Heritage Fellow Helps Discover Ancient Mosaic Showing Samson

Huqoq mosaic with female face and inscription. Photo by Jim Haberman.

By: James Heilpern, 2012 Heritage Fellow

We found a mosaic.

That’s right . . . a beautiful, intact, exquisite mosaic covering the ancient synagogue floor at Huqoq.

James Heilpern

This was my second season excavating at Huqoq, and like Caroline I, too was surprised to be promoted to assistant square supervisor.  I was lucky enough to be assigned to my old area - “The Pit” as we lovingly called it last season - where after weeks of digging through layers of modern trash we were shocked to come down on the eastern wall of the ancient synagogue during the last three days of excavation.   While we were fairly certain that such a building was somewhere in the vicinity, no one, including Dr. Jodi Magness, was prepared for the size of the wall we uncovered.  Each of the ashlar stones used in construction were over five feet long -  rivaling those found at Caperneum, long thought to be the crown jewel of ancient synagogues in the Galilee.

As it turns out, the wall was just the beginning of Huqoq’s surprises.  The slow trickle of tesserae squares (tiny cubes used in ancient mosaics) that began to pop up in the sift near the end of last season turned into a deluge by the end of the first week of the 2012 excavations.  By the end of week two, we were digging up plaster chunks with tesserae squares still attached, causing us to fear that whatever masterpiece may have once adorned the floor had long since been destroyed.   Then, during week three, just when we were starting to lose hope, that beautiful face with her haunting eyes appeared in the dust.   Words simply cannot do it justice, so I’ve attached a picture instead.

Female face in Huqoq mosaic. Photo by Jim Haberman

The area was all but shut down for the rest of the season as the conservationists painstakingly revealed  the rest of the square’s mosaic.  Soon we had not one, but two faces, each flanking a side of an Aramaic (not Hebrew - regardless of what the popular media may report) inscription possibly alluding to a passage in Ecclesiastes.   Soon Samson and his infamous foxes entered the fray as well, right at the edge of the square’s southern balk.

We will have to wait until next season to discover what other treasures Huqoq may contain in adjacent squares.  More biblical scenes?  A zodiac cycle?  Helios? One way or the other, this discovery will likely force us to reconsider the traditional synagogue typology.   The size of the ashlars used in the walls and the other architectural fragments discovered at the site suggested initially that this building was a “Galilean-type synagogue” . . . but no such building has ever been discovered with a mosaic floor - until now.  Perhaps . . . perhaps . . . the typology is wrong.  Only time will tell.


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