The 1,800-year-old mosaic unearthed by archeologists in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast is, for lack of a more expressive word, impressive. It is a beautiful work of art that transcends time.
The pictures heralding its unearthing cannot do it justice.
The colors, even nearly 2,000 years later, are still vivid. The story, told through little, colored cubes and rocks, reveals so much about the society, the social fabric, the environment of that long-ago time. It reveals volumes about the land of Israel, about those who lived there and those who came to visit.
In general, archeology is unearthed level by level. The deeper the level, the older the archeological “find.” This mosaic, discovered under a house, is three centuries older than that house. How could anyone have been so oblivious to the grandeur of that mosaic as to have built over it? How could anyone build over such a beautiful piece of art? The simple answer is that the building housing the mosaic was destroyed and left in ruins. The next group to live in the area simply built on top of those remains.
In Israel, archeology is more than an academic science. For Israelis, archeology is a national pastime, even bordering on the obsessive. Why? Why is there so much interest in archeology in Israel? This story ran in the news for days. It was on TV, radio, in print and still remains on websites. And this find is not out of the ordinary, it’s just one example of many.
This level of interest would never occur in the United States, and rarely in Europe.
It doesn’t even happen in other parts of the Middle East. There are businesses that deal and trade in artifacts as art, and there were countries during the colonial period that looted historic sites and schlepped their booty back to Europe for display. That was pageantry, it was a public statement of European conquests. Those acts are much like the menorah on the arch of Titus, which was looted to prove the prowess of the colonial power.
But that’s not the case in Israel.
In archeology like in so many other areas, Israel is different. In Israel, almost everyone is an amateur archeologist.
After Zionism emerged archeology in the land of Israel and then in the State of Israel took on a different flavor. Archeology became another proof that Jews belonged in the area now called the Jewish state.
Rocks and ancient buildings provide necessary evidence that Jews resided in Israel all the way from the time of Abraham until today.
This is not to say that archeology is political, that archeology is an arm of diplomacy.
It is not. Archeology is a bridge connecting the love of Israel from the past to the present.
It’s not something Israelis think about, it is something they feel in their heart and know in their kishkes – even if they cannot articulate the feeling or express the emotion.
Everywhere one digs in Israel, one can find history. The joke – not so funny, but true – is that in Poland everywhere you dig you find bones. In Israel everywhere you dig you find archeological remains. That is why before any construction a salvage dig is performed to make certain no damage to the past takes place.
The Israeli public swarms to archeological digs and gardens to learn more about their history and to visualize the past. Digs are highlighted and prioritized. Dig sites provide information not only about what was found, but about what was once there and still not found. The entire historical period from that area is easily and entertainingly explained. When an entire strata is intact it is cleared and the public is invited to see life emerge from that period.
Digs and their remains become exhibits to educate students of all ages and cultures about a period or a site. I have been to digs all over the world and nowhere in the world is the science of archeology better married to the educational system and media than in Israel.
In other parts of the world, archeological digs are more like mouths in bad need of orthodontic work. Historical periods overlap and collide with earlier and later periods. Explanations are not clear. After archeologists are done, they leave. Parks overtake invaluable archeological sites. In Israel, parks are built around archeological sites, not through them.
Israel truly is the people of the book.
Sometimes we learn by reading. Sometimes we learn by looking. Archaeological remains are our picture books.
Israel digs up the past and makes it relevant to the present.