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Rare Frescoes from Roman Period Discovered at Zippori in the Galilee Photo by: G. Laron
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Rare Frescoes from Roman Period Discovered at Zippori in the Galilee

10 August 2016

New finds contribute significantly to research of Roman art in Israel: Provide first evidence of figurative images in wall paintings at the site, and precede earliest mosaics discovered at the site by a hundred years.

A team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has discovered hundreds of fragments belonging to frescoes from the Roman period, in the Zippori National Park. 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. 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. In 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 were of high quality construction. 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.

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The monumental building was dismantled in the third century CE for reasons that are unclear, and was replaced by another public building, larger than its predecessor, parts of which were uncovered during this 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 belong 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 (perhaps 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.

The discovery in Zippori is unique and provides new information regarding murals in Roman Palestine.  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.