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
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
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
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.
Lod Ship 2 (Zaraza Friedman).
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
The lowered mast on the deck of a merchant ship,
in a mosaic from Sousse, Tunisia (Zaraza Friedman).
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
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,
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.
Fantar, H. M. et al., 1994, La mosaïque en Tunisie.
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.