BUREIJ, Gaza Strip (AP) — Last spring, a Palestinian farmer was planting a new olive tree when his shovel hit a hard object. He called his son, and over three months the couple slowly excavated an ornate Byzantine-era mosaic that experts say is one of the greatest archaeological treasures ever found in Gaza.
The discovery has sparked excitement among archaeologists and the area’s Hamas rulers are planning a major announcement in the coming days.
But it also raises calls for better protection of Gaza’s antiquities, a vulnerable collection of sites threatened by a lack of awareness and resources, as well as the constant risk of conflict between Israel and local Palestinian militants.
The mosaic was discovered just a kilometer (half a mile) from the Israeli border. The floor, with 17 iconographies of beasts and birds, is well preserved and the colors are bright.
“These are the most beautiful mosaic floors discovered in Gaza, both in terms of the quality of the graphics and the complexity of the geometry,” said René Elter, an archaeologist from the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem.
“Never have mosaic floors of this finesse, this precision in the graphics and the richness of the colors discovered in the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Elter says the mosaic pavement dates to a time between the 5th and 7th centuries. But he said a proper excavation needs to be done to determine exactly when it was built and whether it was part of a religious or secular complex.
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Elter, who has researched Gaza in the past, was unable to visit the site but viewed a series of photos and videos taken by local research partners.
The Gaza Strip, a Palestinian coastal enclave sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, was a bustling trade route between Egypt and the Levant in ancient times. The coastal strip is full of remnants of ancient civilizations, from the Bronze Age to the Islamic and Ottoman times.
However, the treasures are rarely protected. They used to be looted. In recent years, some have been damaged or destroyed by development projects or fighting with Israel. An Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after the Hamas militant group took over Gaza in 2007 has devastated the economy, leaving few resources to protect antiquities.
Hamas itself pays little attention to preserving the sites as it struggles to meet the needs of a burgeoning 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 large areas of a site containing the remains of a 4,500-year-old Bronze Age settlement to create housing projects for its workers.
Early this year, bulldozers digging for an Egyptian-funded housing project in northern Gaza unearthed a Roman-era tomb.
Among the few surviving sites in Gaza are the St. Hilarion 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 aid organizations and opened this year in the northern Gaza Strip.
While these sites also have mosaics, Elter said the latest discovery, in the central Gaza city of Bureij, is “exceptional.”
The Hamas-run antiquities department described the mosaic as “a major archaeological discovery,” but declined to comment further, saying a formal announcement will be made at a later date.
The land owner, who declined to be identified before the official announcement, has covered the excavated portion of the mosaic floor with tin plates. He said he hopes to receive compensation for protecting the unique find on his property.
The patch of land containing the mosaic is approximately 500 square meters (5,400 square feet), and three excavated spots 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 drawings of animals. The other two show intricate patterns of tiles. Roots of an ancient olive tree have damaged parts of the mosaic, which appears to be about 23 square meters in total.
Elter said the find is in “imminent danger” because it is so close to the Israeli separation fence.
Such areas along the fence are often the scene of occasional clashes or Israeli raids. Last month, the Islamic Jihad militant group of Israel and Gaza fought a fierce three-day battle, including Israeli shelling of militant posts and the landing of several failed Palestinian rockets in the area.
Elter is also concerned that excavations by inexperienced people could damage the site. His hope is that a professional team can properly excavate, restore and protect the mosaic.
“It is imperative to organize an emergency response intervention quickly,” Elter said.