania. As if I needed the experience to be sweetened, the guest of honour at dinner was Lady Soames – Winston Churchill’s younger daughter, Mary. It was impossible to resist discreet questions about her father and her extraordinary experience as his ADC at the Yalta Conference, with the ailing Roosevelt and the deceptively avuncular Stalin. History continues at Waddesdon. Politicians and royals regularly visit and plant trees; so it was that, with the opening of the Lod Mosaic here, along came the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
The Lod Mosaic was discovered in 1996 at the Israeli city of Lod (ancient Lydda), close to Tel Aviv. It was the floor of either an atrium or the main reception room for a grand villa around AD 300. The mosaic is expertly crafted with coloured tessarae, and features a number of exotic predators and their prey, as well as a carefully contrived marine scene. Interestingly, no deities or humans are depicted. Two merchant ships and a basket of fish are the only references to human life. Viewed from the walkways in the Stables, the brilliance of the colours and intricacy of the detailing are simply dazzling.
Conserved by Jacques Neguer (who taught mosaic conservation at Butrint) and the Israel Antiquities Department, it is a majestic example of the great renaissance in mosaic-making following the 3rd-century economic crisis. Examples can also be seen at ancient Antioch and Zeugma (Turkey), further north in the Levant. The art lasted well into the Early Byzantine period, best seen in the churches excavated in Israel, and reflects the pivotal importance of this region, between the Mediterranean and the Orient, as the Romans reached out for spices and other luxuries from India and beyond.
Floored by beauty
Boris Johnson did not disappoint. Impishly dishevelled – like a character from a Just William story – he explained how satisfying it was to escape opening discount stores and underground stations and to encounter this wonderful Roman jewel that, as he concluded, floored him!
Jacob Rothschild, who organised this exhibition, has archaeology in his genes. Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934), who built Waddesdon, supported excavations throughout the Levant, and was a keen collector. A sample of his collection, gold and glass treasures from the Roman world, is on display in the splendid exhibition. As Boris half said: why Waddesdon and not the British Museum? The answer is obvious. Walking through Waddesdon’s grounds, the carefully placed statues evoking images of Antiquity, blending with the French accent of the architecture, in this quintessential English landscape, combined to convey a world that was both as international and as fascinated by man’s place in nature as were the makers of the Lod mosaic. The mosaic belongs to a glorious and vaunting continuing story.
The Lod Mosaic can be seen at Waddesdon Manor until 2 November, 11am-5pm Wednesday-Sunday. www.waddesdon.org.uk