Half a world away, and centuries deep in history, Jodi Magness spends every summer digging into Israel’s past.
“I always say an archeological dig is like summer camp for adults,” Magness said.
The professor at the University of North Carolina has packed her bags, along with dozens of students and staff, and headed to Galilea each summer since 2011.
That’s when they began excavating a Jewish village called “Huqoqa,” which dates back to the time of Jesus. Most recently it was abandoned since the 1940s.
In one photo, Magness stands on the east wall of a synagogue after beginning to unearth in 2011.
“There I am with a huge smile on my face without any idea without any idea of what awaited us underneath,” she said.
Underneath the centuries of dirt, the team uncovered spectacular mosaics from around the fifth century AD. Those were unusual for Galilean synagogues, which typically had flagstone floors.
“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,” she said.
“We think that these scenes point to Messianic and apocalyptic expectations among the Jewish community at Hoqoq.”
Imagery like these mosaics helped tell the Bible story to a largely illiterate population.
“We have a depiction of Samson literally carrying the Gate of Gaza on his shoulders,” she said.
Another mosaic shows an elephant and a military commander or ruler, possibly Alexander the Grant.
“There are no elephants in stories in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament,” Magness said. “Until this discovery, all the stories that had been discovered decorating ancient synagogue buildings had been taken from the Hebrew Bible.”
Her team continues to study the mosaic and its significance.
Meanwhile, Magness continues to dig.
The impact of religion is central to the questions Magness is asking.
She said the synagogue dates back to around the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
So she wonders, what was the fate of Jewish villages like Huqoq under Christian rule?
“Because the historical view backwards is usually: well, the Jews must have been oppressed, right, by Christian rule, Christian rule was not friendly to the Jews, they must have suffered. And, what we’re finding at Huqoq is just the opposite. Here, we have a village that clearly prospered,” she said.
The questions and finds continue to build, along with interest.
“I’ve never really encountered this level of excitement over discoveries,” she said.
The elephant mosaic’s discovery was published in the March issue of National Geographic.
“It’s amazing,” Magness said of making the magazine. “It’s the sort of things where I can’t look at it enough.”
Much like parts of the mosaic, the pieces of the Huqoq puzzle are still coming together to form a better understanding of the past.
“You’re trying to take those pieces and put them where they originally belonged,” she said.
That’s a process that will continue for years to come – perhaps another six to eight years.
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