Spadeologists: Australians and the Shellal Mosaic

By James Donaldson

The Shellal mosaic is the floor of a 6th century church removed from high ground north of Wadi Ghuzze at Shellal by Australians in 1917. The main portion of the floor is displayed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra after being claimed as a “war trophy” by Australia. Sources relating to its removal are held by museums, archives, churches and private collections in both Australia and New Zealand.

This blog is based on preliminary research into the history of the Shellal mosaic funded by the Palestine Exploration Funds’ annual research grant scheme in 2022. It explores the kinds of tools and implements used by Australians to uncover the Shellal mosaic, and in other encounters with antiquities during the war, both deliberate and accidental. These service personnel were not archaeologists, and few had any classical training. The tools used in these encounters illustrate the amateur and informal nature of “archaeological investigation” during the war, often little better than looting. 

The Australians who encountered and sometimes damaged these sites were part of a long tradition of western militarism and colonialism that saw archaeological material and sites removed from their original locations to major European museums, often during armed conflict. Such practices were usually dressed up as “saving” antiquities from destruction, either from imminent armed conflict or the vagaries of “uneducated” locals. More often, service personnel themselves did the bulk damage to these sites. 

In the case of the Shellal Mosaic, its status as a “war trophy” was questioned by the Allied War Trophies committee who felt that archaeological material could hardly be claimed in this way and that the mosaic might better be returned to Palestine at the conclusion of the war. In the end, however, the mosaic was granted to Australia by the committee, but only after a strongly worded correspondence that stated, in part:

“it is difficult to see how a relic of this sort, captured in the manner above described, in a place where few could ever have seen it, can be denied to the Museums of Australia when the Elgin Marbles, taken from a centre of world-wide pilgrimage such as Athens, are amongst the most prized possessions of Great Britain.”

At the same time this saga was unfolding in the offices of Westminster, the War Trophies Committee was considering what to do with the boxes of German archaeological finds from the site of Samarra captured in Baghdad by Allied forces around the same time the Shellal mosaic was first uncovered. This material was also claimed as a trophy by the British Governments and dispersed to museums across the western world. It was only in 1936 that a small portion of these finds were begrudgingly returned to Iraq by the British Museum. The Shellal Mosaic, meanwhile, is subject to continuing calls for its return to Palestine in the Australian media, and elsewhere.

The full results of my research into the visual, textual and archaeological traditions of the Shellal mosaic are in progress, alongside my PhD studies examining why Australian service personnel took antiquities during the First World War. 

Digging Implements

Digging, for trenches, latrines or bivouacs, was a common part of military life so it’s unsurprising that many service personnel encountered antiquities in the course of their service. At Shellal and elsewhere, a variety of tools are used for these “excavations”.

Writing in 1936, Ivo Holmes credits his friend Serg WO McEwan with the original discovery of the Shellal mosaic, in a Turkish trench on the top of a hill. He says: 

“Accordingly the three of us returned to the spot suitably armed with entrenching tools – shovels and so on, and started excavating.”This sort of digging around archaeological sites was common, and those involved were termed “spade-ologists” by Col. C.E.R. Mackesy, C.M.G., D.S.O. in an article from the second issue of the Kia-Ora Coo-ee trench periodical. A photograph of three soldiers, two with digging implements, viewing a mosaic at Umm Jerar provides further evidence:

Figure 1: Three unidentified Australian soldiers inspecting the mosaic floor of a sixth century Greek Christian Church at Um Gerar/Jerar near Gaza. AWM A01840[4]

The cut-down shovel and non-standard entrenching tool both suggest improvised or “scrounged” gear.[5] Other improvised digging tools described in the Kia-Ora Coo-ee include “sticks and shovels” used in the search for ancient coins that destroyed a mosaic at “Bir-el-Shunaur” (Bi’r Abu Shunnar)[6] and a discovery of ancient pottery while excavating a bivouac with a bayonet![7]


Writing of the discovery at Shellal in the Burlington Magazine, Cpt Martin Briggs describes:[8]

“the almost incessant cloud of dust which blew debris over the pavement as fast as it could be cleared. This obliterated the rich colouring as well as the outline of the design and at times made drawing almost impossible.”

