Palestinian Farmer Unearths Byzantine-Era Mosaic While Planting Olive Trees

The stunning, colorful flooring depicts 17 iconographies of birds and animals

Farmer cleans mosaic
Palestinian farmer Salman al-Nabahin cleans the mosaic he uncovered in Gaza. Photo by Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Palestinian farmer Salman al-Nabahin was working in his olive orchard in Gaza when he noticed that some of the new trees he’d planted on his land did not root properly. Curious about what might be causing the issue, al-Nabahin recruited his son to help him start digging.

His son’s ax struck something solid and hard. When the two men began to clear away the dirt, they discovered an artifact they did not recognize. A little internet sleuthing turned up the answer to their mystery: They’d stumbled upon an ornate Byzantine-era floor mosaic featuring birds and other animals.

“I see it as a treasure, dearer than a treasure,” al-Nabahin tells Reuters’ Nidal Al-Mughrabi. “It isn’t personal, it belongs to every Palestinian.”

That was six months ago. Now, archaeologists with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the French Archaeology School are hard at work studying the flooring to learn more about its “secrets and civilization values,” says the ministry in a press statement.

The mosaic features 17 iconographies of birds and other animals depicted in bright colors. Archaeologists believe artists created the flooring sometime between the fifth and seventh centuries, though they don’t know whether the mosaic had religious or secular origins.

Close-up of mosaic
The colorful flooring shows 17 iconographies of birds and animals. Photo by Ahmed Zakot / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

The farmer has been covering the unearthed areas of the mosaic floor with tin sheets to protect them; so far, he’s dug up three separate sections, the widest measuring 6 feet by 9 feet, according to Fares Akram of the Associated Press (AP). In total, the land covering the entire mosaic is about 5,400 square feet, and the mosaic itself measures about 250 square feet. Some parts of the mosaic appear to be damaged, likely from the roots of an old olive tree.

“These are the most beautiful mosaic floors discovered in Gaza, both in terms of the quality of the graphic representation and the complexity of the geometry,” René Elter, an archaeologist at the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, tells the AP. “Never have mosaic floors of this finesse, this precision in the graphics and richness of the colors been discovered in the Gaza Strip.”

The Gaza Strip, which is located between Israel and Egypt and was a busy trade route throughout history, is home to many antiquities and remnants of ancient civilizations. The farmer and his son unearthed the mosaic in the Bureij refugee camp, which is located about half a mile from the border with Israel. Archaeologists and other experts are concerned about the mosaic’s future because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as looting and a lack of funding for historical preservation.

“It is a spectacular find, especially as our knowledge of archaeology is sadly so spotty given circumstances there,” Asa Eger, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, tells the Art Newspaper’s Hadani Ditmars. “Gaza was very important during the period of this mosaic and known for its burgeoning wine production exported across the Mediterranean.”