The Ships Depicted in the Lod Mosaic Reconsidered

The article ‘A suggested reconstruction of one of the merchant ships on the mosaic
floor in Lod (Lydda) Israel’ published by E. Haddad and M. Avissar in IJNA (2003) 32.1: 73–77 contains some inaccuracies and misinterpretations. The suggested ‘marine trauma’ suffered by the damaged ship in the mosaic is an attractive suggestion, but perhaps naïve, and the study was done without looking at comparative material and references.

Ship representations in mosaics are usually used as symbols of contemporary vessels. Such depictions, and especially elements of the ship, have to be studied with comparable material, which in the end will result in a better understanding of the vessel. The maritime frame within the mosaic discovered at Lod in 1996 is unique in the decoration of the floor. The ships and the variety of marine fauna are depicted in a white background, thus suggesting that the scene is viewed in the open sea. There is no indication of seashore or any waterfront architecture. The ships and the fish are not in proportion to each other. Indeed the ships are depicted to a smaller scale than the marine fauna. Apart from the damage in the middle part of Ship 2 the maritime frame is well preserved.

Ship 1 (Fig. 1)

This vessel shown with its full rigging depicts significant elements that are rarely represented in ship iconography in any art form. The sailing rig comprises a tapered mast stepped amidships; the white and black stripes indicate a rope ladder, allowing the crew to climb and work the sail and the ropes when needed. The upper part of the horizontal yard is also depicted with similar stripes indicating a rope ladder, but this may just be for decorative effect. The lower part of the yard is made with two strips of dark reddishbrown tesserae. The rigging lines described by Haddad and Avissar (2003: 74) as representing three shrouds on either side of the mast are misinterpreted. These ropes indicate the standing rigging to secure the mast in place. The lower end of each line is split into three to five arms that pass through a wooden block attached to the lower quarter of the main lines. Each block is outlined with one strip of black tesserae and the field is made with ochre or light yellowishbrown stones to emphasis the wood. The lines indicate quite clearly their individual function and position.

Figure 1.

Lod Ship 1 (Zaraza Friedman).

The left-hand line stretching from the masthead (above the yard) to the top of the bow represents the port forestay; the four arms of the lower end are attached to the port fore-gunwale, behind the square frame attached to the bow.

The middle line stretching from the joint of the yard and the mast to the fore gunwale is the starboard forestay; the four arms are attached to the starboard fore-gunwale.

The line closer to the left side of the mast indicates the starboard shroud; the five arms are attached to the starboard gunwale, a bit fore amidships.

The line closer to the right side of the mast, as stretching from behind the mast, is the port shroud; the four arms are attached to the port gunwale just before the rudder-house.

The middle line indicates the starboard backstay with the four arms attached to quarter gunwale behind the rudder-house.

The right-hand line stretching from the joint of the yard and the mast to the quarter is the port backstay; the three arms are attached to the gunwale aft the rudder-house.

One lift stretching from either side of the masthead to the yardarms holds the yard; they also indicate the leeches of the triangular topsail. The large square sail is billowing before the mast and over the starboard gunwale; its lower part is not attached to the mast (Haddad and Avissar, 2003: 75). The port clew seems to be attached to the port gunwale at amidships. The port leech is made with an arching strip of black tesserae, while an arching strip of ochre stones indicates the starboard leech. The black horizontal lines depicted on the lee face of the bunt indicate the
reef-bands. The shaft of the port rudder projects between two vertical stanchions of the lattice fence of the rudder-house.

