Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism, is a director for the Huqoq Excavation Project. Her team recently made a groundbreaking discovery: a mosaic floor significantly different in content than that of any other excavated synagogue.
Excavation at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village, began in the summer of 2011 with Magness’ team of students and staff and has continued every summer.
Magness said the third mosaic, which was uncovered this summer, is significant because the content is not drawn from the Hebrew Bible like in every other ancient synagogue.
“It’s the first time that a historical scene is depicted in a synagogue mosaic instead of a religious one,” she said.
The first two mosaics both depict biblical stories involving Samson, while the story behind the third is less clear.
A UNC news release said the third mosaic features three horizontal sections. The lowest includes a bull and a dying or dead soldier, the middle is an arcade with an old man sitting surrounded by younger men, and the top includes two male figures meeting with elephants and soldiers surrounding them.
Brad Erickson, a staff member at the excavation and a graduate student in religious studies, said the identity of the bearded man in the top section is intriguing.
“There could be any number of identifications associated with him, and one right now that (Magness) has is Alexander the Great,” Erickson said.
Magness suggested the unique features of the Huqoq synagogue floor may be evidence of greater diversity in the practice of Judaism in this period.
“The kinds of scenes that they chose to decorate the synagogues with probably reflect differences in their practices and interpretations of biblical law, which may point to different streams and movements in Judaism,” she said. “This ultimately may be suggestive of a diversity in Judaism that we wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
Junior Austin Andrews worked in Huqoq for two years and said some of the most memorable moments happened as each mosaic was about to be revealed.
“To see our conservator pull back the last few centimeters of dirt to expose the mosaic for the first time was pretty phenomenal,” he said.
Magness said the program will resume during the summer of 2015, and it is unclear how much longer the excavation will take, though she estimated five to eight more years.
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