UNC-led Archaeological Dig Uncovers Remarkable Mosaics

Detail of dead Philistine soldier in the Samson carrying the gate of Gaza mosaic, Huqoq synagogue, Israel.
(Photo: Jim Haberman)

A team led by UNC professor Jodi Magness uncovered mosaic panels depicting episodes of the biblical prophet Samson as well as Noah’s Ark in a late Roman-era synagogue in Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s lower Galilee.

Magness, Kenan Distinguished Professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, worked alongside Dennis Mizzi of the University of Malta to excavate the south end of the synagogue’s main hall during the 11th and final season of this dig.

The recently unearthed mosaic is comprised of a large panel featuring a Hebrew inscription encased within a wreath at its center. Positioned to the sides and below the wreath, an Aramaic inscription records the names of either the donors who provided funding for the mosaic or the artists who created it, according to a UNC press release. The inscription asks that these people be remembered. Lions with their forepaws resting on bulls’ heads flank the wreath on both sides. The entire panel is framed by an ornate border showing animals of prey pursuing other animals.

The excavations also unveiled additional sections of panels discovered in 2012 and 2013 that depict Samson and the foxes as mentioned in the book of Judges 15:4 and Samson carrying the gate of Gaza as referenced in Judges 16:3.

Tiger chasing ibex. Decorative border panel in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic in Israel.
(Photo: Jim Haberman)

The panel discovered in 2022 is divided into three depictions of an episode from Judges chapter 4, which includes the biblical prophetess and judge Deborah under a palm tree and gazing at the military commander Barak, who has a shield, and Jael (Yael) hammering a tent stake through the temple of the Canaanite general Sisera, who is lying on the ground with blood gushing out of his head. These are the earliest known depictions of these biblical heroines.

The project at Huqoq has made significant finds in its 11-season run, including the first nonbiblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue — a depiction of the meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest. The team also uncovered a portrayal of Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea.

(From left) Matthew Grey, Jodi Magness, and Jocelyn Burney at the Huqoq excavations in Israel in 2023.
(Photo: Jim Haberman)

The excavations in 2022 and 2023 also uncovered a large stone-paved courtyard surrounded by a row of columns to the east of the synagogue. In a medieval-age expansion of the synagogue, the courtyard was reused and a vaulted structure was built on top of it.

With the conclusion of excavations, the area will be turned over to the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Keren Kayemet Le’Israel (Jewish National Fund), which plan to turn the site into a tourist attraction.

The 2023 sponsors of the project are UNC, Austin College, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto. Hundreds of students from Carolina and other sponsoring schools have participated in the dig throughout the seasons.

Funding for the 2023 season was also provided by the Kenan Charitable Trust, the College of Arts and Science, and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies.

For more information and updates, visit the project’s website.

Cameron Hayes Fardy ’23

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