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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with Galilee archeology expert, Jodi Magness

She's not Indiana Jones, but she's an archaeology expert all the same. UNC Kenan Distinguished Professor Jodi Magness has been excavating the ancient village of Huqoq in Galilee, Israel since 2011. Recently, she discovered the remains of a synagogue, which featured rare mosaics, and will be speaking about her findings at Genome Science Building tonight. Staff writer Audrey Leynaud spoke to Magness about her research, her discoveries and her travels. 

The Daily Tar Heel: What is your academic focus?

Jodi Magness: I’m an archaeologist and I specialize in the archaeology of Palestine by which I mean the territory of modern Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories in the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic period. So basically from the first century to the eighth and ninth centuries.

DTH: Why is Huqoq — and that area of Israel in particular — important ?

JM: I’ve been directing excavations in Huqoq since 2011. It is an ancient Jewish village near the sea of Galilee and it was occupied in many different periods, but my research interest is on the late Roman period, around the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. 

It is the period when the Jews came under Christian rule because in the fourth century the Roman empire became a Christian empire. One of the questions I am interested in is what happened to Jewish communities when Christians become the rulers. We are bringing to light a monumental synagogue building that dates exactly to this period — to the fifth century — and that is what I’m going to focus on in my talk. 

DTH: Is it what you expected to find there?

JM: No, it’s not. Well, I was hoping to find a synagogue building, that’s kind of what I was looking for. I had a series of research questions that I wanted to answer that surround this kind of building. I did not expect to find mosaics because this kind of building typically does not have mosaic floors; usually synagogues of this architectural type have flagstone pavement floors and not mosaics. The mosaics were completely unexpected.

DTH: The profession of archaeologist is often idealized, and it is easy to imagine you traveling the world and discovering long-lost artifacts. Is it really like that ?

JM: Well, we do travel the world and discover long-lost artifacts, but a lot of people have some incorrect notions about archaeology. People think that we are like Indiana Jones, and that we are out looking for treasures, which is absolutely not the case. 

We may find some interesting things, but typically anything that we find belongs to the host country, not to us, we don’t get to keep what we find. Everything that I dig up belongs to the state of Israel. I don’t keep it.

The goal is not treasure hunting, in fact the goal of archaeology is to understand the past by digging up human material remains, anything that people manufactured and left behind. We dig that up and we study that in order to understand the past. 

We’re not out looking for treasures, or specific artifacts such as the Lost Ark or something like that, that’s incorrect. The other big misconception about archaeology is that we sit there on our hands and knees and work with toothbrushes. That may be in certain cases, but a lot of our work is very physical labour with big tools, and people don’t realize that either.

DTH: What can students expect from the talk?

JM: I’m going to reveal the mysteries of Huqoq. That’s one of the things you see on TV shows about archaeology, revealing the mystery of this and the mystery of that. More seriously, I will be showing some of our amazing discoveries, which are not yet published. It’s going to be very exciting.

DTH: If you could lead excavations anywhere in the world, where would it be?

JM: There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. As an archaeologist, we specialize, it’s just like anything else. My specialization is in Israel and that’s my choice, I could specialize anywhere. It’s a place that is interesting to me, and there is still a lot of mysteries, a lot of unanswered questions. 

I could probably have worked somewhere else if I wanted to at some point, but there wasn’t anywhere else I wanted to go. Fortunately, it’s one of the few Middle Eastern countries where it’s still possible to work in the field. I know many colleagues who work on other parts of the Middle East who can’t go work into the field in their particular country. 

I can’t imagine a more incredible site than Huqoq, everybody says how lucky I am, and I am lucky. If I went somewhere else, everybody else would be jumping on Huqoq, so why would I want to go anywhere else?


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