Category Archives: ISRAEL

Archaeologists Discover Missing Link in Human Evolution, in Israel

Archaeologists Discover Missing Link in Human Evolution, in Israel

Researchers working in Israel have identified a previously unknown type of ancient human that lived alongside our species more than 100,000 years ago.

Archaeologists Discover Missing Link in Human Evolution, in Israel
The skull fragment and jawbone were found near Ramla in Israel

They believe the remains uncovered near the city of Ramla represent one of the “last survivors” of a very ancient human group.

The finds consist of a partial skull and jaw from an individual who lived between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago.

Details have been published in the journal Science.

The team members think the individual descended from an earlier species that may have spread out of the region hundreds of thousands of years ago and given rise to Neanderthals in Europe and their equivalents in Asia.

The scientists have named the newly discovered lineage the “Nesher Ramla Homo type”.

Dr Hila May of Tel Aviv University said the discovery reshaped the story of human evolution, particularly our picture of how the Neanderthals emerged. The general picture of Neanderthal evolution had in the past been linked closely with Europe.

“It all started in Israel. We suggest that a local group was the source population,” she told BBC News. “During interglacial periods, waves of humans, the Nesher Ramla people, migrated from the Middle East to Europe.”

The human finds were uncovered during the excavation of a sinkhole. Thousands of stone tools and animal remains were also found

The team thinks that early members of the Nesher Ramla Homo group were already present in the Near East some 400,000 years ago. The researchers have noticed resemblances between the new finds and ancient “pre-Neanderthal” groups in Europe.

“This is the first time we could connect the dots between different specimens found in the Levant,” said Dr Rachel Sarig, also from Tel Aviv University.

“There are several human fossils from the caves of Qesem, Zuttiyeh and Tabun that date back to that time that we could not attribute to any specific known group of humans. But comparing their shapes to those of the newly uncovered specimen from Nesher Ramla justify their inclusion within the [new human] group.”

Dr May suggests that these humans were the ancestors of Neanderthals.

“The European Neanderthal actually began here in the Levant and migrated to Europe, while interbreeding with other groups of humans.”

Others travelled east to India and China, said Prof Israel Hershkovitz, suggesting a connection between East Asian archaic humans and Neanderthals in Europe.

“Some fossils found in East Asia manifest Neanderthal-like features as the Nesher Ramla do,” he said.

One of the stone tools used by the Nesher Ramla humans. It was produced with the same techniques used by modern humans at the time

The researchers base their claims on similarities in features between the Israeli fossils and those found in Europe and Asia, though their assertion is controversial. Prof Chris Stringer, from the Natural History Museum in London, UK, has recently been assessing Chinese human remains.

“Nesher Ramla is important in confirming yet further that different species co-existed alongside each other in the region at the time and now we have the same story in western Asia,” he said.

“However, I think it’s a jump too far at the moment to link some of the older Israeli fossils to Neanderthals. I’m also puzzled at suggestions of any special link between the Nesher Ramla material and fossils in China.”

The Nesher Ramla remains themselves were found in what used to be a sinkhole, located in an area frequented by prehistoric humans. This may have been an area where they hunted for wild cattle, horses and deer, as indicated by thousands of stone tools and bones of hunted animals.

According to an analysis by Dr Yossi Zaidner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, these tools were constructed in the same manner that modern humans of the time also made their implements.

“It was a surprise that archaic humans were using tools normally associated with Homo sapiens. This suggests that there were interactions between the two groups,” Dr Zaidner said.

“We think that it is only possible to learn how to make the tools through visual or oral learning. Our findings suggest that human evolution is far from simple and involved many dispersals, contacts and interactions between different species of human.”

9,000-Year-Old Underground Settlement With Megalithic Stone Circle, Discovered Beneath The Mediterranean Sea

9,000-Year-Old Underground Settlement With Megalithic Stone Circle, Discovered Beneath The Mediterranean Sea

Not far off the coast of the village of Atlit in the Mediterranean Sea, near Haifa in Israel, lies the submerged ruins of the ancient Neolithic site of Atlit Yam.

