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Israel Unveils Huge Mosaic From Early Christian Times

Israeli archaeologists unveiled one of the largest and best preserved mosaics ever found in the country Wednesday, for only the second time since it was discovered more than a decade ago.

The 600-square-foot (56 square meter), 1,700-year-old Roman floor mosaic was found in 1996 during an archaeological dig in the town of Lod near Tel Aviv.

It drew 10,000 visitors in the one weekend it was on display then, according to the Israeli Antiquities Authority, the government agency responsible for its restoration.

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The agency covered the mosaic back up, though, because it lacked funding to properly protect it, said Miriam Avisar, the archaeologist who first unearthed the mosaic.

That changed with a recent $2.5 million joint gift from the Leon Levy Foundation and antiquities collector Shelby White to fund construction of a new center to house the mosaic in Lod. The center is set to open in 2012, said Jacque Neguer, head of art conservation at the Antiquities Authority.

Antiquities Authority workers slowly rolled a thick covering off the massive mosaic Wednesday and began a laborious cleaning process using water and soft sponges. After the cleaning is completed, they'll transport the entire mosaic to Jerusalem for a lengthy preservation process.

The mosaic is made up of more than two million small stones and covered with detailed pictures and geometric shapes.

"The decorative elements are extremely rich and well executed," Neguer said. "We have hunting scenes, lions and giraffes from Africa, and scenes of the sea with ships and fish."

The mosaic is similar to others found in Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa, Neguer said, indicating the owner or artist may not have been from Israel.

Neguer also said it's possible that portions of the mosaic will be displayed in Israel before the entire mosaic returns to Lod, but there are no definitive plans on that yet.