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New Mosaics Discovered in Galilee Synagogue Excavations

August 7, 2015
ancient mosaic of face still partly covered with dirt
A mosaic image from Huqoq’s fifth-century Galilean synagogue of a winged figure holding a disk containing a theater mask. (Jim Haberman Photo)

Excavations this summer in the Late Roman (fifth century) synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee, have revealed stunning new mosaics that decorated the floor. 

The Huqoq excavations are directed by Professor Jodi Magness of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-directed by Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming is a sponsor of the excavation, and UW Professor Paul Flesher is on the staff.

Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and work has continued each summer since then.

A mosaic uncovered in the synagogue’s east aisle in 2013 and 2014 depicts three horizontal registers (strips) containing human and animal figures, including elephants. The top register, which is the largest, shows a meeting between two men, who perhaps are intended to represent Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest.

“It was the first time a non-biblical story had been found decorating any ancient synagogue,” Magness says.

This summer, additional portions of this mosaic were uncovered, as well as the rest of a mosaic immediately next to it, which is connected with a Hebrew dedicatory inscription that was uncovered in 2012.

New digging has revealed that the inscription is in the center of a large square panel with human figures, animals and mythological creatures arranged symmetrically around it, Magness says. These include winged putti (cupids) holding roundels (circular discs) with theater masks, muscular male figures wearing trousers who support a garland, a rooster, and male and female faces in a wreath encircling the inscription. Putti and masks are associated with Dionysos (Bacchus), who was the Greco-Roman god of wine and theater performances.

This summer’s excavations also brought to light columns inside the synagogue that are covered with plaster and painted ivy leaf designs.

“The images in these mosaics -- as well as their high level of artistic quality -- and the columns painted with vegetal motifs have never been found in any other ancient synagogue,” Magness says. “These are unique discoveries.”

In 2012, a mosaic showing Samson and the foxes (as related in the Bible’s Judges 15:4) was first discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle. The next summer, a second mosaic was found that shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3).

“It is not clear if there is a thematic connection between the Samson scenes and the other mosaics in the east aisle,” Magness adds.

The dig is led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and its consortium members, in addition to UW, are Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto in Canada. Students from UW and the other consortium schools have the opportunity to participate in the dig each year. Flesher belongs to the Huqoq staff as the database manager.

Financial support for the 2015 season also was provided by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council and the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, and the Loeb Classical Library Foundation.

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2016.

Note: Magness can be reached at magness@email.unc.edu.


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