The prehistoric settlement, which dates back to the 7th millennium BC, has been so well preserved by the sandy seabed that a mysterious stone circle still stands as it was first erected, and dozens of human skeletons lay undisturbed in their graves. 

Atlit Yam is one of the oldest and largest sunken settlements ever found and sheds new light on the daily lives of its ancient inhabitants.

9,000-Year-Old Underground Settlement With Megalithic Stone Circle, Discovered Beneath The Mediterranean Sea

Today, Atlit Yam lies between 8 – 12 metres beneath sea level and covered an area of 40,000 square metres.

The site was first discovered in 1984 by marine archaeologist Ehud Galili, and since then underwater excavations have unearthed numerous houses, stone-built water wells, a series of long unconnected walls, ritual installations, stone-paved areas, a megalithic structure, thousands of flora and faunal remains, dozens of human remains, and numerous artefacts made of stone, bone, wood and flint.

At the centre of the settlement, seven megaliths (1.0 to 2.1 metres high) weighing up to 600 kilograms are arranged in a stone semicircle. The stones have cup marks carved into them and were once arranged around a freshwater spring, which suggests that they may have been used for a water ritual.

Another installation consists of three oval stones (1.6 – 1.8 metres), two of which are circumscribed by grooves forming schematic anthropomorphic figures.

Top: A diver examines megaliths at Atlit Yam. Bottom: Artist’s reconstruction of stone formation.

Another significant structural feature of the site is the stone-built well, which was excavated down to a depth of 5.5. metres. At the base of the well, archaeologists found sediment fill containing animal bones, stone, flint, wood, and bone artefacts. This suggests that in its final stage, it ceased to function as a water-well and was used instead as a disposal pit.

The change in function was probably related to the salinization of the water due to a rise in sea level. The wells from Atlit-Yam had probably been dug and constructed in the earliest stages of occupation (the end of the 9th millennium BC) and were essential for the maintenance of a permanent settlement in the area.

The ancient artefacts unearthed at Atlit Yam offer clues into how the prehistoric inhabitants once lived. Researchers have found traces of more than 100 species of plants that grew at the site or were collected from the wild, and animal remains consisted of bones of both wild and domesticated animals, including sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, and cattle, suggesting that the residents raised and hunted animals for subsistence.

In addition, more than 6,000 fish bones were found. Combined with other clues, such as an ear condition found in some of the human remains caused by regular exposure to cold water, it seems that fishing also played a big role in their society.

The archaeological material indicates that Atlit-Yam provides the earliest known evidence for an agro-pastoral-marine subsistence system on the Levantine coast. The inhabitants were some of the first to make the transition from being hunter-gatherers to being more settled farmers, and the settlement is one of the earliest with evidence of domesticated cattle.

Human remains reveal the oldest known case of Tuberculosis

Ten flexed burials encased in clay and covered by thick layers of sand were discovered, both inside the houses and in the vicinity of Atlit Yam, and in total archaeologists have uncovered 65 sets of human remains. One of the most significant discoveries of this ancient site is the presence of tuberculosis (TB) within the village. 

The skeletons of a woman and child, found in 2008, have revealed the earliest known cases of tuberculosis in the world. The size of the infant’s bones, and the extent of TB damage, suggest the mother passed the disease to her baby shortly after birth.

What caused Atlit Yam to sink?

One of the greatest archaeological mysteries of Atlit Yam is how it came to be submerged, a question that has led to heated debate in academic circles.

An Italian study led by Maria Pareschi of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Pisa indicates that a volcanic collapse of the Eastern flank of Mount Etna 8,500 years ago would likely have caused a 40-metre-high tsunami to engulf some Mediterranean coastal cities within hours.

Some scientists point to the apparent abandonment of Atlit Yam around the same time, and the thousands of fish remains, as further evidence that such a tsunami did indeed occur.

However, other researchers have suggested that there is no solid evidence to suggest a tsunami wiped out the settlement. After all, the megalithic stone circle still remained standing in the place in which it had been constructed.

One alternative is that climate change caused glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise and the settlement became flooded by a slow rise in the level of the Mediterranean that led to a gradual abandonment of the village.

Whatever the cause of the submerging of the settlement, it was the unique conditions of clay and sandy sediment under salty water that enabled this ancient village to remain so well preserved over thousands of years.

