Monday, January 7, 2013

Huqoq Mosaic Revealed and the Synagogue Typology Debate

Biblical Archaeology Review has featured our site, the Huqoq Excavation Project, in its December / January edition.  For the first time, the mosaic of Samson and the depiction of Judges 15 appear in print.  In the article, dig co-director Dr. Jodi Magness surveys the synagogue’s mosaic floor and gives it a historical and cultural context within the landscape of the ancient world.  This is undoubtedly the first of much ink to be spilled on the topic of the Huqoq synagogue, and it presents us with a great opportunity to delve into some current archaeological debates in which our synagogue will likely play a role.

Samson's lower half (right); two foxes tied to firebrand (left)

The first major debate is synagogue typology.  Without getting into too much detail, the debate focuses on whether or not certain types of synagogues were built during certain periods within antiquity.  Those who support a synagogue typology usually propose the following three “types” of synagogues:  Galilean built during 2-3 c. C.E., Transitional built during 4 c. C.E., and Byzantine built during 5-6 c. C.E.   These dates are largely derived from architectural and stylistic elements.  Those who oppose this typology point out that architecture and style vary regionally and were also in a constant state of flux.

It would seem to solve this debate we would merely have to turn to the ceramic and numismatic record.  Unfortunately, however, this only convolutes the debate.  Pottery and coins do appear in great quantity beneath synagogue floors, but there is no sure way to determine whether this material culture was placed there before synagogue construction or during a repair.  The most telling material culture comes from beneath foundational architecture, such as stylobates, for these would not have been removed after initial construction.  Coins especially help because they give us a concrete terminus post quem—“date after which” the synagogue must have been constructed.  Coins, however, could circulate for a hundred years of more before making their way below a synagogue, rendering even the most exact date on a coin contentious.

The traditional synagogue typology came into question in the early 1980’s with a re-examination of the synagogue at Capernaum, the hometown of the Christian apostle Peter.  Two Franciscan archaeologists (Loffreda and Corbo) argued that the 2-3 c. C.E. date of Capernaum’s synagogue was incorrect and should be pushed back to the 4-5 c. C.E.  Although the Franciscan argument for re-dating the Capernaum synagogue relied heavily on architecture, which is a methodology questioned by non-topologists, the ceramic and numismatic material corroborate this later dating (with the possibility of a even later date, as suggested by Dr. Magness).

Capernaum synagogue showing Corinthian capitals
Several archaeologists visited our synagogue at Huqoq during our excavation during the 2012 season.  Not surprisingly, each visiting archaeologist suggested a date that would further corroborate their own work and interpretation.  The dates included the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries.  Dr. Magness, being the voice of reason, cautioned us about dating something before more information could be gathered.  In upcoming seasons, we will uncover more of the mosaic and eventually dig through portions of the floor (not covered by the mosaic) in order to gather ceramic and numismatic material for dating purposes. 

Our excavation the past two seasons has been meticulous almost to the point of frustration.  The co-directors and area supervisors insistence on slower progress, however, means that we are documenting absolutely everything.  Archaeology is a destructive science—once something is removed from the ground, it can never be examined in its original context again.  The better an excavations documentation, the better archaeologists not directly involved with the dig will independently be able to interpret the data. It is the hope of all involved on the Huqoq Excavation Project that our synagogue will aid in furthering the discussion on whether or not a synagogue typology exists.

Next week, I will introduce a lesser-known debate concerning ancient Judaism’s supposed ban on images appearing in synagogues.

Anyone seeking further information on the Huqoq Excavation Project or interested in donating to help fund the 2013 season, please visit Dr. Jodi Magness’s website or drop me an email / leave a comment below.