Ship 2 (Figs 2 and 3)

The hull of this ship is similar to that of Ship 1, but a bit longer. The lower part is made with dark brown tesserae, thus indicating the pitch or tar outer coating. The two long strakes, each outlined with a strip of black stones, probably indicate two wales. The Ottoman cesspit cut thought the mosaic affected the rigging and the
fore part of the vessel. The remains of this rigging provide us significant information on how it was positioned in the ship. The mast did not survive the damage; only the masthead with a small flag attached to its tip, the left upper corner of the sail and the yardarm were preserved. The small balllike element at the base of the flagstick indicates the parrel. The outer lines stretching from either side of the parrel towards yardarms indicate the lifts that support the yard. The inner lines beneath the parrel are the outlines of the masthead. The inclined position of the masthead and the flag
projecting over the bow, indicate that the mast was retracted and lowered on the deck.

Figure 2.

Lod Ship 2 (Zaraza Friedman).


Figure 3.

A new reconsideration of the rigging of Lod Ship 2 (Zaraza Friedman, after Haddad and Avissar; 2003: fig. 4).

Only the left yardarm and the upper left corner of the sail survived the damage. The sail was made with grey tesserae. The black horizontal line beneath the yard epicted on the bunt represents a reef-band. The short line stretching from the yardarm to he top of the arched roof of the rudder-house, most probably indicates the brace or a brail. The function of the black parallel lines behind the rudder-house is not exactly nderstood. The shaft of the starboard rudder projects from the lattice fence of the rudder-house. It seems to be mounted fore the central stanchion of the fence (Fig. 2).

Interpretation of Ship 2

The rigging of Ship 2 gives quite a clear view of the vessel’s situation. The angled masthead with the attached flag strongly emphasise that the mast was retracted and its heel laid on the aftdeck (behind the sail and the yardarm), while the masthead was supported in a similar way as depicted in a merchant ship on a 3rd century mosaic from Sousse, Tunisia (from the floor of a tomb chamber near Sousse; now in the Bardo Museum) (Fig. 4). The masthead of Lod Ship 2 seems to rest in an identical forked stanchion placed on the foredeck.1 The preserved lifts of Lod Ship 2 indicate that they held the lowered yard with the reefed sail beneath it (Figs 2 and 3). A comparable example showing a lowered yard with furled sail beneath it is nicely illustrated in the 4th century Dermech mosaic from Carthage (Fig. 5). The angled yard shows that the lifts hang free and are not under tension as when the sail and the yard were lifted and fitted for sailing. The fragmented lifts of Lod Ship 2 indicate that
they were depicted in a similar way as the Dermech Ship.

Figure 4.

The lowered mast on the deck of a merchant ship, in a mosaic from Sousse, Tunisia (Zaraza Friedman).


Figure 5.

Lowered yard with the furled sail beneath, in the
Dermech mosaic from Carthage (Zaraza Friedman).

The reconstruction of the rigging suggested by Haddad and Avissar (2003: 76, fig. 4) was not understood properly. The ship did not suffer a ‘marine trauma’ and the mast was not broken but lowered on the deck (Fig. 3). The dotted lines depicted on the upper part of the mast were also misinterpreted. The preserved lifts (Fig. 2) show that they were stretched to either yardarm in the way suggested by a new reconstruction (Fig. 3).

Comments on the Lod Ships

Although the Lod ships are not shown with an anchor, it does not mean that they were not moored. Depictions of ships in any art form and especially in mosaics Piazzale delle Corporazioni, Ostia and the Catalogue of ships in the Althiburus mosaic, Tunisia) are not shown with anchors, nor sailing, but static. The ships are representative symbols of vessels that sailed in the Mediterranean in ancient times, with elements to suggest their type and function.

The reconstruction and interpretation of the Lod damaged ship suggested by Haddad and Avissar can be considered a nice story, but inappropriate for the study of ancient ships. Whenever studying ship depictions in any art form and especially in mosaics, we have to be careful. Their statement that the damaged ship refers to a ‘time capsule’, which is ‘not buried at the bottom of the sea but on dry land’ (2003: 76), is inaccurate. First of all the ship is not depicted on dry land but afloat in open sea, suggested by the white background and the rich marine fauna, without any indication for a shore or harbor. We may agree that both Lod ships are a ‘time capsule’ showing two vessels in two distinct positions. Ship 1 with its billowing sail may indicate that the wind probably blows from astern or the port quarter. The inclined masthead of Ship 2 indicates that the mast could be retracted and lowered on the deck when the ship was at anchor. The Sousse ship (Fig. 4) and the drawing of Lod Ship 2 (Fig. 3) suggest that when a mast was lowered on the deck it could be laid on either direction.