Rare Roman coin bearing Cancer zodiac sign found off Israeli Coast

Rare Roman coin bearing Cancer zodiac sign found off Israeli Coast

A nearly 2,000-year-old Roman coin, etched with a symbol of the zodiac, was fished from the waters around Haifa in northern Israel, reports the Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Rare Roman coin bearing Cancer zodiac sign found off Israeli Coast
The coin depicts Luna, the goddess of the moon, and the zodiac sign for Cancer.

Archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) made the discovery while conducting an underwater archaeological survey.

The bronze coin was minted in Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, and it was found in “an exceptional state of preservation,” according to a statement from the Israeli prime minister’s office, per Google Translate.

One side of the coin features an image of Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon, and an image of the zodiac sign for Cancer; the other side depicts Antoninus Pius.

The coin also bears the inscription “Year Eight,” indicating that it was produced during the eighth year of Pius’ rule, which spanned from 138 to 161 C.E.

This ancient relic belonged to a series of 13 coins, portraying the 12 signs of the zodiac and the complete zodiac wheel, per a statement from IAA. It is the first such coin that has been discovered off the coast of Israel.

Astrology, which originated in Mesopotamia circa the third millennium B.C.E., was deeply entrenched in Roman culture.

Though sometimes viewed with suspicion and hostility by emperors, who understood that astrological predictions could be used to subvert their authority, astrology was a popular practice among all classes of Roman society.

“Astrology was only one of a wider number of divinatory practices in the empire,” writes Matthew Bunson in the Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “But for capturing the public interest and imagination, all paled alongside astrology.”

Pius led the empire through one of its most peaceful eras. Before this period, hostilities abounded in what is now Israel—particularly in the years after 70 C.E., when Roman forces destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

In 130 C.E., the emperor Hadrian initiated plans to build a Roman metropolis in Jerusalem. He also outlawed circumcision, a core practice in Judaism.

Shortly afterwards, Jews launched a rebellion against Roman rulers known as the Bar Kochba Revolt. Roman forces ultimately quashed the rebellion after three years of fighting and “enormous losses” on both sides.

Conversely, Pius, who succeeded Hadrian, was “not a military man,” writes the Washington Post’s Rachel Pannett. He helped cool relations with the empire’s Jews by allowing them to resume the practice of circumcision.

The bronze coin depicting Pius was found near a “small hoard” of other coins, indicating that it fell into the sea during a shipwreck, Jacob Sharvit, head of the IAA’s marine archaeology unit, tells the AFP.

“Along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the State of Israel, and in its maritime space, there are many archaeological sites and findings, which tell of connections that existed here in ancient times between the ports of the Mediterranean Sea and the countries along it,” Sharvit says in the statement from the prime minister’s office.

These ancient sites must be safeguarded “in the light of diverse development interests” along Israel’s coasts, says Eli Eskosido, the IAA’s general director, in the IAA statement.

“Rather than simply defining the country’s border,” he adds, “the sea is now recognized as an integral part of our cultural heritage.”

Quarry Discovered Under Ancient Church in Jerusalem

Quarry Discovered Under Ancient Church in Jerusalem

Remains of construction dating back to the period of Roman Emperor Constantine at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher are among the discoveries uncovered during on-going excavations at the Christian holy site since March 2022 as part of a complex two-year project to repair and restore pavement stones of the ancient church.

Quarry Discovered Under Ancient Church in Jerusalem
Remains dating back to the period of Roman Emperor Constantine at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have been uncovered in excavations carried out in conjunction with a complex two-year project to repair and restore pavement stones of the ancient church.

The finds were presented to leaders of the Christian community of the church during a visit to the excavations on July 11 by Drs. Beatrice Brancazi and Stefano De Togni, members of the archaeological team from the Department of Antiquities of the Sapienza University of Rome who are carrying out the work under the direction of Professor Francesca Romana Stasolla, assisted by Professors Giorgia Maria Annoscia and Massimiliano David.

The researchers said the rock layers of the stone quarry used during the construction of the church during Constantine’s period had been uncovered.

“The rock layers of the quarry have been found,” Romana Stasolla said in a press release issued by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land following the visit of the Christian leaders.

