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BYU Grad Finds Ancient Mosaic in Israel

By Jan

A stunning mosaic floor depicting a biblical scene of Samson was discovered in June 2012, in Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village on Galilee’s west shore. The mosaic depicts the biblical story (Judges 15) of Samson retaliating against the Philistines by tying the tails of three hundred foxes to torches, and releasing them into corn fields. The artwork also portrays the faces of two women and an Aramaic inscription that promises blessings to those who do good deeds and keep God’s commandments.

Bible-Book of Mormon-MormonInitially discovered by Bryan Bozung, a first-time volunteer, the excavation team of archaeologists is being led by Jodi Magness, professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is being assisted by BYU staff and volunteers. Bozung recently graduated from the Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah.

“It was incredible to be the first to expose this face, this beautiful piece of art,” said Bozung, a Highland, Utah resident who is starting this fall as a graduate student of Second Temple Judaism at Yale University.

Matthew J. Grey, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU, is a senior staff member overseeing the excavation of the synagogue area where the mosaic was found. In addition, James Heilpern, who will enter the BYU Law School in fall 2012, was an assistant square supervisor for the excavation. Grey taught him at the LDS Institute of Religion at Duke/UNC.

“Discovering a mosaic like this is one of the most exciting moments in an archaeologist’s career. Uncovering a piece of art that no one has seen for fifteen hundred years is an incredible experience. We were stunned when we first saw the female face staring back at us, and remained breathless as we continued to reveal the inscription and the Samson scene,” Grey observed.

Very few synagogues during this period–the fourth and fifth centuries in both the Talmudic and late Roman periods—depicted biblical scenes with mosaics. So far, the walls and the floor of the synagogue indicate a time of prosperity for the city, Magness said. In 2011, her team located the eastern wall of a monumental synagogue that was built between 300 and 600 AD. The archaeologists returned this summer in search of the building’s margins, as well as the surrounding village.

Magness called the find “exciting” and described the “very high quality of the artwork” in the mosaic, crafted with tiny colored stone cubes. “This discovery is significant,” she said, calling the site “extraordinary” and “stunning.”

Some early Christian artwork depicts Samson, but there is only one mosaic in a nearby synagogue in Galilee, called Wadi Hamam, that portrays Samson fighting the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass and another in Turkey that shows scenes of Samson’s life. Samson was known for his physical strength as he fought the enemies of the Israelites.

Other participants in the excavation, which is approved by the Israel Antiquities Authority, include Trinity University in Texas and the Universities of Oklahoma and Toronto.

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