Excavations by a Carolina archaeologist have revealed the first known depictions of two biblical heroines, an episode in ancient Jewish art

A team of specialists and students led by Professor Jody Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently returned to the Lower Galilee in Israel to continue uncovering nearly 1,600-year-old mosaics in an ancient Jewish synagogue in Hukok. Discoveries made this year include the first known depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael as described in the book of Judges.

The Huqoq Excavation Project is now in its 10th season after recent seasons were cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Project director Magnes, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the Carolina College of Arts and Sciences, and assistant director Dennis Mitzi of the University of Malta focused this season on the southwest wing of the synagogue, which was built in the late fourth-early fifth century from AD

This season, the project team revealed part of the synagogue floor, decorated with a large mosaic panel that is divided into three horizontal stripes (called registers), which depicts an episode from the book of Judges, chapter 4: The victory of the Israeli forces led by the prophetess and judge Deborah and the military commander Barak over the Canaanite army led by General Sisera. The Bible says that after the battle, Sisera took refuge in the tent of a Kenite woman named Jael (Jael), who killed him by driving a tent stake into his temple while he slept. The top register of the newly discovered Huqoq mosaic shows Deborah under a palm tree looking at Barak, who is equipped with a shield. Only a small part of the middle register is preserved, which appears to show Sisera seated. The lowest register depicts Sisera lying dead on the ground, bleeding from the head, as Jael drives a tent peg into his temple.

“This is the first image of this episode and the first time we see a depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael in ancient Jewish art,” Magnes said. “Looking at the book of Joshua, chapter 19, we can see how the story may have had a special resonance for the Jewish community in Hukok, since it is described as taking place in the same geographical region – the territory of the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun.”

Also among the newly discovered mosaics is a fragmentary dedicatory inscription in Hebrew within a wreath, surrounded by panels measuring 6 feet high and 2 feet wide, which show two vases holding sprouting vines. The vines form medallions that frame four animals that eat grapes: a rabbit, a fox, a leopard and a wild boar.

Current and former Carolina students were participants in Huqoq’s excavation. Bottom row left to right: David Richman; Christine Stamey; Aislin Granz; Madison Brinkley; Susie Lagunas. Top row left to right: Emily Branton; Jody Magness; Jocelyn Burney; Matthew Gray; Grace Curry; Jada Enoch (Photo by Jim Haberman)

A decade of discoveries

The mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and work continued every summer until the COVID-19 pandemic halted work following excavations in 2019. The mosaics, on display for the past 10 active seasons, cover the synagogue’s aisles and main hall.

Discoveries along the eastern aisle include:

  • Panels depicting Samson and the foxes (as described in Judges 15:4)
  • Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3)
  • Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including putti or cupids
  • The first non-biblical story ever discovered adorning an ancient synagogue – perhaps the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest

The mosaic floor in the north aisle is divided into two rows of panels containing figures and objects accompanied by inscriptions in Hebrew identifying them as biblical stories, including:

  • One panel depicts two of the spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan, carrying a staff of grapes labeled as a “pillar between two” (from Numbers 13:23)
  • Another panel showing a man leading an animal on a rope is accompanied by the inscription “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6)

The mosaic panels in the nave or main hall include:

  • Image of Noah’s Ark
  • The Parting of the Red Sea
  • Helios-zodiac cycle
  • Jonah is swallowed by three successive fishes
  • The construction of the Tower of Babel

In 2019, the team discovered panels in the north aisle that frame animal figures identified by an Aramaic inscription as the four beasts representing four kingdoms in the book of Daniel, chapter 7. A large panel in the northwest aisle depicts Elim, the place where the Israelites camped next 12 springs and 70 date palms after they left Egypt and wandered in the waterless desert (Exodus 15:27).

In the 14th century AD (Mamluk period) the synagogue was rebuilt and expanded in size, probably in connection with the rise of the tradition that Habakkuk’s tomb was located nearby, which became a focal point of late medieval Jewish worship.

“The 14th-century building appears to be the first Mamluk period synagogue ever discovered in Israel, making it no less important than the earlier building,” Magnes said.

Project sponsors are UNC-Chapel Hill, Austin College, Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto. Students and staff from Carolina and the consortium schools participated in the excavation. Financial support for the 2022 season was also provided by the National Geographic Society, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, the Kenan Charitable Trust, and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are expected to continue in the summer of 2023.

For further information and updates, visit the project website: www.huqoq.org.

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