According to tradition, up until the first century BCE the area on which the church stands was a stone quarry and traces of these activities are still clearly visible in the chapels below the current church.

Remains dating back to the period of Roman Emperor Constantine at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher have been uncovered in excavations carried out in conjunction with a complex two-year project to repair and restore pavement stones of the ancient church.

The excavations

The excavations take place according to where restoration work is being done on the pavement stones and in May the archaeologists began excavation in the north nave of the basilica, also known as the Arches of the Virgin, and part of the north-western rotunda. The work is carried out round the clock and in a way not to disturb the daily movement within the church. It is the first time such a systematic excavation of the church has been carried out.

The archaeologists said they also found evidence of trenches dug by Italian Franciscan Friar and Studium Biblicum Franciscanum professor of archaeology Virginio Corbo in the 1960s.

The press report noted that the quarry rock layers are of made up of different heights from “deep and uneven cuts.”

“The operations of the Constantinian construction site had as their primary requirement that of bridging such unevenness of elevation to create a unitary and homogeneous plan to build the structures of the church and its annexes,” Romana Stasolla said in the release.

Progressive layers of soil rich in ceramic material allowing for water drainage were used to level the area, she said.

They were also able to analyze the construction methods of the foundation of the north perimeter wall of the Constantinian complex, she said, and uncovered mosaic tiles believed to be from floor pavements.

Constantine began construction on a church at the site in 326 CE, building on top of Roman Emperor Hadrian’s temple of Capitoline Jupiter built between 135 and 136 CE as he repressed an anti-Roman revolt by founding the city of Aelia Capitolina.

“The operations of the Constantinian construction site had as their primary requirement that of bridging such unevenness of elevation to create a unitary and homogeneous plan to build the structures of the church and its annexes.”

Romana Stasolla

In the north-western area of the rotunda, the archaeologists continued with the excavation of a tunnel near the aedicule, traditionally held to be the tomb of Jesus by Christians, which had been uncovered during the first phase of restoration work at the church. The tunnel descends vertically 2.8 m. next to the aedicule and then continues horizontally to the north, said the report.

“Its discovery in relation to the excavation stratigraphy and its connection with the entire water outflow system is an important aspect in the study of the architectural elements and will be analyzed within the project,” said the report.

Processing of the materials uncovered at the dig is carried out in real-time between Jerusalem and Rome, noted in the report, and data processed during the excavation is entered into a database created for the project which is linked to different historical and archive sources with remote support from team members in Rome.

This second phase of restoration work at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is being conducted under the direction of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Armenian Patriarchate, the three historical guardians of the Church according to the 1852 Status Quo agreement that solidified the territorial division among the Christian communities in the church and other holy Christian sites.

At the start of the recent restoration and excavation work in March, Prof. Giorgio Piras, director of the Department of Ancient Sciences at the Sapienza University of Rome, told The Jerusalem Post that most of the remains found would likely be covered up in accordance with the status quo.

70 Metallic Books That Could Change The Biblical Story

70 Metallic Books That Could Change The Biblical Story

This incredible discovery could prove to be the most important thing since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The ancient collection of 70 tiny books bound with wire, could reveal some of the biggest secrets of the early days of Christianity.

As everything that challenged conventional thinking and science, the discovery of these artefacts has caused experts to have divided opinions and to question their authenticity.

Located on these miniature pages are images, symbols and words that seem to refer to the Messiah and, possibly, to the crucifixion and resurrection.

But most importantly, some of the books are sealed, arousing doubts among academics if these could actually be the lost collection of codices mentioned in the Book of Revelations in the Bible.

Dr. Margaret Barker, former president of the Society for the Study of the Old Testament, said:

“The Book of Revelations speaks of sealed books that were only open for the Messiah. There are other texts of the same period of history that speak of great wisdom that has been locked away in sealed books. These contain a secret tradition passed by Jesus to his closest disciples.”

The books were found in a cave situated in a remote part of Jordan known to be a location where Christian refugees fled after the fall of Jerusalem. Other important and authentic documents of the same period have previously been discovered in the area.

