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UNC students participate in successful dig at an ancient synagogue


Professor Jodi Magness stands on the east wall of a Jewish synagogue in Israel's Lower Galilee, which Magness and their team have been working to excavate. Magness and their team have discovered depictions of Deborah and Jael, who are known biblical heroes.
Photo Courtesy of Jim Haberman.

While some students took on internships or indulged in travels this summer, 11 students and specialists from UNC participated in a dig at an ancient Jewish synagogue in Israel. 

The group unearthed mosaics almost 1,600-years-old in a synagogue at Huqoq, a village in Lower Galilee. 

Led by Jodi Magness, archaeologist and UNC professor, the team uncovered an unprecedented depiction of two female biblical heroes.

“This is the first time the depiction of these two biblical heroines has been discovered in ancient Jewish art,” Magness said in an email. “What we do not know is why they were significant to the Huqoq villagers — why did they choose to depict this episode in the mosaics.”

The first known descriptions of the heroines Deborah and Jael — also referred to as Yael — are found in the book of Judges in the Torah and Christian Old Testament.

In the book, judge Deborah was a leader who inspired the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites. Jael killed Sisera, the general of the Canaanites army, and delivered Israel from King Jabin of Canaan, according to the Old Testament.

This is the 10th season UNC archeologists have worked on the Huqoq Excavation Project after recent seasons were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Magness, project director, and Dennis Mizzi, assistant project director and professor at the University of Malta, focused their excavation this summer on the southwest area of the synagogue. 

A portion of the floor revealed a large mosaic panel divided into three horizontal strips, depicting a narrative from the fourth chapter of the book of Judges. 

Aislynn Grantz, a UNC junior majoring in archeology and environmental studies, volunteered to learn and work on the excavation this summer. 

“I​​ was most looking forward to not only learning about the history of Israel and learning under Dr. Magness, but also on how to excavate and what it's like to learn abroad at a field school,” Grantz said. "Especially through UNC because we have such a strong connection internationally, and we are able to connect with other students from schools all across the country."

Grantz said when the depictions were discovered, it was a normal day at the site until the group received the exciting news. 

“Dr. Magnus calls all of the students over and you can see the excitement in her eyes," Grantz said. "She tells us that we have uncovered a depiction of Jael and Deborah, and they are one of the first women from the Bible that has ever been uncovered in a mosaic in Israel."

Another mosaic discovered included a fragment of a Hebrew dedicatory inscription, surrounded by panels depicting two vases holding vines, according to an article on the UNC College of Arts and Sciences website. These vines shift into medallions that hang around various animals eating grape clusters. 

Jocelyn Burney, a doctoral student in the University’s religious studies department, was the area supervisor of the Israeli excavation this summer. 

“Several of those panels depict images that are not seen in any other synagogue from that period, and that includes the ones that we discovered this year,” Burney said. 

Regardless of major, interested undergraduates will have the opportunity to participate in the next excavation season through UNC Study Abroad.

“It's really exciting to be able to expose the remains of buildings and artifacts and objects that haven't been seen in 2000 years,” Burney said. 

Burney said this discovery was even more exciting because it is unusual for depictions of female heroes to be found in synagogue art from this specific time period. 

“This being one of the first times that we've had women depicted has been amazing not only for uncovering a more holistic aspect of the past, but for female students, women in archaeology and anthropology and in history to see that ancient women played a very important role,” Grantz said. 


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