Rare Roman Period Frescoes Discovered in Galilee

“Now therefore send me a man skilful to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in iron, and in purple, and crimson, and blue, and that hath skill to grave all manner of gravings, to be with the skilful men that are with me in Yehudah and in Yerushalayim, whom David my father did provide.” II Chronicles 2:6 (The Israel Bible™)

A team from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has discovered hundreds of fragments belonging to frescoes from the Roman period in the Zippori National Park, west of Nazareth in Upper Galilee. The fragments, which contain figurative images, floral patterns and geometric motifs, shed light on Zippori (Sepphoris), which was an important urban center for the Jews of the Galilee during the Roman and Byzantine periods.

The discovery was made this summer in the excavations at Zippori, conducted in memory of Ursula Johanna and Fritz Werner Blumenthal of Perth, Western Australia. The excavations are directed by Prof. Zeev Weiss, the Eleazar L. Sukenik Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology.

The frescoes decorated a monumental building that was erected in the early second century CE north of the decumanus, a colonnaded street that cut across the city from east to west and continued to the foot of the Acropolis. The building, whose function is not clear at this stage of excavation, spread over a wide area, and the nature of the artifacts discovered indicate that it was an important public building. At the center of the building was a stone-paved courtyard and side portico decorated with stucco. West and north of the courtyard, several underground vaults were discovered. Some of these were used as water cisterns and their construction was of high quality. The monumental building was built on the slope and the vaults were designed to allow the construction of the superstructure located on the level of the decumanus (an east-west-oriented road in a Roman city).

The back of a tiger with its tail curling, in a fresco from Zippori, dating from the early Second Century CE (Photo: G. Laron)
The back of a tiger with its tail curling, in a fresco from Zippori, dating from the early Second Century CE (Photo: G. Laron)

The monumental building was dismantled in the third century CE for reasons that are unclear, and replaced by another public building, larger than its predecessor, parts of which were uncovered during this digging season. The monumental building’s walls were dismantled in antiquity and its building materials — stone and plaster, some colorful — were buried under the floors of a newly established Roman building on the same location. Hundreds of plaster fragments discovered during this excavation season were concentrated in one area, and it seems that they belonged to one or several rooms from the previous building.

The patterns on the plaster fragments are varied and are decorated in many colors. Among them are geometric patterns (guilloche) and brightly colored wall panels. Other fragments contain floral motifs (light shaded paintings on red backgrounds or various colors on a white background).

Particularly important are the pieces which depict figures — the head of a lion, a horned animal (possibly a bull), a bird, a tiger’s hindquarters and more — usually on a black background. At least one fragment contains a depiction of a man bearing a club. Research on these pieces is in its early stages but it is already clear that at least one room in the building was decorated with figurative images, possibly depicting exotic animals and birds in various positions.

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The population of Zippori prior to the Great Revolt against the Romans was not very large, and archaeological finds dating to this period are particularly notable for the absence of figurative images – both humans and animals. The construction of the Roman city of Zippori after the Great Revolt, in the late first century and the second century CE, is indicative of a change in the attitude of Galilean Jews toward Rome and its culture. The city gained the status of a polis thanks to its loyalty to Rome during the Great Revolt, and constructed monumental public buildings, as befit a polis, that stood out in the urban landscape. This building boom also included the monumental building discovered north of the decumanus whose walls were decorated with frescoes, and whose remains were discovered during this season.

Guilloche, in a fresco from Zippori, dating from the early Second Century CE (Photo: G. Laron)
Guilloche, in a fresco from Zippori, dating from the early Second Century CE (Photo: G. Laron)

The new finds in Zippori contribute significantly to the research of Roman art in Israel. To date, excavators have uncovered the walls of several public and private buildings from Roman Zippori (second and third centuries CE) which were decorated with colorful frescoes in geometric and floral patterns. This season’s finds are the first, only and earliest evidence of figurative images in wall paintings at the site. The finds date to the beginning of the second century CE. Parallels to these finds are virtually unknown at other Israeli sites of the same period. Some panels bearing depictions of figures were discovered a few years ago in Herod’s palace at Herodium, and according to Josephus (Life of Josephus 65-69) the walls of the palace of Herod Antipas in Tiberias were also decorated with wall paintings depicting animals; but beyond that, no murals with depictions of figures, dating to the first century and the beginning of the second century CE, have been discovered to date in the region.

The discovery in Zippori is unique and provides new information regarding murals in Israel under Roman rule. Zippori is well known for its unique mosaics. The newly discovered frescos are now added to the city’s rich material culture. While the earliest mosaics discovered at the site date to around 200 CE, the ancient frescoes precede them by about a hundred years and are thus of great importance.

A bull’s head in a fresco from Zippori, dating from the early Second Century C.E. (Photo: G. Laron)
A bull’s head in a fresco from Zippori, dating from the early Second Century C.E. (Photo: G. Laron)

These finds raise questions relating to their socio-historic background. Who initiated the construction of the monumental building that was discovered north of the decumanus? Who is responsible for choosing the patterns that adorn the walls, and for whom were they intended?

The various finds uncovered throughout the site indicate that Zippori, the Jewish capital of Galilee, was home to many Jewish inhabitants throughout the Roman period, but the city also had a significant pagan community for which the temple was built to the south of the decumanus, opposite the monumental building, parts of which were discovered this season. It is difficult at this stage of the excavation to determine who was responsible for the construction and decoration of this monumental building. However, the new finds clearly reflect the multi-cultural climate that characterizes Zippori in the years following the Great Revolt, in the late first century and the second century CE.