Jordanian government officials are in talks at the highest levels to repatriate and safeguard the historical collection. After the discovery by Jordanian Bedouin, this potentially “priceless treasure” was acquired by an Israeli who said he smuggled the books outside the border into Israel, where they remain.

After initial studies, metallurgical testing indicates that some of the books would go back to sometime near the first century after Christ.

Some researchers believe this discovery to be one of the most important findings in history, crucial evidence from the beginning of the Christian era, prior to the writings of St. Paul.

These writings could contain, within their inscriptions, contemporary stories of the final days of Jesus’ life.

70 Metallic Books That Could Change The Biblical Story

David Elkington, a British scholar of ancient religious history and archaeology, and one of the few to examine the books said that might well be:

“the greatest discovery in the history of Christianity.” “It’s exciting to think that we are in the hand’s objects that may have been held by the early saints of the Church,” he added.

Philip Davies, emeritus professor of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, believes that this is an authentic historical finding.

According to Davies, there is strong evidence that the books have a Christian origin because there are plaques showing a map of the holy city of Jerusalem.

According to Professor Davies, there is a cross in the foreground, and behind it is something which could be interpreted as a grave. The books seem to describe the crucifixion that takes place outside the walls of the city.

Ancient ‘New York’: 5,000-year-old city discovered in Israel

Ancient ‘New York’: 5,000-year-old city discovered in Israel

The city was described by archaeologists as the New York of its time

The remains of a 5,000-year-old city have been discovered in Israel – the largest and oldest such find in the region. The city was home to 6,000 people and included planned roads, neighbourhoods, a ritual temple and fortifications.

An even earlier settlement, believed to be 7,000 years old, was discovered beneath the city.

Israeli archaeologists said the discovery was the most significant in the region from that era.

The impressive planning, diverse facilities and public buildings suggest a well-organized society, Israeli authorities said
Ancient 'New York': 5,000-year-old city discovered in Israel
The stone basin for holding liquids was likely used during religious rituals

“This is the Early Bronze Age New York of our region; a cosmopolitan and planned city where thousands of inhabitants lived,” the excavation directors said in a statement.

“There is no doubt that this site dramatically changes what we know about the character of the period and the beginning of urbanization in Israel,” the statement added.

Rare figurines, often depicting people or animals, were discovered inside the temple

Known as En Esur, the site spans 650 dunams (161 acres), about double the size of previous similar findings. The design of the city included designated residential and public areas, streets and alleys, the Israel Antiquities Authority said.

About four million fragments were found at the site, including rare figurines of humans and animals, pieces of pottery and various tools, some of which came from Egypt.

Authorities said the figurines offer valuable insight into the spiritual life of the community
Some of the figurines have been preserved with great detail

Burnt animal bones found on the site provided evidence of sacrificial offerings. Inhabitants of the city – who were likely drawn to the area by two freshwater springs, fertile land and proximity to trade routes – made their living from agriculture, trading with different regions and cultures.

Archaeologists had been excavating the site for more than two and a half years, with 5,000 teenagers and volunteers participating. The settlement was discovered during excavations preceding the construction of a new road.

About 5,000 teenagers and volunteers have contributed to the excavation, which has been going on for over two and half years

8,000-year-old Yarmukian ‘Mother Goddess’ figurine uncovered at Sha’ar HaGolan

8,000-year-old Yarmukian ‘Mother Goddess’ figurine uncovered at Sha’ar HaGolan

Before the Israelis and the Palestinians, before the Greek and the Roman empires, before the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, before the Umayyad Caliphate and the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem – there were the Yarmukians.

8,000-year-old Yarmukian 'Mother Goddess' figurine uncovered at Sha’ar HaGolan
An impressive 8,000-year-old Yarmukian ceramic “Mother Goddess” figurine was uncovered at renewed excavations at the Sha’ar HaGolan Yarmukian archaeological site.

This 8,000-year-old Neolithic agricultural culture is considered the first culture in the prehistoric area of what today is called Israel. It is one of the oldest cultures in the Levant to make use of ceramic pottery, with a distinctive style of herringbone decorations incised in horizontal and diagonal lines over the body of their ceramic cooking, serving and storage vessels.

