Like Mona Lisa, the mystery woman has dark hair, soft brown eyes with a come-hither look and full red lips with a faintly amused expression. But after 1,700 years, she is getting a face lift.
"The greatness of this woman is that she speaks to you from beyond time," said Ehud Netzer of Hebrew University, co-director of a project to move and preserve the woman's portrait in a fourth century mosaic on the floor of a Roman villa.On Thursday, archaeologists began the arduous task of lifting the 430-square-foot mosaic, rolling it up strip by strip and moving it 125 miles south to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The woman's beauty and ambiguous expression have prompted a comparison to a famous Leonardo da Vinci painting, the Mona Lisa, which hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
"It's the eyes. They follow you. There is nothing like her in contemporary Roman art," said Eric M. Meyers, an archaeologist from Duke University in Durham, N.C., who is directing the project with his wife, Carol.
The scholars still don't know whether the woman was a real person or an artist's concept of ideal beauty. They say she could be a famous actress from the nearby theater, a woman the artist loved or a depiction of Aphrodite, the ancient goddess of love.
"Maybe she was supposed to be Aphrodite, but maybe she was a real live person as well," said Meyers.
One clue to the woman's identity may be in the building itself, which Meyers speculates might have been an inn housing visiting actors for the 3,000-seat theater next door.
Brackets on the floor indicate three couches were placed around the mosaic and that the room was used for dining, maybe even as an after-theater restaurant.
The border of the mosaic contains theater masks and the theme of the panels is connected to the god Dionysis, who was associated with the theater. So the mystery woman might have been an actress, an Elizabeth Taylor of her day.
"The betting is 2-to-1 that she was a real person," said Laura Zucker, 20, one of about 100 American students and volunteers helping on the dig.
The portrait and other panels of the mosaic are done in tiny, naturally colored stones that Meyers said were laid down over a watercolor blueprint painted by the artist.
The state of preservation as well as the subtle artistry are remarkable. For example, there was still a blush of color on the cheeks when the portrait was daubed with a wet sponge.
The task of giving the mosaic a face lift has fallen to Dodo Shenhav, an Israel Museum expert who compares raising the 18-by-24-foot mosaic to surgery.
Shenhav, whose past challenges have included removing the Dead Sea Scrolls from sealed ceramic jars, said the operation will involve fixing a water soluble glue to the mosaic and covering it with burlap and additional glue.