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July 8, 2014 — Excavations in a Late Roman (fifth century) synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee, have brought to light stunning mosaics that decorated the floor. University of Wyoming students and a faculty member are among those participating in the digs.
Huqoq is located off the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee, less than five miles west of the ancient village, Capernaum. The Huqoq excavations are directed by Professor Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-directed by Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority. UW is a sponsoring institution, along with Brigham Young University, Trinity University in Texas, and the University of Toronto in Canada.
Student excavators from UW this year are Charlie Krampner of Casper and Conor McCracken-Flesher, a 2014 graduate of Laramie High School. Professor Paul Flesher of UW’s Department of Religious Studies served on the dig staff and supervised the field-school coursework.
In 2012, a mosaic showing the Biblical story of Samson and the foxes (as related in Judges 15:4) was discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle. Last summer, a second mosaic was found which depicts Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3).
A third mosaic discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle is divided into three horizontal strips and differs in style, quality and content from the Samson scenes. Portions of this mosaic were uncovered in 2013, and the rest was revealed this summer.
The lowest strip shows a bull pierced by spears, with blood gushing from his wounds, and a dying or dead soldier holding a shield. The middle strip depicts an arcade, with the arches framing young men arranged around a seated elderly man holding a scroll, and lighted oil lamps above each arch.
The uppermost strip depicts a meeting between two large male figures: a bearded and diademed soldier wearing elaborate battle dress and a purple cloak, who is leading a large bull by the horns, accompanied by a phalanx of soldiers and elephants with shields tied to their sides; and a gray-haired and bearded elderly man wearing a ceremonial white tunic and mantle, accompanied by young men with sheathed swords who also are wearing ceremonial white tunics and mantles (these appear to be the same male figures depicted in the middle register).
Identification of the figures in this mosaic is unclear, because there are no stories in the Hebrew Bible involving elephants. As battle elephants were associated with Greek armies beginning with Alexander the Great, Magness suggests that this might depict a Jewish legend about the meeting between Alexander and the Jewish high priest, different versions of which appear in the writings of Flavius Josephus and in rabbinic literature.
The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2015. Students may participate through UW and earn course credit.
Huqoq excavation participants from the University of Wyoming -- from left, Professor Paul Flesher, Conor McCracken-Flesher and Charlie Krampner -- pose before the remains of an ancient village wall from the Byzantine era. Krampner helped excavate the synagogue this summer, while McCracken-Flesher worked to unearth houses in the ancient village. (Jim Haberman photo)