The culture is also known for its enigmatic and iconic “Mother Goddess” figurines, which are believed to have been part of a Yarmukian fertility cult. Renewed excavations at the Sha’ar Hagolan Yarmukian archaeological site at the Sha’ar Hagolan kibbutz this month have revealed an unusually large and impressive ceramic goddess figurine of the “Mother Goddess.”

Created in the typical seating pose, the 20-centimetre figurine was found broken in two pieces next to the wall of a home, said excavation co-director Anna Eirikh-Rose, Israeli Antiquity Authority Judea district archaeologist, who is doing her doctoral research at the Hebrew University on Neolithic pottery.

Sha’ar HaGolan excavation co-director Dr. Julien Vieugue of the French Center for Research in Jerusalem holds the 8,000-year-old ceramic ”Mother Goddess” figurine uncovered at renewed excavations at the Sha’ar HaGolan archaeological site

The broken figurine was covered by a bracelet with a red bottom, the colour which represented fertility. A schematic stone with etched eyes and mouth was also uncovered. The excavation is being carried out in conjunction with the French Center for Research in Jerusalem under the co-direction of Dr. Julien Vieugue.

“This woman ceramic figurine is a hallmark of Yarmukian culture,” Eirikh-Rose said. “This is one of the largest examples of the figurine found. It is of a large, seated woman with big hips, a unique pointed hat and what is known as ‘coffee-bean’ eyes and a big nose. One hand is positioned on her hip and the other one under her breast.”

Symbolism

Though dubbed “coffee-bean” eyes, the traditional eyes of the figurine more likely represented kernels possibly of wheat, or more likely barley, she said.

All the small details of the figurine are important for its cultic symbolism, she said, and the process of creating such a figurine involved a complex method of wrapping and layering the clay around a central cylindrical core.

“It is really impressive, and was a very elaborate way of making a figurine,” she said. “It was not simple to make.”

The Yarmukian culture was poised at the dramatic human juncture of the transition from a foraging culture to a permanent settlement, which also changed the development of architecture. It was so named for the discovery of the archaeological remains at the Sha’ar Hagolan site dated to 6,400-6,000 BCE near the northern bank of the Yarmuk River in the central Jordan Valley.

The history of the Sha’ar HaGolan site

First excavated in 1949, the Sha’ar Hagolan site was identified by Hebrew University Professor Moshe Stekelis as belonging to the Yarmuk culture. A subsequent excavation by Hebrew University Prof. Yosef Garfinkel ended in 2004.

The finds are on exhibit at the Museum of Yarmukian Culture at the kibbutz.

Eirikh-Rose said the current re-excavation of the site was begun next to previous excavations. It is meant to expose the site layer by layer, until reaching the Neolithic pre-ceramic level of the settlement to research the culture’s use and production of ceramic pottery.

“Although the site of Sha’ar Hagolan has been dug several times, revealing the additional layers one at a time, this time there is a clear purpose for our excavation: we want to understand the origin and mechanism of development of the pottery production in the world of this ancient period in the Levant region,” she said.

Eirikh-Rose noted that 8,000 years ago, the inhabitants of this site began to use pottery vessels and mass-produce them.

“This is the first culture of the Neolithic revolution to use and manufacture pottery vessels on a large scale, not just one bowl here and one bowl there,” she said.

Previous excavations at the Sha’ar Hagolan site have uncovered planned streets, courtyard houses and smaller mother goddess figurines, as well as incised pebble face figurines and eye figurines.

At its height, the settlement covered an area spanning 20 hectares, making it one of the largest settlements in the world at that time, said Eirikh-Rose. Although other Yarmukian sites have been identified since, Sha’ar Hagolan is the largest, probably indicating its role as a Yarmukian cultural center.

Eirikh-Rose said the newly uncovered figurine will be taken for residue analysis, which will help researchers establish what types of clay were used to create it. Continued study of these figurines may also help researchers in their quest to determine whether the “Mother Goddess” was used in cultic practices or was already part of established religion.

“There are so many theories,” she said. “This is a big question to study– the development of religious beliefs and culture.”

