UNC-Chapel Hill archaeologist’s dig reveals earliest known depictions of two biblical heroines, episode in ancient Jewish art


(Chapel Hill, North Carolina – July 5, 2022) – A team of specialists and students led by Professor Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently returned to Israel’s Lower Galilee to continue unearthing nearly 1,600-year-old mosaics in a former Jewish church. Synagogue of Huqoq. Discoveries made this year include the first known depiction of biblical heroines Deborah and Jael as described in the book of Judges.

The Huqoq Excavation Project is now in its 10th season after last seasons were paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Magness Project Director, Kenan Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the Carolina College of Arts & Sciences, and Deputy Director Dennis Mizzi of the University of Malta have focused this season on the southwestern part of the synagogue, which was built in the late fourth-early fifth century AD

Israelite commander Barak depicted in the Huqoq Synagogue mosaic. Photo by: Jim Haberman

This season, the project team unearthed a section of the synagogue floor decorated with a large mosaic panel divided into three horizontal bands (called registers), which depicts an episode from the book of Judges chapter 4: Victory of the Israelite forces led by the prophetess and judge Deborah and the military commander Barak over the Canaanite army led by General Sisera. The Bible tells that after the battle, Sisera took refuge in the tent of a Kenite woman named Jael (Yael), who killed him by driving a tent peg through his temple while he slept. The upper 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 seems to show Sisera seated. The lowest register depicts Sisera lying dead on the ground, bleeding from the head as Jael drives a tent peg through his temple.

“This is the first depiction of this episode and the first time we’ve seen a depiction of 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 particular resonance for the Jewish community of Huqoq, as it is described as taking place in the same geographic region – the territory of the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon.”

Mosaic depicting a fox eating grapes in the ancient synagogue of Huqoq

Mosaic depicting a fox eating grapes in the old synagogue of Huqoq. Photo by: Jim Haberman

Among the recently discovered mosaics is also a fragmentary Hebrew dedicatory inscription inside a crown, flanked by panels measure 6 feet tall and 2 feet widewho show two vases that contain sprouting vines. The vines form medallions that frame four animals eating bunches of grapes: a hare, a fox, a leopard and a boar.

A decade of discovery

Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and work continued each summer until the COVID-19 pandemic halted work after excavations in 2019. The mosaics on display over the 10 Last active seasons cover the aisles and the main hall of the synagogue.

Finds along the east lane 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 unbiblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue – possibly the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest

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

  • A panel depicts two of the spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan carrying a pole with a bunch of grapes, labeled “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 little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6)

The mosaic panels in the nave, or main hall, include:

  • A depiction of Noah’s Ark
  • The separation of the Red Sea
  • A Helios-zodiac cycle
  • Jonas swallowed by three successive fish
  • The Tower of Babel building

In 2019, the team discovered panels in the north aisle that frame animal figures identified by an Aramaic inscription as the four beasts representing four kingdoms in the book of Daniel, chapter 7. A large panel in the aisle northwest represents Elim, the place where the Israelites camped near 12 springs and 70 date palms after leaving Egypt and wandering in the desert without water (Exodus 15:27).

In the 14th century CE (the Mamluk period), the synagogue was rebuilt and enlarged, perhaps in connection with the rise of a tradition that Habakkuk’s tomb was located nearby, which became a focal point Jewish pilgrimage at the end of the Middle Ages.

“The 14th-century CE building appears to be the first Mamluk period synagogue ever discovered in Israel, which makes it no less significant than the earlier building,” Magness said.

Project sponsors are UNC-Chapel Hill, Austin College, Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto. Students and staff from Carolina and consortium schools participated in the excavations. Financial support for the 2022 season has also been 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 were removed from the site for preservation and the excavated areas were backfilled. Excavations are expected to continue in the summer of 2023. For more information and updates, visit the project website: www.huqoq.org.

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

About University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s first public university, is a global leader in higher education known for its innovative teaching, research, and public service. A member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, Carolina consistently ranks as the best value for academic quality in American public higher education. Now in its third century, the University offers 77 bachelor’s programs, 112 master’s programs, 66 doctoral programs and seven professional degree programs in 14 schools, including the College of Arts and Sciences. Every day, faculty, staff, and students shape their teaching, research, and public service to meet North Carolina’s most pressing needs in every region and in all 100 counties. Carolina’s more than 355,786 alumni live in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and 147 countries. More than 189,842 live in North Carolina.

University communication: 919-445-8555; [email protected]

Jodi Magness: [email protected]


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