Last spring, a Palestinian farmer was planting a new olive tree when his shovel hit a hard object. He named him his son and, for three months, the two slowly excavated an ornate mosaic from the Byzantine era that experts say is one of the greatest archaeological treasures ever found in Gaza.
The discovery has sparked excitement among archaeologists and the Hamas rulers of the area are planning a major announcement in the coming days.
But it also calls for calls for better protection of Gaza’s antiquities, a fragile collection of sites threatened by a lack of awareness and resources, as well as by the constant risk of conflict between Israel and local Palestinian militants.
The mosaic was discovered just one kilometer (half a mile) from the Israeli border. The floor, which boasts 17 iconographies of animals and birds, is well preserved and its colors are bright.
“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,” said René Elter, archaeologist at the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem.
“Mosaic floors of this finesse, this precision in graphics and the richness of colors have never been discovered in the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Elter states that the mosaic pavement dates back to a period between the 5th and 7th centuries. But he said adequate excavation must be conducted to determine when exactly it was built and whether it was part of a religious or secular complex.
Elter, who previously conducted research in Gaza, was unable to visit the site but saw a series of photos and videos made by local research partners.
The Gaza Strip, a Palestinian coastal enclave sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, was a busy trade route between Egypt and the Levant in ancient times. The coastal strip is rich in remains of ancient civilizations, from the Bronze Age to the Islamic and Ottoman times.
However, the treasures are rarely protected. In the past they were looted. In recent years, some have been damaged or destroyed by development projects or fighting with Israel. An Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after the militant group Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 devastated the economy, leaving few resources for the protection of antiquities.
Hamas itself pays little attention to the conservation of the sites as it struggles to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population. More than 2.3 million people are squeezed into the strip’s only 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 carry out housing projects for its employees.
Earlier this year, bulldozers excavating for an Egypt-funded housing project in northern Gaza unearthed a Roman-era tomb.
Among the few preserved sites in Gaza are the St. Hilary Monastery, which stretches from the late Roman Empire to the Islamic Umayyad period, and the site of a Byzantine church that was restored by international humanitarian organizations and opened this year in the Northern Gaza Strip.
Although these sites also have mosaics, Elter said the latest discovery, in the city of Bureij, in central Gaza, is “exceptional”.
The Hamas-run antiquities department described the mosaic as “a great archaeological find,” but declined to comment further, saying there will be a formal announcement later.
The owner of the land, who refused to be identified before the official announcement, covered the portion of the mosaic floor found with tin sheets. He said he hopes to receive compensation for protecting the unique find on his property.
The piece of land that houses the mosaic is approximately 500 square meters (5,400 square feet), and three points excavated reveal glimpses of the mosaic.
The largest of the holes in the ground, about 2 meters by 3 meters (6 feet by 9 feet), has the 17 animal designs. The other two show intricate tile patterns. The roots of an old olive tree have damaged parts of the mosaic, which appears to have an overall size of around 23 square meters (250 square feet).
Elter said the discovery is in “immediate danger” because it is so close to the Israeli separation wall.
Such areas along the fence are often the scene of intermittent fighting or Israeli raids. Just last month, Israel and the militant group of Islamic Jihad in Gaza fought a fierce three-day battle that included the Israeli bombing of militant positions and the landing of some poorly launched Palestinian rockets in the area.
Elter also fears that excavations by inexperienced people could damage the site. His hope is that a team of professionals can properly excavate, restore and protect the mosaic.
“It is essential to organize an emergency response quickly,” said Elter.