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Ancient mosaic uncovered

BYU professor and student uncover synagogue floor

When Bryan Bozung was trying to figure out his summer plans before he starts graduate school in the fall, going to Jerusalem for a month to find a rare mosaic in an ancient Jewish village was far from the list of things he had imagined.

What started as a few questions for Matthew J. Grey, whom he had heard lecture at BYU about his archeological excursions, became a quick change in summer plans, and his name in the history books.

Bryan Bozung, left, and Matthew Grey kneel by the newly discovered synagogue mosaic at Huqoq. The men were part of a team of experts that spent the month of June uncovering an ancient Jewish village.
Bryan Bozung, left, and Matthew Grey kneel by the newly discovered synagogue mosaic at Huqoq. The men were part of a team of experts that spent the month of June uncovering an ancient Jewish village. Photo: BYU photo

"I knew I'd love to go back to Jerusalem (after spending time there as a student at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies), and went to talk to Matt just to see if a few years down the road if I were interested in going to the dig that would be possible," he said. "Two days later I was making plans to get on a plane in four and a half weeks."

The initial excavation began in the summer of 2011, when Brother Grey, assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU, joined Jodi Magness, a professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and other experts in excavating the ancient village in Huqoq, located near the Sea of Galilee.

A mosaic of two female faces on the sides of an Aramaic inscription promising blessings upon those who keep God's commandments was discovered during an excavation in June near the Sea of Galilee.
A mosaic of two female faces on the sides of an Aramaic inscription promising blessings upon those who keep God's commandments was discovered during an excavation in June near the Sea of Galilee. Photo: BYU photo

Although Huqoq is not specifically mentioned in the scriptures, experts say that evidence indicates that it was a Jewish agricultural village at the time of Jesus. Its location near the Sea of Galilee makes the ancient Jewish village only 3.2 miles to the west of Capernaum (the hometown of Peter and base of Jesus' Galilean ministry) and 2.8 miles to the north of Migdal (the hometown of Mary Magdalene), making Huqoq within walking distance of some of the prominent locations of Jesus and His disciples.

"It is a very exciting find," Brother Grey said, joking that it is "not quite a Rosetta Stone, but a very exciting find."

Mosaic depiction of a female face in the Huqoq synagogue.  BYU Professor Matthew Grey and recent graduate Bryan Bozung were part of a team that recently discovered a rare mosaic in an ancient Jewish synagogue. Bozung was the one who initially found the mosaic.
Mosaic depiction of a female face in the Huqoq synagogue. BYU Professor Matthew Grey and recent graduate Bryan Bozung were part of a team that recently discovered a rare mosaic in an ancient Jewish synagogue. Bozung was the one who initially found the mosaic. Photo: BYU photo

After being in the Holy Land for just more than two weeks during their month-long excursion this past June, Brother Bozung got up one morning at their usual time — very early to beat the heat and dust of the afternoon — and headed out the door to get to work.

"It was a pretty normal day. We got there early in the morning — up at 4 to get there at 4:30," he said. "I had spent a fair amount of time working on a specific square. We already had found the synagogue wall ... and I was assigned to work in that square. We expected to come down on a floor at some point, but we didn't know how much further we needed to go."

When his instrument struck something hard, he let up a little bit and began to uncover more carefully.

"I had just loosened a little dirt in the area with a pick … when I heard a scraping noise," Brother Bozung said. "Usually it is a rock, coming onto an old plaster floor, but then I could see enough variation in color and I knew it was a mosaic.

"I just stood there speechless for a second. I just pointed at it, because I was so excited," he said.

It was then that he motioned to Dr. Magness, the head of the excavation, who then grabbed a paint brush and lightly brushed off what had been uncovered.

"I had come down right on top of a female face and an inscription," Brother Bozung said. After realizing what they had found, they called everyone over to see it and excitement spread throughout the entire staff.

"During the first couple of weeks, we suspected there was a mosaic," Brother Grey said. "We had come across loose mosaic cubes — handsful of ancient cubes. ... Then when he hit the floor, there was a mosaic with portions still intact, with human faces and inscriptions."

The two female faces were on the sides of an Aramaic inscription promising blessings upon those who keep God's commandments.

During the next few weeks of the excavation, archeologists continued to uncover what they could of the floor, finding more than just images, but depictions from the scriptures.

"The last thing found in the area was a depiction of a very large human being, with foxes being tied to torches by their tails," Brother Grey said. "We realized that it was depicting Samson."

As they realized what they were uncovering, one of the team members immediately opened a set of scriptures and began reading Judges 15 — first in Hebrew and then in English — where it describes the story of Samson tying foxes to torches, setting their tails on fire and releasing them into nearby fields as an act of retribution against the Philistines.

The mosaic dates back to the late Roman period — around the 4th or 5th century A.D., and is believed to have been hidden for more than 1,500 years. Experts say only a small number of ancient Late Roman synagogue buildings depict biblical scenes.

"As far as the significance of the find — there are so few surviving examples of biblical scenes," Brother Grey said. "Not only is it a biblical scene, but what is interesting about the Samson depiction is that there is only one other depiction only two to three miles away. ... For whatever reason, the people of this area were very interested in the Samson story."

Other experts on the excavation team included people from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Trinity University in Texas, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Toronto who are specialists in pottery, coins, glass, animal bones and remains, as well as volunteers from the different schools.

In addition to the mosaic floor of the synagogue, archeologists have uncovered an ancient dwelling, a ritual bath, tombs, agricultural installations and an underground hiding complex used during the Jewish revolts against Rome.

"This has been a very exciting opportunity," Brother Grey said. "[It] has really been a window inside to an ancient view."

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