Ancient Mosaic Floors in Israel May Depict Biblical Heroines

Ancient Mosaic Floors in Israel May Depict Biblical Heroines

A team of specialists and students led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness recently returned to Israel’s Lower Galilee to continue unearthing nearly 1,600-year-old mosaics in an ancient Jewish synagogue at Huqoq.

Ancient Mosaic Floors in Israel May Depict Biblical Heroines
Left: The Israelite commander Barak is depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic. Right: Fox-eating grapes depicted in Huqoq synagogue mosaics.

Discoveries made this year include the first known depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael as described in the book of Judges.

The Huqoq Excavation Project is now in its 10th season after recent seasons were paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Project director Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor of religious studies in Carolina’s College of Arts & Sciences, and assistant director Dennis Mizzi of the University of Malta focused this season on the southwest part of the synagogue, which was built in the late fourth-early fifth century C.E.

Israelite commander Barak is depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic.

This season, the project team unearthed a part of the synagogue’s floor decorated with a large mosaic panel that is divided into three horizontal strips (called registers), which depicts an episode from the book of Judges chapter 4: The victory of the Israelite forces led by the prophetess and judge Deborah and the military commander Barak over the Canaanite army led by the general Sisera.

The Bible relates that after the battle, Sisera took refuge in the tent of a Kenite woman named Jael (Yael), who killed him by driving a tent stake through his temple as he slept.

The uppermost register of the newly-discovered Huqoq mosaic shows Deborah under a palm tree, gazing at Barak, who is equipped with a shield. Only a small part of the middle register is preserved, which appears to show Sisera seated.

The lowest register depicts Sisera lying deceased on the ground, bleeding from the head as Jael hammers a tent stake through his temple.

“This is the first depiction of this episode and the first time we’ve seen a depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael in ancient Jewish art,” Magness said. “Looking at the book of Joshua chapter 19, we can see how the story might have had special resonance for the Jewish community at Huqoq, as it is described as taking place in the same geographical region – the territory of the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon.”

Also among the newly discovered mosaics is a fragmentary Hebrew dedicatory inscription inside a wreath, flanked by panels measuring 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide, which show two vases that hold sprouting vines. The vines form medallions that frame four animals eating clusters of grapes: a hare, a fox, a leopard and a wild boar.

Mosaic depicting a fox eating grapes in the ancient synagogue at Huqoq.

A decade of discovery  

Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and work continued each summer until the COVID-19 pandemic paused work after the dig in 2019.

The mosaics exposed in the last 10 active seasons cover the synagogue’s aisles and main hall.

Discoveries along the east aisle include:  
  • Panels depicting Samson and the foxes (as related in Judges 15:4)  
  • Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3)  
  • 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   

The mosaic floor in the north aisle is divided into two rows of panels containing figures and objects accompanied by Hebrew inscriptions identifying them as biblical stories, including:  

  • One panel depicts two of the spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes, labelled “a pole between two” (from Numbers 13:23)  
  • Another panel showing a man leading an animal on a rope is accompanied by the inscription “a small child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6)
The mosaics panels in the nave, or main hall, include:  
  • A portrayal of Noah’s Ark  
  • The parting of the Red Sea  
  • A Helios-zodiac cycle  
  • Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish
  • The building of the Tower of Babel  

In 2019, the team uncovered panels in the north aisle that frame 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 depicts Elim, the spot where the Israelites camped by 12 springs and 70 date palms after departing Egypt and wandering in the wilderness without water (Exodus 15:27).

In the 14th century C.E. (the Mamluk period), the synagogue was rebuilt and expanded in size, perhaps in connection with the rise of a tradition that the Tomb of Habakkuk was located nearby, which became a focal point of late medieval Jewish pilgrimage.

“The 14th century C.E. building appears to be the first Mamluk period synagogue ever discovered in Israel, making it no less important than the earlier building,” said Magness.

The sponsors of the project are UNC-Chapel Hill, Austin College, Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto. Students and staff from Carolina and the consortium schools participated in the dig. Financial support for the 2022 season was also provided by the National Geographic Society, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, the Kenan Charitable Trust and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2023. For additional information and updates, visit the project’s website: www.huqoq.org.

Images of the most recent discoveries may be downloaded here using password huqoq. Photos by Jim Haberman.