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UW Professor, Student Part of Team that Made Monumental Excavation in Israel

July 13, 2012
Synagogue mosaic
Part of the mosaic synagogue floor that was excavated at the ancient village of Huqoq in Galilee.

Religious scholars and ancient historians should reexamine how they view the economic status of people living in Israel’s Sea of Galilee region during the fourth through sixth centuries, according to a University of Wyoming professor who was part of the team that excavated a stunning mosaic floor decorating the interior of an ancient synagogue building.

The synagogue was unearthed in June by a joint American-Israeli team of scholars and students at Huqoq, an ancient Galilean village, just fives miles from Capernaum and Magdala.

Paul Flesher, UW Religious Studies Program director, oversees the database system and supervises the computer work for the expedition that made the monumental discovery.

“Most historians believe that this was a period when this region was occupied by the downtrodden and impoverished,” Flesher says. “This discovery is a significant indication that the region was much more prosperous than what is commonly perceived.”

The mosaic, which is made of tiny colored stone cubes of the highest quality, includes a scene depicting Samson placing torches between the tails of foxes (as related in Judges 15). In another part of the mosaic, two human (apparently female) faces flank a circular medallion with a Hebrew inscription that refers to rewards for those who perform good deeds.

“The synagogue itself supports the conclusion that the village was prosperous at the time of its erection,” Flesher says. “Not only do the mosaic’s tiny tesserae point to its quality and expense, but so do the massive shaped stones that make up the synagogue’s walls. There is nothing small about its construction.”

The project’s leader, Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agrees with Flesher’s assessment.

“Our mosaics are also important because of their high artistic quality and the tiny size of the mosaic cubes," she said in a UNC news brief. “This, together with the monumental size of the stones used to construct the synagogue’s walls, suggest a high level of prosperity in this village, as the building clearly was very costly.”

One of the students in the Religious Studies Program, Courtney Callison of Cypress, Calif., who came to UW to study ancient archaeology, was assigned to the excavation project in Israel last year. The program plans to send other UW students to participate in the project during the next four years.

The discovery also provides evidence against the influence of the powerful Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, whose extensive law code outlawed pagan religions and forbade Jews from building new synagogues. Flesher says the monumental synagogues of Huqoq and surrounding villages show that Justinian’s law was not being followed in Galilee.

“His control apparently did not extend to the Galilean interior,” he says. “The scientific archaeological excavations at the village of Huqoq not only provide important insight into the lives of ancient Galilean Jews, but help us evaluate the power and effectiveness of one of the most important rulers in the ancient world.”

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