NC Archaeologist Has Find-Of-A-Lifetime, 3 Years In A Row

Jul 15, 2014

This might depict Alexander the Great. It is from a mosaic scene that is the first non-Biblical mosaic every uncovered in an Israeli synagogue.
Credit James Haberman

Many archaeologists wait their entire career for one big find. UNC-Chapel Hill's Jodi Magness? Well, let's just say that she's having a spectacular time making discovery after discovery.

In 2011, Magness took a team to Israel to identify a dig location. They hoped to find an ancient synagogue.

"We didn't actually know that there was a synagogue of this type before we started digging," Magness said. It was a big site and it was overgrown. "And really by luck we came down right on the eastern wall of the synagogue in that very first sounding that we made."

The 5th century synagogue is located in Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel's Lower Galilee.

Jodi Magness' good fortune has continued. Since 2011, her team has spent every summer uncovering the structure's spectacular mosaic floor. The floor is divided into scenes and the ancient mosaic tiles depict stories from the Old Testament.

"The very first mosaic [scene] was really spectacular. The first thing that peered out of the dirt was the face of a woman."

This is the first image that was uncovered at the site.
Credit James Haberman

That summer the team found more mosaics, including one that depicts a story from the book of Judges. It stars the Biblical strong-man,  Samson. In the story, Samson takes revenge on his enemy by tying the tails of 300 foxes together. He then places lighted torches between the tails and sets the foxes loose to burn down the fields of the Philistines.

This scene of foxes with lighted torches between their tails was discovered in a 5th century synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel¹s Lower Galilee.

In 2013, the team found another Samson scene. This one depicts the story of Samson and the gate of Gaza. Magness tells the story this way: "Samson goes to Gaza to sleep with a prostitute. And while he's in with the prostitute the people of Gaza decide that they will ... ambush him when he comes out in the morning."

But Samson fools the villagers. He wakes up in the middle of the night, picks up the gate of Gaza, puts it on his shoulders, and carries the gate away.

Samson carrying the gate of Gaza, mosaic uncovered by an archaeological team on a dig in Galilee led by UNC- Chapel Hill's Jodi Magness.
Credit James Haberman

According to Magness, prior to her team's discovery, there was only one other scene of Samson in a synagogue in ancient Israel. She has found two more in the Huqoq location so far.

The discoveries have continued. A few weeks ago, the team turned up another mosaic. Part of the image depicts an elephant with shields tied to its side.

"Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible are there stories with elephants in them," Magness says. "So clearly this scene is not drawn ... from the Old Testament." This is the first time that a non-Biblical story has been found in any ancient synagogue.

Jodi Magness suggests that the image might be a depiction of a legend about a meeting between Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest. This conjecture will require intense study.

Jodi Magness working at the Huqoq excavation site, Israel
Credit James Haberman

Magness expects that the team will continue at the site for several years. There is still a lot more of the floor to uncover.

"If we weren't to find any other mosaics at all at this point, I would feel that I have already discovered more than my share of wonderful lucky stuff," she says.

To Magness, her work connects closely to the Hebrew concept of "dayenu." In the Passover song Dayenu, the Jews thank the God of Israel for all that he's done for them.

The song describes each thing that God did that would have been enough until something greater, better happens.

"Every year at the end of our excavation season I say 'dayenu.' If this is all that I had discovered it would have been enough and then every year we come back and discover even more. So it's really been an extraordinary experience."

Find out more about the Huqoq dig here.