This mosaic depicting a theater mask is one of the new discoveries that have come to light during excavations this summer at Huqoq. Photo: Jim Haberman.
Over the last several seasons of excavation in a fifth-century C.E. synagogue in the Lower Galilee, archaeologists have uncovered stunning mosaics depicting two scenes from the Samson cycle, human and animal figures, a Hebrew dedicatory inscription and a meeting between what may be Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest. Led by Jodi Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the excavation at the ancient Jewish village in Huqoq, Israel, has continued to yield exciting finds that fascinate scholars and laypersons alike. During the 2015 field season at Huqoq, which wrapped up at the end of June, the excavators uncovered even more mosaics. The discovery was announced in a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill press release:
New digging reveals that the [Hebrew] inscription is in the center of a large square panel with human figures, animals and mythological creatures arranged symmetrically around it … 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.
The archaeologists also found plastered columns with painted ivy leaves inside the synagogue.
“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 said in the UNC-Chapel Hill press release. “These are unique discoveries.”
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A mosaic showing Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders was unearthed during the 2013 excavation season at Huqoq. Photo: Jim Haberman.
In her Archaeological Views column in the March/April 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Jodi Magness discussed how the stunning mosaics have affected the excavation at Huqoq: These discoveries have complicated my life in unexpected ways, some of them good, and some not-so-good. On the good side: The mosaics are truly spectacular and exciting and have attracted much media attention and interest. On the not-so-good side: The excavations have become a much longer-term project than I originally planned, and the cost of uncovering and conserving the mosaics has far exceeded our original budget, so that I must scramble to find new sources of funding each season.
Located near the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee about 3 miles west of Magdala (home of Mary Magdalene) and Capernaum (where Jesus taught in the synagogue), Huqoq was a wealthy Jewish village that thrived in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods (fourth–sixth centuries C.E.), according to Rabbinic sources. Carved stone fragments found around the modern village suggested that there may have once been an ancient synagogue at Huqoq, which led Magness to organize an archaeological project at the site.
The Huqoq Excavation Project will begin its sixth season of excavation in the summer of 2016.