BUREIJ, Gaza Strip (AP) — A Palestinian farmer was planting an olive tree last spring when the shovel hit something hard. He called his son and for three months the two carefully excavated and found what turned out to be an elaborate mosaic that experts say is one of the most important archaeological treasures ever found in Gaza.
The discovery has generated much excitement among archaeologists and Hamas, the organization that governs the territory, is preparing to make an announcement in the coming days.
At the same time, there are calls to better protect Gaza’s antiquities, fragile treasures that are in danger due to lack of interest and resources, in addition to the risk posed by the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the area.
The mosaic was discovered one kilometer (just over half a mile) from the border with Israel. The floor, with 17 iconographies of animals, including birds, is well preserved and brightly coloured.
“They are the most beautiful mosaic floors ever found in Gaza, both in terms of the quality of the graphic representations and the complexity of their geometry,” said René Elter, an archaeologist at the French Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem. “Floors with such fine mosaics, with such precise graphics and such rich colors have never been found in the Gaza Strip.”
Elter estimates the mosaics date to between the 5th and 7th centuries. But he said more complex excavation is needed to determine exactly when they were built and whether they were part of a religious or secular complex.
Elter, who has done research in Gaza in the past, was not able to visit the discovery site but saw photos and videos filmed by local collaborators.
The Gaza Strip, a coastal strip between Israel and Egypt, used to be an important stopover for trade between Egypt and the Levant in ancient times. It is full of remains of ancient civilizations, from the Bronze Age to the Islamic and Ottoman eras.
These treasures, however, are rarely protected. Many were looted and in recent years some were damaged or destroyed by fighting with the Israelis or construction works on the land. An Egyptian-Israeli blockade imposed when Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 devastated the economy and left few resources to protect antiquities.
Hamas itself pays little attention to the preservation of those treasures and focuses instead on meeting the needs of a growing population. More than 2.3 million people live crammed into a territory of just 300 square kilometers (115 square miles). In 2017, Hamas bulldozers destroyed much of a site containing the remains of a 4,500-year-old Bronze Age settlement to build homes.
This year, bulldozers working on the construction of an Egyptian-funded home in northern Gaza found a Roman-era tomb.
Among the few preserved sites in Gaza are the monastery of Saint Hilary, which spans from the late Roman empire to the Umayyad period, and a Byzantine church that was restored by international aid organizations and can now be visited.
While these places also have mosaics, Elter said the ones now found in the Bureij town are “exceptional.”
The Hamas government’s antiquities department called the mosaic “a great archaeological find” and declined to elaborate. He indicated that there will be a formal announcement later.
The owner of the land, who does not want to be identified before the official announcement, covered the exposed parts of the mosaic with tin plates. He said he expects to be compensated for protecting a unique find on his property.
The lot where the mosaic is located is about 500 square meters (5,400 square feet). There are excavations at three sites that reveal parts of the mosaic.
The largest hole, 3 x 2 meters (6 x 9 feet), has 17 drawings of animals. The other two have complex patterned mosaics. The roots of the olive tree damaged parts of the mosaic, which appears to be 23 square meters (250 square feet) in total.
Elter said the mosaic is in “immediate danger” because it is so close to the wall that separates Gaza and Israel. Clashes or incursions by Israeli soldiers are frequent in these sectors.
Elter is also concerned that inexperienced people continue to dig and damage the mosaic.
“It is imperative that an emergency intervention be organized quickly,” Elter said.