The elephant in the synagogue

The 5th century mosaic

The Old Testament contains many tales of wonder, but on the existence of elephants it is quite silent. So the discovery of an elephant in a mosaic on the wall of an ancient synagogue in Galilee is creating quite a stir.

- The Huffington Post

Imagine the surprise of a team of archaeologists in the midst of their fourth summer of excavations at an ancient synagogue in Israel’s Lower Galilee when they discovered elephants in a mosaic panel where they expected only to find biblical scenes.

There on the floor of a 5th century synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq was an entire mosaic panel depicting non-biblical scenes, uncovered for the first time in 1,600 years. Until now, every other decoration archaeologists have discovered on an ancient synagogue has depicted scenes from the Hebrew Bible, as Director of the Huqoq excavations Jodi Magness from the the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) told HuffPost.

Three previous summers of excavations unearthed some fascinating but traditionally biblical discoveries, but during the 2014 dig season Magness and her team discovered an entire mosaic floor panel in the synagogue that depicted a three-part scene, which Magness said the creators likely intended as a story-telling decoration.

"The three registers probably depict a story that was meant to be 'read'  from bottom to top," Magness told HuffPost, "with the top register representing the culmination of the story."

At the bottom of the panel is a depiction of a dying soldier pierced by a spear and holding a shield and a dying bull, who is also pierced by spears. The middle section shows a row of male figures dressed in ceremonial white tunics and mantles,  each framed by an arch. The central figure is elderly and bearded and holds what Magness said appears to be a scroll. The other men are young and hold swords or daggers.

At the top of the panel there are two large, bearded male figures depicted in the center. One is a Greek military commander and ruler, which Magness said is indicated by his elaborate military attire, purple cloak and corded diadem, leading a bull by the horns. The other is an elderly bearded man -- apparently the same one depicted in the middle scene. 

Because there are no stories from the Hebrew Bible involving elephants, Magness said, her team deemed the entire mosaic, which has been removed from the field for conservation, to be representative of a non-biblical story. The question is, what story was it depicting?

Read full article: Elephant Mosaic In 5th Century Synagogue Uncovered (The Huffington Post)

Photo credit: Jim Haberman/Huffington Post

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