Thursday, July 5, 2012

Synagogue Mosaic Revealed at Huqoq, Israel

This summer I was in Huqoq, Israel where I am a staff member at the excavation of the ancient synagogue and village (I identify, record, and study the coin finds).  This season I could only stay a week because of other obligations.  While on site, I spent some time supervising the sifting operation and instructing field school students how distinguish various sorts of artifacts such as pot sherds, cut stone, glass, etc. from simple rocks.  It was during this time that tiny tesserae (cube-shaped colored stones - the building blocks for mosaics) began to appear in great numbers in the sifter.  This was an exciting indication that we would soon reveal a high-quality mosaic floor as the smaller the tesserae are, the finer the mosaic is.  However, there were so many tesserae in the fill we also feared the mosaic floor may no longer be intact.

The mosaic floor discovered this summer relates to the Biblical story of Samson and a Hebrew inscription encourages readers to do good deeds.  There have been several news articles online and an official press release from the Israel Antiquities Authority.  Recently, CNN and MSNBC have also carried the news.

Here is an excerpt from the CNN article:

(CNN) -- Archaeologists are reveling in the discovery of an ancient synagogue in northern Israel, a "monumental" structure with a mosaic floor depicting the biblical figure of Samson and a Hebrew inscription.

The synagogue -- dating to the fourth and fifth centuries in both the Talmudic and late Roman periods -- is in Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in the country's Galilee region, the Israeli Antiquities Authority said.

Jodi Magness, a professor of early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the building was found in a recent excavation.

She called the find "exciting" and described the "very high quality of the artwork" in the mosaic, crafted with "tiny colored stone cubes." Only a few late Roman period synagogues contained mosaics with biblical scenes, said Magness, one of the leaders of a U.S., Israeli and Canadian team engaged in the digs.

"This discovery is significant," she said, calling the site "extraordinary" and "stunning."
Samson was known for enormous physical strength and his fighting prowess against the Philistines, the enemy of the Israelites.

His story, recounted in the Bible's Book of Judges, mentions Delilah, a Philistine woman who worked to undermine Samson. She cut his hair after she persuaded Samson to reveal that his long hair was the secret to this strength.

Magness said the mosaic scene shows Samson putting torches between the tails of foxes. That image, from a vignette in the Book of Judges, is a reference to Samson exacting revenge on the Philistines by sending out flame-laden foxes to burn their lands.

She said the only other images of Samson in synagogues are at one nearby place in the Galilee known as Wadi Hamam, where Samson is seen "smiting" the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Another is in what is now modern Turkey, depicting scenes from Samson's life.

Click here to read the rest of the article.