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Australia’s Byzantine Trophy of War – Part 2

In Edition 9 of Traces magazine, Timothy Carnovale, a Canberra-based writer and heritage consultant, examined the discovery of the Shellal Mosaic – believed to be the remains of a Byzantine-era basilica. In Part 1, the Shellal Mosaic was uncovered, now let’s see where the artefact ended up. 

William Maitland Woods, senior chaplain of the Church of England, excavated the mosaic, which brought him popularity among the Australian Imperial Force. In March 1918, it was decided that, as a temporary measure, the Shellal Mosaic would be shipped to England and the ultimate decision of the mosaic’s fate would be determined once the war had ended. 

Woods attempted to salvage what he could, in the event that Australia would lose the battle of its fate with the motherland. With the assistance of Egyptian labourers, a mosaicist in Cairo created an exact ‘stone for stone’ replica mosaic dedicatory inscription. 

Woods also decided to smuggle the bones of the assumed Saint George of Cappadocia. These Byzantine bones are considered by many to be the oldest non-Indigenous remains located on Australian soil. 

The inscription replica was passed to the officer in charge of the ANZAC training camp in Moascar, Egypt, Colonel John Maclean Arnott. Until 1927, the remains were on display in his estate, Birnam Wood. The beloved trophy of war lay for another 90 years at Arnott’s new property at Coolah, New South Wales. Recent conservation work has been undertaken at the Australian War Memorial, restoring the panel and the Shellal Mosaic itself.

William Maitland Woods may not have witnessed the mosaic reassembled at the Australian War Memorial, but he always hoped for it to reside in a prominent space in Australia, so the troops could see ‘tangible results of their valour’. 

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