This mosaic fragment was found during the 2007-2009 excavations of a synagogue in Khirbet Wadi Hamam, a Roman-era settlement in the Lower Galilee area of Israel. The mosaic floor is dated to the late 3rd century to the early decades of the 4th century. Large areas of the mosaic were damaged in antiquity, probably by an earthquake, and the destroyed portions were filled with plaster. With only about 6 percent of the mosaic remaining it is noteworthy in the archaeology record as it features fragments of three figural scenes (despite strictures against such depictions) of craftsmen at a construction site, a battle scene and a maritime scene.
The excavations are under the direction of Dr. Uzi Leibner. After analysis he and his team think it is possible the construction scene is of the Temple of Solomon. I contacted Dr. Leibner to request higher resolution photos of the craftsmen and he graciously provided the photos below. Next, I asked Chris for his commentary on the tools and techniques depicted in the mosaic.
The largest fragment has a stand-alone tower in the foreground, carpenters at work at ground level and a scaffold in the background. The two levels of the scaffold are connected by a ladder. Two workers are carrying a stone block or other item on the scaffold; two others are on the ladder.
Chris’ comment: What strikes me as most interesting is how the tools bridge the gap between the Egyptian and Roman tool traditions. The craftsman with the adze is seated while using the tool, much like Egyptian woodworkers. To the right is a fellow holding a bowsaw over his head. The bowsaw, as best we know, is a Roman invention. Further to the right is a worker with a mallet and chisel, not sure what he is up to. (Dr. Leibner thinks they may be having a conversation or debate.) Below them is a very serious worker ripping a board with a bowsaw. He is using a Roman tool, but in a very Egyptian position, with the work straight upright. Unfortunately, we can’t see how he’s holding the board.
In the background a worker is mixing mortar; in the foreground a worker is dressing a stone block.
Chris’ comment: In this second fragment we see a woodworker with what is clearly a Roman-style hammer.
For comparison take a look at this carving from Ancient Egypt.
Note: Photos from Khirbet Wadi Hamam are courtesy of Uzi Leibner, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Photos by Gabi Laron.
— Suzanne Ellison
5 thoughts on “The Roman-Era Carpenters of Khirbet Wadi Hamam”
It looks to me that there are 2 different saws. First is a bow saw (saw blade on the edge of the tool) but the second is a frame saw (saw blade in the middle of the frame).
Yep, I think you’re right.
I love this stuff. My BA is in anthropology. If I would have continued on to a PhD I do think the archaeology of ancient tools would have been high up there on my research interests list.
Re the alleged argument between the guy with the bow saw and the guy with the mallet and chisel: perhaps its an argument I sometimes have with myself: “Do I split the board (though I’d use a froe instead of the chisel–though the wedge is the bottom line) or do a rip the board to width?”
I saw a documentary a while back on the feats of Alexander the Great. His success was in large part to his ability to enable syncretism. This can be seen in some of the Egyptin/Roman looking statues in Alexandria. This mosaic probably represents similar syncretism between Egypt and the Roman world.
I can’t really add anything to the conversation of merit but I am enjoying these posts.
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