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Marvelous mosaics revealed inside 1,500-year-old church in Israel

Image: Mosaic
Jim Hollander / EPA
Image: Mosaic
Davida Eisenberg-Degen, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, shows Greek letters and a decoratedJim Hollander / EPA

A 1,500-year-old mosaic floor with colorful images of animals, botanical and geometrical designs has been brought to light during the excavation of a Byzantine-era Christian church in southern Israel.

"The church probably served as a center of Christian worship for the neighboring communities," the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a news release about the find, issued Wednesday. The floor and other remains of the basilica were found over the past three months during preparations for the construction of a new neighborhood at Moshav Aluma, the agency said.

The church was part of a major Byzantine settlement located next to the main road running between Ashkelon on Israel's Mediterranean coast and Jerusalem to the east. Previous excavations along the road had found traces of other communities from the same period, but no churches.

The mosaic that was in the church's main hall features 40 decorative medallions. Some of the medallions depict animals including a zebra, a leopard, a turtle, a wild boar and various types of birds. Three medallions contain Greek inscriptions that commemorate two church leaders named Demetrios and Herakles.

Archaeologist Daniel Varga said another mosaic features "a 12-row dedicatory inscription in Greek containing the names Mary and Jesus, and the name of the person who funded the mosaic's construction." Inside a pottery workshop, archaeologists found jars, cooking pots, bowls and oil lamps.

The site will be open to the public on Thursday and Friday, and eventually the mosaic will be conserved and moved into a museum for public display, the Israel Antiquities Authority said.

Image: Mosaic close-up
A close-up shows vine-bordered medallions with inscriptions and depictions of birds.Tsafrir Abayov / AP
Image: Tiles
Tiles of different colors were assembled to create a geometrical design.Jim Hollander / EPA
Image: Mosaic overview
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths watch as Israeli archaeologists work on the mosaic.Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

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Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.