Therefore, brushes were an important tool for the Shellal “diggers”.[9] In a photograph of Ivo Holmes, a shaving brush, part of a Light Horseman’s standard kit, can be seen in the background:

Figure 2: One of the men of the 6th Australian Light Horse Brigade, possibly Sergeant W O McEwan, preparing the Shellal Mosaic for removal and packaging to Australia. AWM A040077[10]

Another photography, this time of Spr Francis McFarlane, who illustrated the Shellal Mosaic, shows a large brush, possibly a horse brush, among his gear:

Figure 3: The sketcher at work, 1917. Photographer unknown, P1993-024-012c, Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago. [11]

McFarlane also uses his mug as a water container while painting, resting on two slabs of dressed stone. Both brushes and water were used to clear off the mosaic and bring out its colours:

 Figure 4: A close up of a portion of the Shellal mosaic. AWM P08401.011[12]

From digging to removal: chalk, glue, canvas and plaster

The work of removing the Shellal mosaic required different tools. Chalk was used to divide the mosaic into portions for removal, seen in this image held by the State Library of Queensland:

Figure 5: The Mosaic floor of Church, cleaned off, & marked in chalk, squares, work laid off, first morning. W. Maitland Woods. SLQ OM71-51/142 [13]

It can be compared with an illustration of the mosaic held by the Australian War Memorial, annotated with pencil lines and numbers marking the divisions, presumably to aid in reconstruction: 

Figure 5: The Mosaic floor of Church, cleaned off, & marked in chalk, squares, work laid off, first morning. W. Maitland Woods. SLQ OM71-51/142 [13]

The mosaic was removed under the guidance of Chaplain William Maitland Woods,[15] who travelled to Cairo to consult experts on the best way to lift the floor. Martin Briggs describes the method, drawing on Chaplain Woods’ contemporary writings: [16]

“A piece of canvas was glued on the face of the mosaic, after the latter had been carefully swept free from dust, and when the canvas was dry the cement and concrete beneath were slowly removed with a sharp knife… When the substratum had been removed, square by square, each square of mosaic was carefully lifted, and placed on a bed of freshly made plaster-of-paris in a shallow deal case.”

An image at the Australian War Memorial shows this process. Note the mosaic in the foreground with two rows of canvas in the middle ground. To the back left side engineers work to dress a portion recently removed:

Figure 7: Unidentified Lighthorsemen preparing the Shellal Mosaic for removal and packaging before shipping it to Australia. AWM P04604.015[17]

Another photograph, this time at the State Library of Queensland, shows the main inscription placed in its wooden box, surrounded by plaster:

Figure 8: Photograph of inscribed panel uncovered with Shellal Mosaic. OM71-51/143[18]


Service personnel who encountered antiquities during the First World War used a variety of different implements, some standard military issue, some improvised. They reflect the disorganised, irregular, or chance nature of most these discoveries of antiquities in the course of military operations. The Shellal mosaic, however, is significant for being removed under quasi-archaeological conditions. It is the single largest antiquity removed to Australia during the war, and the history of its discovery, “excavation” and subsequent removal, dispersal and reconstruction are poorly understood. This excavation was illegal under Ottoman law of the time, and the irregular nature of the removal of the Shellal mosaic requires further investigation.

[1] Trendall, A. D. (1973). The Shellal mosaic : and other classical antiquities in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Australian War Memorial; Clayton, M. (1993). To the victor belongs the spoils: a history of the Australian War Trophy Collection, 1914-1993.

[2] AWM16/7, pp. 70-72, digitised as part of this project and now open-access here:

[5] Holmes, I. 1936 “The shellal Mosaic” in Anzac Day (1936) pp 34-7.

[6] Mackesy, C. E. R. (1918). Through The Way of The Philistines. The Kia-ora coo-ee : official magazine of the Australian and New Zealand forces in Egypt, Palestine, Salonica & Mesopotamia, 1(2), 16.


[8] The entrenching tool is not a standard Australian “Pattern 8” that combined a shovel and a pickaxe (, but is closer to a Turkish type entrenching tool held by the Australian War memorial in Canberra (

[9] WHC (1918). Mosaic Discovered. The Kia-ora coo-ee : official magazine of the Australian and New Zealand forces in Egypt, Palestine, Salonica & Mesopotamia, 1(3), 13.

[10] Corporal Geebung (1918). Bivvy Beautiful. The Kia-ora coo-ee : official magazine of the Australian and New Zealand forces in Egypt, Palestine, Salonica & Mesopotamia, 2(4), 9.

[11] Briggs, M. S. (1918). The Mosaic Pavement of Shellal, near Gaza. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 32(182), 185.

[12] Standard Australian Light Horse kit included a shaving brush, horse brush and cloth brush: Hall, R.J.G. (1967). The Australian Light Horse. Melbourne, 33 – 34.


[14] 222387?sessionsearch




[18] Haldane-Stevenson, J. P. (1990) Woods, William Maitland (1864–1927). Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

[19] Briggs, M. S. (1918). The Mosaic Pavement of Shellal, near Gaza. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 32(182), 186.