Wednesday 9 January 2008 by Mal Booth. 4 comments
Exhibitions, Lawrence of Arabia and the Light Horse, The Light Horse

This blog post was written by Emily Robertson, a post-graduate student from the Australian National University who briefly worked at the Memorial as an intern in our Art section.

During the second battle of Gaza, on 17 April 1917, a group of Australian signallers led by Corporal (later Sergeant) Ernest Lovell-Shore discovered a mosaic that had been partially uncovered by Turkish troops, who had built a trench on a mound in the Wadi Ghuzze near the town of Shellal. As part of the process of establishing a helio station on the site, the Australian troops uncovered an extraordinary example of Byzantine art which is now known as the Shellal Mosaic. Created in AD 561 - 562 under the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, the Mosaic is now held in the art collection of the Australian War Memorial (ART40979) and is on permanent display in the Hall of Valour.

 
Shellal detail 1 Shellal detail 1
 
Shellal detail 2 Shellal detail 2

The Mosaic lay exposed for at least a fortnight before Reverend Maitland Woods of the Church of England, and senior chaplain to the ANZAC Mounted Division, was brought in to excavate it. Woods was a keen amateur archaeologist, and the dig took place over the course of fourteen days - during which time hostilities continued. According to Woods, a German aeroplane crew took a particular interest in the excavation, and repeatedly flew overhead; fortunately the plane eventually left the excavating soldiers alone. Before the Mosaic was dismantled, colour drawings were made so that it could be reconstrcuted accurately. Then it was packed into wooden crates, and sent to Cairo. Unfortunately, a minor diplomatic row ensued between Australia and Britain about the fate of the Mosaic, and it languished in Cairo until June 1918. It took a concerted effort on the part of the Australian military to secure it for Australia. John Treloar, who later became the first Director of the Australian War Memorial, recalled in a statement he wrote for the historical record:

We felt that if the mosaic came to England it would be handed over to some British institution - probably the British Museum - and we might find it difficult to secure the release of this relic (1).

By the end of 1917, when much of the diplomatic wrangling about the Mosaic was taking place, the idea of an Australian War Memorial had already been formed. Renowned Australian historian C.E.W. Bean had conceived of it after the horrific battles on the Western Front in 1916 (2), and by May 1917, John Treloar had already become ensconced in the nascent Memorial - the newly formed Australian War Records Office (3). Australian soldiers had also already developed a sense that their involvement in the First World War would help forge a new national identity, separate from Britain, and were avidly collecting relics independently (4). The Mosaic was to be one of the prize war trophies of the Memorial, and many different members of the Australian military wrote to the War Office arguing the case for Australia to keep it.

The Mosaic captured the imagination of many people, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a beautiful antiquity, and certainly not something that people growing up in Australia at the beginning of the 20th century would have seen. The Mosaic represents a crucial period when Hellenic pagan culture began to meld with Christian symbolism (5). Exotic beasts, such as the flamingos and lions which inhabit the Mosaic, would have entranced the soldiers. Another reason it fascinated people was because it was discovered in the Holy Land, and Reverend Maitland Woods mistakenly identified the human remains found with the Mosaic as being those of St George, the Patron Saint of England. When they were exhibited at the Melbourne Exhibition building in 1919, The Age reported that the bones of St George were on display. The reality is somewhat banal in comparison, with the identity of the skeleton still unknown, although historian and archaeologist A.D. Trendall claimed the remains were of a priest called George (6).

The antiquity continued to involve members of the 5th Light Horse Regiment many years after it had been found. In 1941, Sir Donald Charles Cameron, former commanding officer of the 5th Light Horse Regiment, attempted to restore to the Memorial a small part of the Mosaic that had been passed on to St. John's Cathedral in Brisbane. Unfortunately, his friend Bishop Dixon responded that the fragment of Mosaic could not be returned because it has been "embedded in the construction of the sanctuary pavement of the Cathedral."

Notes:

1. John Treloar, Director of the AWM, Note for File, 3rd September 1950. AWM 748/003/026 02.

2. M. McKernan, Here is their Spirit: A history of the Australian War Memorial 1917 - 1990, University of Queensland Press in association with the Australian War Memorial, Queensland, 1991, p. 32.

3. Ibid., p.36.

4. Ibid., p.32.

5. Priscilla Henderson, ‘The Shellal Mosaic: A reappraisal', Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no. 12., April 1988, pp. 42 - 43.

6. A.D. Trendall, The Shellal Mosaic, and other Classical Antiquities in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1964, pp. 13 - 14.

Comments

Hi, the place where The Shellal mosaic was found is near the place where I live in Israel. First, the link in the article to the satelite map is directing to Jordan. The right point of the ancient site can be found at the hebrew wikipedia (at the upper left corner) http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%92%D7%9F_%D7%9C%D7%90%D7%95%D7%9E%D7%99_%D7%90%D7%A9%D7%9B%D7%95%D7%9C Second, where can i ask for permition to use one of the color pictures of the mosaic for the Hebrew wikipedia. Thanks Udi

Hi, Shellal is inside the Gaza Strips, NOT in Israel, but inside Palestinian Territories

Clara, Without getting into the politics of it, Shellal is NOT inside the Gaza Strip. It is a National Park in the western Negev region of Israel. It is not far from the Gaza strip though... Since Gaza was not captured during the second battle of Gaza and the mosaic floor was discovered by Australian soldiers during that battle- it would be very difficult to explain if Shellal was in Gaza... If you ever decide to get more acquainted with the area, and would like to see another mosaic floor that was probably done by the same artist- I would be happy to show you around. Yoash. Israeli Tourguide

Where are the bones now ? Im reading a book on the Anzacs the actual wording found on the mosaic was deciphered (in greek) was given leaving it open to suggestion that it was indeed St George ! Although the word "Saint" wasn’t there … it was shown after "wording then (a missing section) George" They recovered a body of bones under the mosaic (the mosaic said to be the floor of a church) but where are they ? The chaplain wanted it sent to Brisbane Looking at the mosaic itself I can see no words or script why ? A large part is missing and there were some 62 large boxes leading me to think we were given part only of the mosaic !!! Or it is held elsewhere ? Thanks MM