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UNC archeologist uncovers a mosaic that makes ancient Jewish life more unclear

The Spies Panel

A team of UNC archeologists uncovered this mosaic in Galilee this summer. Photo courtesy of Jim Haberman.

A University of North Carolina archeologist team discovered an ancient mosaic at the Huqoq synagogue in Galilee that bolsters a new theory about ancient Jewish life.

This is not the first mosaic to be found in the synagogue. Jodi Magness, a professor at UNC and the leader of the team, discovered the first of the synagogue’s mosaics with her team in 2012. This particular site is special because of the range of periods people occupied the land.

"The site has many different periods of occupation,” Magness said. “My focus is on the late Roman and Byzantine periods which means the 4th, 5th and 6th century A.D., which is a very interesting period because this village was a Jewish village.”

According to Magness, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire during this time period. Magness is interested in what happened to these Jewish settlements while they were under Christian rule.

Contrary to the belief that Jews suffered under Christian rule, Magness’ discovery supported the hypothesis that Jewish communities were able to thrive under the Christians.

"Archeology, generally speaking, gives us information about everyday life that we do not necessarily get from literary sources,” Magness said. “In this case, it helps to correct an incorrect view among many scholars that when Christianity became the dominant religion, Jews began to suffer under Christian rule. That's clearly not the case. This Jewish community flourished even under Christian rule"

Yet not all academics arrive at the same conclusion from this archeological discovery. Seth Schwartz, the chairperson of the Department of History at Columbia University, expressed a need for caution when determining the historical implications of the mosaics.

“It is very hard to gauge prosperity from archaeological remains, and certainly from remains from individual sites, though it would certainly be fair to say that someone in this otherwise little attested Galilean village that Jody is excavating had plenty of disposable income,” Schwartz said in an email.

Though Schwartz acknowledged his lack of qualifications to discuss highly technical issues in field archeology, he offered a rebuttal to Magness’ indication.

“In fact, its broader significance would be greater if we could argue that this level of decoration — which was very expensive to produce — was more common in rural synagogues,” he said. 

“If by contrast it is one-off, then it’s a fascinating anomaly, with interesting cultural/artistic/aesthetic/religious implications, but without much significance for social-economical historical analysis, for the time being.”

Though most years yield impressive artifacts from her digs, Magness said the mosaics found this summer had characteristics that the other mosaics lacked.

"The ones we discovered this summer are interesting because, unlike the ones we found in previous summers, they're actually labeled with Hebrew from the biblical passage indicating what they are,” Magness said. “In this case, the panels are interesting because they have 'captions' from the accompanying biblical text that go along with the image that’s shown in the panel.”

Magness said that this is evident given the ornate mosaic floors her team has found over the years of excavation in the synagogue. The discovery of the mosaics has drawn a lot of attention. 

"The discoveries that have gotten the media attention are the different mosaics that we've uncovered every summer," Magness said. 

“Because we dig in different parts of the synagogue every summer, so we discover new mosaics. We've had a series of extraordinary biblical episodes that we've exposed over the years: including Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, the story of Jonah, we have two scenes of Samson and then we have the biblical panels that we uncovered this summer.

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