DG MARTIN COLUMN: A blessing or curse

“The mosaics have been a blessing and a curse.”

UNC-Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness was talking about the beautiful mosaics on the floor of an ancient synagogue in the Galilean region of Israel.

Magness is a widely respected archaeologist and past president of the Archaeological Institute of America. She has a special interest in ancient Palestine with a forthcoming book on the history of Jerusalem to be published by Oxford University Press.

Magness organized and ran archaeological digs to learn what restrictions, if any, the Roman rulers of Palestine placed on construction of synagogues after Rome converted to Christianity.  She focused her study on an ancient synagogue constructed by Jewish residents of a Galilean village named Huqoq.

When she and her colleagues began their work in 2011, they were not looking for mosaics. Rather, they were searching for anything that showed the construction and the use of the synagogue and what was happening in the surrounding area.

Magness is quick to explain that archaeology is not a mere search for hidden treasures. As she explained“My big research question was to understand the fate of Jewish villages like Huqoq, which was a Jewish village in the Roman and Byzantine periods, to understand what was the fate of Jewish villages like Huqoq after they came under Christian rule. After the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century, did they suffer and decline?

“As many of my Israeli colleagues think Christian rule was oppressive to the Jews. My impression from the archeology was always the opposite, that these Jewish settlements continued to flourish and prosper in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. That was the big research question that I was hoping to answer. And the remains at Huqoq actually support my view. It doesn’t mean it’s true of every Jewish settlement in Galilee, but at least at Huqoq, we do have evidence of a Jewish settlement that continued to flourish and prosper.”

While Magness achieved her major goal, something unexpected happened that brought international attention to the project. When a portion of the floor was uncovered, a beautiful mosaic illustrating a biblical story was found. It turned out that every floor of the building was covered with dramatic mosaics. Each year another mosaic was uncovered. Each one drew attention in the world press.

Because the mosaics and the attention they gained overshadowed Magness’s original purpose, I asked if the mosaics were a blessing or a curse.

A blessing that brought attention to the project or a curse that siphoned attention and resources from the main mission?

She responded, “Well, that’s a great question. We always learn things that we didn’t expect in archeology, because no matter what you hope to find, you don’t know what you’re going to find. So, everything is a surprise.”

She continued, “It certainly has distracted a bit from what my goals were for the site, which have not changed. I want to go back to archeology as a science, because a lot of people think of archeologists as treasure hunters, finding good stuff from the past. That’s not what archeology is. Archeologists seek to understand the past, specifically the human past, by digging up human material, culture, meaning anything that humans manufactured and left behind, we dig it up and we hope that that will shed light, help us better understand the history of the human past.”

Magness explained how the mosaic illustrations of Bible stories turn out to be a blessing by helping inform our understanding of religious life in the time of the Huqoq synagogue.

“What were the Bible stories they told? What, which Bible stories were important to them? Why were they important? Are there differences between the way that they show a biblical story and what we know of that biblical story, or how it’s depicted, how it’s described in, in the Bible? There are many other things as well. So, it’s a very rich source of new information about Judaism in late antiquity. The importance of this discovery can’t be overstated.”

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”