New Mosaics Add to the Intrigue of Israeli Synagogue Story

Theater Mask discovered in 2015, Huqoq, Galilee region, Israel.

15 JULY, 2015 – 00:34 ALICIA MCDERMOTT

Some archaeologists apparently have all the luck. Mythological creatures, cupids with discs, theater masks, various male and female figures, a rooster, and elephants add to the array of  mosaics already uncovered by Jodi Magness. These new discoveries have been unearthed during the fifth year of excavations at the ancient site of the Huqoq synagogue in the region of Galilee, Israel, creating an increasingly complex history for the 5th Century, Late Roman site.

Jodi Magness, professor of early Judaism at the University of Northern Carolina, Chapel Hill and the site director has continued success at the ancient site of Huqoq, near Migdal – the hometown of Mary Magdalene. She told Live Science that this summer she found “quite extraordinary panels” which are truly “works of art.”

Along with past discoveries, the new additions are certainly unique. “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 told UNC News.

Previous finds of Magness and her crew at the synagogue include: large stones creating the eastern wall of the synagogue (2011); images of Samson with fire-bearing foxes – depicting a story from the Book of Judges, two female faces and Hebrew writing explaining the importance of doing good deeds  (2012);  Samson carrying the gate of Gaza (2013); a possible depiction of Alexander the Great meeting with a Jewish high priest, armored elephants and other animals, and other male figures such as soldiers and a seated elderly man  surrounded by young men (2014).

Mosaic depicting Samson carrying the gate of Gaza, Huqoq, Galilee region, Israel

Mosaic depicting Samson carrying the gate of Gaza, Huqoq, Galilee region, Israel (Jim Haberman)

Thus, the mosaics depict an interesting mix of secular and religious themes; which Professor Magness explains as possibly being due to commissioning by different donors for their creation.

While religious themes are undoubtedly common in  ancient synagogues, the image of Samson is less so. “There is only one other ancient synagogue in Israel that has a scene depicting Samson,” according to Magness. The synagogue of Wadi Hamam, located just 8 kilometers (5 miles) South of Huqoq, also has mosaics showing Samson, however they have been poorly preserved.

Referring to the more secular images, Magness has taken a particular interest in the elephants, as they appear both from 2014 excavation as well as this year. The elephant panel measures 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) tall and approximately the same width. The elephants are connected to the hypothesized Alexander the Great scene and may be present due to their use by Greek and later Roman armies after the time of Alexander the Great.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, Huqoq, Galilee region, Israel

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, Huqoq, Galilee region, Israel (Jim Haberman)

Although the elephants are artistic and impressive, Magness told Live Science that she disbelieves that the artists who created them had ever seen real elephants as she claims they are “too cartoonish.”

A "Cartoonish" Elephant Mosaic, Huqoq, Galilee region, Israel.

A “Cartoonish” Elephant Mosaic, Huqoq, Galilee region, Israel. (Jim Haberman)

The mosaics discovered make up the synagogue’s floor and show that the building measured 20 meters (66 feet) by 10-15 meters (32-50 feet). Although the building’s structure is largely in ruins, the floors have thankfully been well-preserved, Professor Magness told Live Science.

Many archaeologists would consider themselves lucky to have such continued success on a single site, however Magness warns that such nonstop finds in one site can have repercussions as well. Whereas  she appreciates that the mosaics are “truly spectacular and exciting and have attracted much media attention and interest” – which is great  for the field of archaeology in general and the site in particular. Magness also explains in her Archaeological Views Column that the excavation has become a project that over-extended her professional plans and the site’s budget. With an estimated four or five years more to finish the excavation, she finds that she continually has to search for new funding options.

Regardless of the difficulties, Huqoq still has more of its history to reveal as each excavation provides more details and questions.

Featured Image: Theater Mask discovered in 2015, Huqoq, Galilee region, Israel. (Jim Haberman)

By Alicia McDermott

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