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BYU Students Help Make Archaeological Discoveries

Back row (left to right): Steven Moulton (Hebrew Bible major), Mark Ellison (professor, Ancient Scripture); middle row (left to right): Dallas Taylor (Hebrew Bible major), Makayla Bezzant (Greek New Testament major), Lauren Ellison (BYU alum, ’90, ’95), Masen Williamson (Greek New Testament major); front: Jake Inman (Hebrew Bible major). Photo: Jim Haberman.

In the summer of 2018, five BYU students majoring in Ancient Near Eastern Studies (ANES), led by Dr. Mark Ellison of the Department of Ancient Scripture, spent four weeks working on archaeological excavations at the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq near the Sea of Galilee. BYU is one of the consortium universities participating in the Huqoq excavations, which have been directed by Professor Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since the project began in 2011. In past years BYU professor Matthew Grey of the Department of Ancient Scripture has worked at the site as a member of the excavation staff, and has brought BYU students to participate in the dig as part of an ANES/BYU Jerusalem Center Huqoq Field School. During the 2012 season it was a BYU student, Bryan Bozung, who first discovered the mosaic pavement of the early fifth-century Huqoq synagogue. Every year since then, the excavations have continued to uncover more of the figured mosaic floor, which includes a stunning array of biblical scenes, Greco-Roman motifs, and other narrative images.

The season’s discoveries included two rows of mosaic panels in the north aisle of the synagogue. One panel depicts the two spies sent by Moses into the land of Canaan, carrying a pole laden with grapes beneath a Hebrew inscription reading “a pole between two” (Numbers 13:23, see photo below). Another panel contains a scene with a youth leading an animal on a rope, and an inscription quoting Isaiah 11:6, “A little child shall lead them.”

Two spies mosaic panel. Photo: Jim Haberman

Biblical scenes discovered in earlier seasons include Noah’s ark (Genesis 6:9-22), the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:23-31), Samson and the foxes (Judges 15:1-5), Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:1-3), Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish (a midrashic reading of Jonah 1-2), and the construction of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).

Dr. Magness points out that in addition to biblical imagery, “One of the distinguishing features of the Huqoq mosaics is the incorporation of numerous classical (Greco-Roman) elements such as putti, winged personifications of the seasons, and—in the Jonah scene—harpies (large birds with female heads and torsos representing storm winds).” The synagogue floor also features a large, central Helios-zodiac cycle, uncovered in 2017, comparable to zodiac pavements found in other late antique Galilean synagogues. Another part of the mosaic uncovered in the synagogue’s east aisle in 2013 and 2014 depicts the first non-biblical story ever found in ancient synagogue decoration—possibly the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.

“The mosaics decorating the floor of the Huqoq synagogue revolutionize our understanding of Judaism in this period,” Magness says. “Ancient Jewish art is often thought to be aniconic, or lacking images. But these mosaics, colorful and filled with figured scenes, attest to a rich visual culture as well as to the dynamism and diversity of Judaism in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.”

“These mosaic images comprise some of the most important discoveries of late antique religious art in our lifetime,” says Dr. Ellison. “Among other things, they help us see how religious communities in late antiquity could draw upon many streams of influence in their cultural inheritance, including symbols from the Greco-Roman world as well as the treasury of biblical narratives.”

Another of the exciting discoveries at Huqoq is a 12th-13th century building that was constructed over the ruins of the earlier 5th-century synagogue and its mosaics. This summer the crew from BYU helped uncover part of the southern wall of this building, which will be further excavated in coming seasons. As Magness explained in a recent Times of Israel story (“Mind-blowing 1,600-year-old biblical mosaics paint new picture of Galilean life,” July 9, 2018), this building may be a later synagogue, possibly the same one mentioned in the 14th-century text Sefer Kaftor Vaferach, by Isaac HaKohen Ben Moses. Since no other synagogue built in the medieval period survives in Israel, the discovery of this building may prove to be just as momentous as the late antique synagogue and its mosaics.

During the excavation season, BYU students participated in an archaeology field school in which they learned excavation techniques, documented discoveries, learned how to analyze stratigraphy, and helped conserve the site and its finds. Additionally, students visited other archaeological sites and heard lectures by staff members with training in various specialty fields, such as paleobotany, soil analysis, ceramics, numismatics, art history, and digital technologies applied to the field of archaeology.

At the end of this summer’s work at Huqoq, excavated areas were backfilled to protect the site until digging resumes in the summer of 2019. Mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation.

The BYU students’ field school experience then continued for one more week as they, Dr. Ellison, and his wife Lauren Ellison were hosted by the BYU Jerusalem Center and conducted on-site study of archaeological and historical sites in and around Jerusalem.

One of the students, Dallas Taylor, called the experience “life changing,” and said, “Being surrounded by world experts in fields related to my interests … helped me realize how little I really know and how much more there is to gain from reading and researching.… It sparked new trains of thought and inspired me to push to learn more.”

Additional information, reports on past seasons, and updates about the Huqoq excavations at the project’s website:

The excavation’s official press release about the 2018 season:

National Geographic article about the 2018 discoveries at Huqoq:

Historian and professor Sarah E. Bond’s article about the most recent discoveries at Huqoq:

Times of Israel story: