Baylor Professor and Students Help Uncover Mosaics in Ancient Synagogue in Israel

  • Mosaic 1
    A consortium of Universities including Baylor University is participating in the excavation of a fifth-century synagogue in Huqoq, Israel. The excavation has revealed several floor mosaics. Photos courtesy of Jim Haberman.
  • Mosaic 2
    The most recent excavations in Huqoq, Israel, have uncovered two floor mosaics depicting the Biblical stories of Noah's ark and the parting of the Red Sea.
  • Elkins 1
    Nathan Elkins, Ph.D., numismatist and Baylor University assistant professor of art, poses with Baylor students Sara Beth Burch, a sophomore majoring in art history, and Nathaniel Eberlein, a senior University Scholar, at the synagogue excavation in Huqoq, Israel.
  • Elkins 2
    Nathan Elkins, Ph.D., numismatist and Baylor University assistant professor of art, studies a coin at the synagogue excavation in Huqoq, Israel.
July 5, 2016

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Media contact: Terry Goodrich, (254) 710-3321

WACO, Texas (July 5, 2016) — Baylor University coin specialist Nathan Elkins, Ph.D., assistant professor of art history, worked alongside a consortium of universities this summer in Huqoq, Israel, as they excavated an ancient synagogue and discovered mosaics depicting the stories of Noah’s ark and the parting of the Red Sea.

The mosaics were found decorating the nave floor of a synagogue that dates back to the fifth century, when the Roman Empire encompassed the area. They depict an ark and pairs of animals including elephants, leopards, donkeys, snakes, bears, lions, ostriches, camels, sheep and goats. They also show Pharaoh’s soldiers being swallowed by large fish, surrounded by overturned chariots with horses and chariot drivers.

“These scenes are very rare in ancient synagogues,” said Jodi Magness, director of the excavations and professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences. “The only other examples that have been found are at Gerasa/Jerash in Jordan and Mopsuestia/Misis in Turkey, and at Khirbet Wadi Hamam in Israel and Dura Europos in Syria.”

Elkins recently spoke at the Public Hearing of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., about the necessity of protecting ancient coins from looting and smuggling. He spoke in favor of renewing the Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) that would help prevent and stop the looting of undocumented ancient coins and antiquities from Greece into the United States. During the Huqoq excavation, he serves as the numismatist, or coin specialist, on site.

“The ancient coins at Huqoq, which I study, span 2,300 years at the site and are critical for our knowledge of the monumental synagogue and the associated village,” Elkins said.

Baylor is one of four schools sponsoring and participating in the Huqoq excavations. The others are the University of North Carolina, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto, and students and staff from each university have helped in the excavations.

“It is a great pleasure to be a staff member at Huqoq, a site that garners worldwide attention on account of the significance of the monumental synagogue and its unprecedented mosaic find,” Elkins said. “It is also wonderful that I have been able to involve Baylor students in this excavation each year. Next summer, we expect Baylor participation in this excavation to become more formalized via a Baylor study abroad program called ‘Baylor in the Galilee’, which I hope will increase Baylor student involvement.”

This summer, Baylor University students Sara Beth Burch, a sophomore majoring in art history, and Nathaniel Eberlein, a senior University Scholar, helped with the excavations.

Excavations have been conducted in the synagogue every summer since the first mosaics were found in 2012. Since then, mosaics depicting Samson and his foxes (as related in the Bible’s Judges 15:4), Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3) and a scene containing a Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures such as putti, or cupids, have been uncovered. The first non-Biblical mosaic ever found in an ancient synagogue was also discovered at Huqoq and showed the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.

The mosaics uncovered by the excavations have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Financial support for the 2016 excavations also was provided by the National Geographic Society and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Excavations are scheduled to continue in the summer of 2017. Baylor students interested in participating in the archeological field school at Huqoq should contact Nathan Elkinsfor more information.

by Karyn Simpson, student newswriter, (254) 710-6805

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