By Meg Monk
“Archeology is an interesting science in that you destroy your evidence as you go,” said Dr. Matthew Grey, archeologist and professor of ancient scripture, in his lecture “Excavating an Ancient Jewish City Near the Sea of Galilee,” a part of his Education Week series, “The Archeology of New Testament Palestine.”
In his lecture, Grey explained the two major challenges of any excavation, but especially those in the Holy Land — finding a site that is not currently inhabited and that has never before been excavated.
“Obviously we don’t want to kick people out of their homes to excavate their basements,” he joked.
In conjunction with a colleague he worked with while earning his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Grey has been fortunate enough to work on an excavation with Chapel Hill and several other universities for the past several years that meets those two challenges. The ancient village of Kuqoq on the west side of the Sea of Galilee has references that date back to Old Testament times and was inhabited until the Israeli War of Independence, at which time, the Arab inhabitants evacuated the city.
Grey’s colleague from Chapel Hill, Jodi Magness, began excavating the site after finding significant evidence in her studies that tied the site to a biblical city that would have been inhabited at the time of Christ up through the Hasmonean period. It is very likely there would be evidence of an ancient synagogue in the remains of the city. However, in approaching the dig, archeologists decided they would be very careful to not discount the evidence they found from all of the other occupation levels as well.
“We can’t arbitrarily decide what parts of the site’s history are important. They are all important,” Grey said. With that in mind, they began working in reverse chronological order, beginning with the Arab pre-1948 ruins from the village of Yaquq, and carefully recorded everything they found.
Findings from these later inhabitants included shells from Israeli military training, as well as old musket shells from the Byzantine period, coins, combs, cooking tools and other items of daily life.
As archeologists got further down into the site, they began finding evidence of inhabitants during the Roman period, including a Jewish ritual bath, olive and wine presses, rock-hewn graves and a subterranean cistern complex that doubled as a bunker for citizens during the Second Jewish Revolt.
During the third summer of excavations, the team began finding evidence of what they had been looking for all along—the ancient synagogue. After several summers of work, they have excavated a major portion of the eastern wall and found remnants of beautiful mosaic work depicting two unknown women, an inscription to the community and several Biblical scenes, including a few depicting the feats of Samson, who early Jews viewed as a type of the Messiah.
One of the most compelling mosaics came in the last few days of this year’s dig, which Grey quipped, “always happens,” in the form of a three-paneled mosaic depicting scenes that seem to be from the Apocryphal Book of the Maccabees, showing surprising diversity in early Jewish canon.
“We realized we had discovered a piece of Jewish art that hadn’t been seen in at least 1500 years,” Grey said.
The group continues to dig at Huqoq one month out of the year, usually June, and regularly releases information to the public as noteworthy finds are made.