UNC professor works to unearth Israel’s past

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A professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill spends her summers half a world away to unearth Israel’s past.

Dozens of students and staff accompany Jodi Magness on a trip to Galilea each summer since 2011.

“I always say an archaeological dig is like summer camp for adults,” Magness said.

The group has been working to excavate a Jewish village known as “Huqoq.” The village dates back to the times of Jesus Christ.

The team removed centuries of dirt to find a fifth-century floor mosaic. The discovery is unusual as Galilean synagogues used flagstone for floors at this time in history.

“Our scenes are the first time we have anything like this in ancient synagogue art, but the broader significance is what the choice of these particular scenes tells us about these Jewish communities,” Magness said.

She said the imagery was used to tell Bible stories to a largely illiterate population.

“We think that these scenes point to Messianic and apocalyptic expectations among the Jewish community at Huqoq,” she said.

Another mosaic shows an elephant with a military commander, believed to be Alexander the Great.

“There are no elephants in stories in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. Until this discovery, all the stories that had been discovered decorating ancient synagogue buildings had been taken from the Hebrew Bible,” Magness said.

Magness said Huqoq also existed around the time Christianity became the officials religion of the Roman Empire.

She said history shows Christian rule was not always friendly towards Jews.

“What we’re finding at Huqoq is just the opposite. Here, we have a village that clearly prospered,” she said.

Much like the discovered mosaics, the pieces of the Huqoq puzzle are still coming together to form a greater picture and understanding of the past.

“You’re trying to take those pieces and put them where they originally belonged,” Magness said.

The dig at Huqoq could take another six to eight summers to complete.

But the excavations are just the beginning of the process as Magness’ ultimate goal is to publish her findings.

For more information on the dig and ways to help, visit the Huqoq Excavation Project’s website.

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