Austin College Professor Returns to Archeological Dig;
Uncovers Ancient Biblical Mosaics in Galilee
SHERMAN, TEXAS — Dr. Martin Wells, Austin College associate professor of Classics, has recently returned from his 6th season as architectural specialist for the Huqoq Excavation Project in Israel. The month-long season runs from May 31 to July 4, and 2023 season is the 11th and final of excavations in the 1,600-year-old synagogue at Huqoq.
The excavated area will now be turned over to the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Keren Kayemet Le’Israel (Jewish National Fund), which plan to develop the site as a tourist attraction.
Wells was part of a team of specialists and students led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness that has uncovered a spectacular mosaic panel in the late Roman (ca. 400 C.E.) synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee. The panel, which names the mosaic donors or artists, decorates the floor just inside the main entrance.
Since 2017, Wells has taken Austin College students for hands-on archeological learning experience. This year, rising senior Miranda Brown participated in the architectural dig for the first time. Brown is an anthropology/Classics major from Centerville, Texas.
The 2023 sponsors of the project are UNC-Chapel Hill, Austin College, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto. Past consortium members include Baylor University, Trinity University, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Wyoming. Over the years, hundreds of students from the consortium schools have participated in the dig. Financial support for the 2023 season was also provided by the Kenan Charitable Trust and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.
In addition to working in the field six days a week, the students attended lectures by the excavation staff on stratigraphy, architecture, pottery, wall paintings, coins, mosaics, and site conservation. They also went on field trips to archaeological sites in Galilee and northern Israel and took a long field trip to Jordan. With Amman as their base, the group visited the Herodian fortress at Machaerus, the biblical site of Mt. Nebo, the ancient churches and their mosaics of Umm al-Rasas, and the church housing the famous Madaba map mosaic.
Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of religious studies in Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences, along with Assistant Director Dennis Mizzi of the University of Malta, focused this final season of the Huqoq excavations on the south end of the synagogue’s main hall, or nave. The other focus this season was a stone-paved courtyard which the 2022 season first showed. The courtyard was surrounded by a row of columns known as a colonnade to the east of the synagogue. In the late medieval period, the courtyard was reused, and a massive, vaulted structure of unknown function was built on top of it.
The newly discovered mosaic consists of a large panel, in the center of which is an enigmatic Hebrew inscription framed within a wreath. To the sides and below the wreath, an Aramaic inscription lists the names either of the donors who provided funding for the synagogue’s mosaics or the artists who made them, asking that they be remembered for good. The wreath is flanked on either side by lions resting their forepaws on bulls’ heads. The entire panel is surrounded by a decorated border showing animals of prey pursuing other animals.
This summer’s excavations also exposed additional sections of mosaic panels that were discovered in 2012 and 2013, which depict the episodes of Samson and the foxes as mentioned in Judges 15:4 and Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders referenced in Judges 16:3. The newly exposed sections include a Philistine horseman and a dead Philistine soldier with a striking classic face.
Excavations in 2022 uncovered a panel in the southwest aisle divided into three registers (horizontal strips) that depict an episode from Judges chapter 4: the biblical prophetess and judge Deborah under a palm tree, gazing at Barak, who is equipped with a shield; and the Kenite woman Jael (Yael) hammering a tent stake through the temple of the Canaanite general Sisera, who lies dead on the ground with blood gushing out of his head. These are the earliest known depictions of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael.
The sweeping archaeological project at Huqoq has left an extraordinary legacy of historically significant finds, including: a Hebrew inscription surrounded by human figures, animals and mythological creatures including putti, or cupids; the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue — perhaps the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest; a panel depicting two of the spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes, labeled “a pole between two” from Numbers 13:23; another panel showing a man leading an animal on a rope accompanied by the inscription “a small child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6); figures of animals 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 depicting Elim, the spot where the Israelites camped by 12 springs and 70 date palms after departing Egypt and wandering in the wilderness without water referenced in Exodus 15:27; a portrayal of Noah’s Ark; the parting of the Red Sea; a Helios-zodiac cycle; Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish; and the building of the Tower of Babel.
Archaeologists have discovered that in the early 14th century C.E. (the late medieval/Mamluk period), the synagogue was rebuilt and expanded in size. This development apparently occurred in the wake of the establishment of a new international highway connecting Cairo and Damascus that ran alongside Yakuk, Huqoq’s medieval name, and the rise of a tradition that the Tomb of Habakkuk was nearby, which became a focal point of late medieval Jewish pilgrimage. For more information and updates, visit the project’s website.
Austin College, a private national liberal arts college located north of Dallas in Sherman, Texas, has earned a reputation for excellence in academic preparation, international study, pre-professional foundations, leadership development, committed faculty, and hands-on, adventurous learning opportunities. One of 40 schools profiled in Loren Pope’s influential book Colleges That Change Lives, Austin College boasts a welcoming community that embraces diversity and individuality, with 46 percent of students identifying as persons of color. The residential student body of approximately 1,300 students and more than 100 expert faculty members allow a 13:1 student-faculty ratio and personalized attention. Austin College is related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church (USA) and cultivates an inclusive atmosphere that supports students’ faith journeys regardless of religious tradition. Founded in 1849, the College is the oldest institution of higher education in Texas operating under original name and charter.