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UNC archaeologist finishes dig at ancient Jewish synagogue adorned with Biblical mosaics

Site conservationist Orna Cohen and student Bryan Bozung working on a mosaic of Samson.
Photo by Jim Haberman
Site conservationist Orna Cohen and student Bryan Bozung working on a mosaic of Samson.

UNC-Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness recently wrapped up 11 seasons of archaeological excavations at an ancient Jewish synagogue at a village in Israel called Huqoq.

Back in 2012, her team uncovered a surprise - mosaics on the floor with scenes from the Hebrew Bible. The mosaics are stunning, but Magness is even more interested in what they have to say about Jewish history.

WUNC’s education reporter Liz Schlemmer spoke with Magness in her office at Chapel Hill just after she returned from Israel.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Photo by Jim Haberman
UNC-Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness after discovery of the first mosaic at the Huqoq excavation.

How did you end up working on an ancient Jewish village in Galilee?

"I've been working my entire career in Israel. I've been on many different digs, and over the course of time, I got interested as sort of one of my subspecialties in ancient synagogues. I actually started my project at Huqoq in Galilee with a goal of clarifying the date of this particular kind of synagogue building. My hope was when we started the project, that we would find a synagogue building like this, which we did. We did not expect it to be decorated with mosaics.

"The first thing that we came down on was part of an inscription in Hebrew letters, which refers to rewards for those who fulfill the commandments or mitzvah. So that confirmed that, in fact, what we had here was a Jewish building, a public building — meaning a synagogue — and that was very exciting.

"So it just so happens that I have a close friend and colleague who specializes in — guess what? —Byzantine mosaics. And I sent her an email, it was 'Mosaics 9-1-1. We need you here!' She came over and she's been working on our mosaics ever since."

How has it changed the project?

"Well, it changed the project immediately, actually, because my goal when I started was to excavate half of the synagogue building, and leave the other half untouched, so that future researchers could check my results. Had I left part of it unexcavated, somebody else would have come in the next day, to excavate because they would want to find mosaics. In other words, that would defeat the purpose."

And then when you left, your team actually covered the mosaics back up with dirt for safekeeping. What happens next?

"Basically, they're seven feet underground at this point. It goes to the state of Israel. It's state of Israel property and it's up to the state of Israel to decide if they want to develop it for tourism, which apparently, they are planning to do.

"So, the most important part of archaeology is not excavation, which gets all the attention, but rather the process of publication afterwards. Not publishing would be like conducting an experiment and then not publishing your results. So, in this case, not only have we conducted the experiment, but we have destroyed the evidence in the course of the experiment. We must make that evidence accessible to others, because we are the stewards of the past."

If you could travel back in time and walk through this synagogue in the fifth century, what would it look like?

"It's a very large two-story high building, with the main entrance in the middle of the wall that faces towards Jerusalem. The walls are built of stone, and when you walked in, all the floors were covered with these beautiful mosaics. You would see columns wrapping around three sides of the interior supporting the superstructure, the upper part of the building. There would have been a second story gallery level. So, you could sit up on the gallery and look down into the middle of the interior. And if this sounds sort of familiar, it's because what you have here is basically a basilica."

Jodi Magness points down at a student researcher working on dusting off a mosaic on the floor.
Photo by Jim Haberman
Professor Jodi Magness discusses a mosaic as a student researcher excavates it.

And all of that was evidence for you in a disagreement you have with others in your field? What's it about?

"Many of my Israeli colleagues believe that Jewish settlement in this part of Galilee declined, and that some settlements even disappeared when the Roman Empire became a Christian empire in the fourth century.

"My impression from the archaeology was always exactly the opposite, that these settlements continued to flourish and prosper through that period. So in this case, the discoveries that we have made support my view.

"The building is a very large building, it's beautifully built, and again, richly decorated on the interior also with paintings. I mean, it cost a lot of money. And so, what this hints at, is a level of prosperity that we would never have guessed at before."

How common is it for a modern excavation to dig up art like this, especially art where the religious references are so recognizable?

"So, some of them are pretty obvious. Like Noah's Ark is pretty obvious. You see the pairs of animals. Jonah is pretty obvious. You see his feet dangling out of the mouth of a fish — actually three fish. Anybody can appreciate the mosaics. I mean, it speaks to everyone. You don't need to be an archaeologist. You look at the mosaics. No matter who you are, no matter what your background is, you're drawn to them."

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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