Ancient Mosaic Reveals Artisans' Footprints

The foot and sandal prints offer insight into just how ancient craftsmen built this elaborate mosaic.

Foot and sandal prints said to be 1,700 years old have emerged from one of Israel's largest and finest mosaics.

The markings reveal how ancient artisans could have crafted the mosaic during the Roman period.

Spreading over 180 square meters (215 square yards), the mosaic -- apparently the floor of a lavish Roman villa -- was uncovered 13 years ago at Lod, south of Tel Aviv, only three feet under an asphalt road not far from Ben-Gurion Airport.

After a brief display for a single weekend, attracting thousands of visitors, the mosaic was covered until funds could be found to preserve it.

A recent influx of donations has allowed archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority to revisit the colorful scenes of birds, fish, exotic animals and merchant vessels.

Made of millions of small stones, the mosaic is being disassembled in order to transport it to restoration labs.

"Beneath a piece on which vine leaves are depicted, we discovered that the mosaic's builders incised lines that indicate where the tesserae (mosaic tiles) should be set," said Jacques Neguer, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority conservation department. "Afterwards, while cleaning the layer, we found the imprints of feet and sandals."

The petrified sandal prints that accompany the mosaic ranged in size, suggesting that children might have been at the site.

According to Neguer, the concentration of foot and sandal prints indicate that builders packed the mortar in place with their feet.

"The footprints are scientific material to be studied by anthropologists and archaeologists, but for conservators, they are a symbol of continuity," Neguer told Discovery News. "Some 1,700 years ago, the mosaic-makers walked on the same bedding mortar we are working on today."

At least one imprint of a sole resembled a modern sandal, he added.

"Looks like little has changed in the fashion world. However, scientific investigations are yet to be carried on the prints," Neguer said.

According to Andre Veldmeijer, an archaeologist who specializes in ancient Egyptian leatherwork, footwear and cordage, it is not possible to say what a sandal looked like on the basis of prints.

"Imprints can only tell what kind of shape the sandal was and perhaps, if the print is really good, if it was made of vegetable fiber or not," Veldmeijer told Discovery News.

The foot prints will be removed for conservation and exhibited with the mosaic flooring at a museum in Lod. A part of the mosaic will be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next year.