The surviving upper corner of the sail and the yardarm do not show signs of damage;
neither of the rudders shows such marks. When a ship is in danger of wreckage or sinking, the first gear to be damaged is the sail, the lines, the yard, the mast, the rudder and later the hull. None of such gear in the Lod Ship 2 shows such signs of damaged caused by a marine trauma.

The rhomboid and square frames attached to the upper part of each bow probably represent their identification or trademark. The most common decoration on the prow of ancient seagoing merchant ships in the Mediterranean was a very large oculus, a dolphin or a water bird (goose, swan, duck, etc). The frames associated with the Lod ships are quite unique. With careful consideration we may suggest that the owner of
the villa was Jewish and when he depicted the ships in the mosaics, he probably followed the Jewish law that forbids the use of any human or animal figures or even an oculus, and for that reason he instructed the mosaicist to use the geometric frames on the ships.2 The ships depicted in the rich marine fauna may indicate
that the patron of the villa owned the vessels or he traded with North African ships. The vessels are typical navis oneraria, probably of medium size (80 to 150 tons) that may be associated with kerkouros or corbita type, carrying garum and grain from North Africa to Rome and the eastern Mediterranean. The ships depicted in the maritime frame probably were also used as apotropaic signs associated with the safe return of the vessels and the thank-offering to celebrate such a return (Dunbabin, 1978: 126).


I am deeply grateful to Mrs Miriam Avissar for giving me permission to carry out a detailed study of the ships during the excavation in 1996. My thanks go to Mr Elie Haddad who sent me the offprint of the article ‘A suggested reconstruction of one of the merchant ships on the mosaic floor in Lod (Lydda) Israel’.


1. An additional example of a retracted mast and laid on the deck with the masthead projecting over the bow, appears in a caudicaria depicted in a 3rd century relief in Salerno Cathedral (Casson, 1965: Pl. V.1).
2. A detailed study of the ships in the Lod mosaic appears in my PhD dissertation, Ship Icongraphy in the Mosaics from the Mediterranean—An Aid to Understand Ancient Ships and Their Construction, University of Haifa, 2003.


Blanchard-Lemeé, L., Emaifer, M., and Slim, L., 1996, Mosaics of North Africa: Floor Mosaics from Tunisia. New York.
Casson, L., 1965, Harbor and River Boats of Ancient Rome; Journal of Roman Studies 55: 31–8, Pls. I–V.
Casson, L., 1971, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton.
Dunbabin, K. M. D., 1978, The Mosaics of North Africa: Studies in Iconography and Patronage. Oxford.
Fantar, H. M. et al., 1994, La mosaïque en Tunisie. Tunis.
Haddad, E. and Avissar, M., 2003, A suggested reconstruction of one of the merchant ships on the mosaic floor in Lod (Lydda) Israel; IJNA 32.1: 73–7.
Kemp, P., 1988, The Oxford Companion to Ships and Seas. Oxford.


Designed by: onyx studios


Fig 1:
Lod Ship 1
(Zaraza Friedman)

Fig 2:
Lod Ship 2
(Zaraza Friedman)

Fig 3:
A new reconsideration of
the rigging of Lod Ship 2 (Zaraza Friedman, after Haddad and Avissar; 2003:
fig. 4).

Fig 4:
The lowered mast on the
deck of a merchant ship, in a mosaic from Sousse, Tunisia (Zaraza Friedman)

Fig 5:
Lowered yard with the furled sail beneath, in the
Dermech mosaic from Carthage (Zaraza Friedman)

Copyright ©Zaraza Friedman