The Greek term psephos, whose original meaning is "pebble," is connected to the pre-classical custom of flooring houses and courtyards with pebbles. During the Hellenistic period, a new technique was invented in Greece that cut the stones into small cubes. This system first appeared in Israel in the 2nd century BCE, gradually developed in the Roman period and reached its zenith in the early Byzantine period, which is distinguished by a profusion of stunning mosaic floors.
The Roman architect Vitruvius left us a detailed description of how to prepare the foundations for a mosaic floor, citing the need for three separate bedding layers, with the upper layer comprised of quality cement for setting the mosaic stones.
Limestone, so common in our region in a wide range of colors and shades, including white, yellow, red, gray and black, served as the main raw material, while shades of green, blue and gold were made from glass.
Similar to a carpet, the quality of a mosaic is measured by the density of the stones, the richness of the colors, the complexity of patterns and the measure of the artisan's skill.
Mosaic Floor from Beit Guvrin, 6th Century
This floor was discovered in 1921 in a building whose use is not known, and transferred to the museum after some important sections of it had already been defaced and destroyed. Its wide borders are surrounded by hunting images against a background of stylized hills and flora. The central panel area is adorned with colorful interlaced designs and octagons depicting various animals, placed opposite each other in a symmetrical predator-prey pattern. Images of women - symbolizing the four seasons - once adorned the medallions of the central axis.
Mosaic Floor from a Samaritan Prayer House, 6th Century
The Samaritan prayer house floor, discovered within the museum's grounds, is displayed in its original location, but only a third of it remains. The mosaic is rich in geometrical patterns and octagonal medallions, and has three inscriptions in Greek and Samaritan: Two mention donors asking to be remembered for good, and the third reads, "Blessings and peace on Israel and on this place. Amen." Surprisingly, this is the first time this phrasing, common in Jewish synagogues, was found in a Samaritan place of worship.
Mosaic Floor from a Synagogue in Tiberias, 6th- 8th Centuries
There are three well-crafted, colorful mosaic panels in the one surviving section of the Tiberias floor. The two side panels are richly decorated with geometric shapes while the central panel depicts two palm leaves (lulavim) and two citron fruits (etrogim), separated by a magnificent garland bordering a Greek dedication immortalizing the name of the donor - "Proclos, son of Crispos."
Mosaic Floor from a Private Muslim Prayer House in Ramla, 8th Century
Two mosaic panels are displayed here side by side, decorated with a complex system of interlaced medallions, including images from the world of flora and fauna. The third panel from the same building, depicting a prayer niche and in it a verse from the Koran, is currently on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Mosaic Segments from a Church in Sukhmata in the Galilee, 6th Century
Adjacent to the segment adorned with geometric interlacing shapes are two segments decorated with symbols of fertility and life. One illustrates a fruit-bearing pomegranate tree from which birds are feeding; the second depicts an amphora containing trailing vines flanked by two peacocks. Peacocks were known as a symbol of immortality in early Christian art, while the vine-filled amphora symbolizes the spring of life.