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BYU students help uncover mosaics of biblical heroines

By Ashtyn Asay - | Aug 24, 2022
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The team of BYU students working on the Huqoq Excavation Project and archaeological field school during the 2022 season are, from left to right, Serena Wilson, Calan Christensen, David Eastley, Allyson Huffmire, Jared Corbett, Lea Schade, Prof. Matthew Grey and Isaac Richards.
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The Israelite commander Barak depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic is shown in this undated photo.

Several Brigham Young University students and faculty members spent their summer in a memorable way, helping to unveil some of the first depictions of two biblical heroines in Jewish art. 

The seven students were part of a consortium of universities that works to excavate the synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq, which is located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee and was mentioned in the book of Joshua in the Bible.

BYU students and faculty have participated in this consortium every summer since 2011. The group is led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and includes students from Austin College, Baylor University and the University of Toronto.

This summer, the excavation centered on uncovering the southwest corner of the synagogue’s mosaic floor, which dates back to late- or early fifth-century C.E., and yielded a very rare find — depictions of the prophetess Deborah and the heroine Jael. 

“The panels highlight how the women helped save Israel through their gifts and intrepidity. One patch shows Deborah sitting under her palm tree, giving instructions to the Israelite general Barak to guide her people in battle (Judges 4:4-10),” reads a press release from BYU. “Below that, another patch shows Jael driving a tent stake through Sisera’s temple, taking out the Canaanite general to help Israel defeat their enemy (Judges 4:17-22).”

Matthew Grey,  a BYU ancient scripture professor, said in a press release called it a “fascinating” choice to scenes for the mosaic.

“The mosaics fit thematically with others the team has found as they’ve systematically worked their way around the floor: Samson delivering Israel from the Philistines, Noah’s Ark, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea,” he said.

According to Isaac Richards, a BYU graduate student, he and his fellow students had anticipated that they would uncover mosaics as groups had in previous years, but they didn’t expect to find anything as significant as depictions of Deborah and Jael. 

“There was a lot of anticipation of ‘what are the mosaics going to be this season,'” he said. “We were hoping we would find more significant mosaics, but I don’t think we could have imagined that it would have been this monumental.” 

Richards and the other BYU students who participated in the excavation were led by Grey, who served as an area supervisor. 

“The program was really amazing,” Richards said. “We got hands-on training in a lot of the basic archaeological fieldwork and methodology, so we got to learn how to take elevations, we got to keep a field journal, we got to learn about tags and cataloging and recording finds, and we got to just practice a lot of the hands-on work of an archaeological excavation.” 

Financial support for the consortium’s 2022 season was 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.


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