More than Mosaics

Sunlight creeps above the horizon east of Galilee when undergrad Bryan Bozung scrapes his hoe across a hard surface. He brushes dirt away, revealing something smooth and black.

He stands up and hollers for lead archaeologist Jodi Magness. She comes running, looks into the open pit, and crawls in. With paint brushes, they carefully sweep the dirt aside to reveal black tesserae—or mosaic cubes. They brush more dirt aside. White cubes. Tan. Brown. Then they stop.

“Whoa,” Magness mumbles under her breath. A beautiful female face stares back at them. Within minutes, the entire dig crew—some 40 people—is straining to get a look.

It’s a mosaic floor in an ancient synagogue. The female face is just one discovery. Days later they uncover the face of Samson, the supernaturally strong biblical figure. Magness, a professor of religious studies at UNC, instantly knows this is a big find. Other archaeologists have unearthed many synagogues with mosaic floors, but only one had an iconic scene of Samson, and that mosaic is not well preserved.

Jodi Magness poses with her students

Magness (center) with Carolina students and the mosaic they found. From left, Brian Coussens, Caroline Carter, Jocelyn Burney, Jonathan Branch, and Kelly Gagnon. Photo by Jim Haberman.

An archaeologist could go her whole career without finding something so significant. “In fact,” Magness says, “most do go without.”

Magness, a passionate researcher, mentor, and teacher, could talk all day about the mosaics and the intricate process of finding and preserving them. But they aren’t why she spends her summers digging in the hot Galilean sun. To her, the mosaics are an ancillary benefit of the dig, beautiful ancient art that’s earned her a lot of attention and given her students a worthy topic for senior theses and dissertations. Magness, though, is just as excited by the common coinage and pottery found below the synagogue floor and inside the building’s foundations. That material helps answer her main question: how old is this synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq? Her discovery, it turns out, could change the way historians view how Jews lived under early-Christian rule.

Magness, who came to Carolina in 2002, has been debating fellow archeologists for years on the age of ancient synagogues. She says some of the buildings date to the fifth or sixth centuries. Some colleagues say the buildings date to the second or third centuries. To your average Joe, the discrepancy means little. To archaeologists, historians, and people interested in how Jewish and early Christian cultures interacted, the date of construction matters a lot.

Here’s the deal: in the second and third centuries, Roman rulers were pagans. In the fifth and sixth centuries—the late Roman era—the rulers were Christians. Some archaeologists believe that pagan Roman rulers would have permitted Jews to build large, conspicuous synagogues. But under oppressive Christian rule in the fifth century, they argue, Jews wouldn’t have had such freedom. Also, experts say that the style of architecture suggests a second or third-century construction date.

Magness disagrees.

My argument,” she says, “is that the pottery and coins found under the floors and in the foundation of the synagogue suggest a later date—possibly the fourth, but more likely the fifth or sixth century.” If so, then Jews had more religious freedom under Christian rule than some historians and archaeologists thought.

Read more of the story from Endeavors Magazine.

Story by Mark Derewicz. 

Published October 4, 2013.