Rare mosaic depicting Noah’s Ark discovered in ancient synagogue

Experts have unearthed stunning mosaics depicting Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea during the excavation of an ancient synagogue in northern Israel.

The mosaics were found on the nave floor of the synagogue in Huqoq that dates back to the fifth century when the area was part of the Roman Empire. In addition to the ark, pairs of animals that include elephants, leopards, donkeys, snakes, bears, lions, ostriches, camels, sheep and goats are depicted. The vivid depiction of the Red Sea’s parting shows Pharoah’s soldiers being swallowed by a large fish, surrounded by overturned chariots with horses and chariot drivers.

Noah Ark Moasic

Archaeologists working on the Huqoq Excavation Project, which involves the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto, discovered the mosaics last month.

“There are many ancient synagogues from the late Roman Period that do have mosaic floors and sometimes even figured scenes like Biblical stories but there are no other ancient synagogues with the kind of content that we have depicted in our Huqoq synagogue,”  Excavation Director and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor Jodi Magness told FoxNews.com. “The scenes of Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea are very, very rare.”  “The quality of our mosaics is very high - that’s also significant,” she added.

The Huqoq site, which is closed to the public, offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s lower Galilee.

Noah’s Ark mosaics have been found at ancient synagogues in Jerash, Jordan, and Mopsuestia, Turkey, while the Red Sea parting has been depicted at Khirbet Wadi Hamam in Israel and Dura Europos in Syria. However, the high level of craftsmanship in the Huqoq mosaics is particularly notable.

“We see here evidence of a very prosperous village with lots of wealth and the ability to pay for a very beautiful mosaic and a very large building,” Magness told FoxNews.com. “There’s a very widespread view that Jewish communities suffered and declined when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century – this runs counter to that view.”

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled, according to statements released by the University of North Carolina and Baylor University. Further excavations at the site will continue next summer. Noah Ark Moasic 2

Excavations at Huqoq began in 2011, and the first mosaic was discovered the following year. Notable mosaics unearthed at the site include Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders, which was discovered in 2013. The first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue, which may show the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priests, was excavated in 2013 and 2014.

Other artifacts discovered at Huqoq include pottery and coins. "The coins, alongside the ceramics provide crucial information on the occupation of the monumental synagogue and associated village, and greatly inform the debate regarding the chronologies of synagogues like these in this region,” explained Nathan Elkins, assistant professor of art history at Baylor University and the project’s coin specialist, in an email to FoxNews.com. “Our coin finds have spanned approximately 2,300 years attesting to the long and varied history of the village."


Discovery of Philistine Cemetery

(NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC) — An unrivaled discovery on the southern coast of Israel may enable archaeologists to finally unravel the origins of one of the most notorious and enigmatic peoples of the Hebrew Bible: the Philistines.

An unrivaled discovery on the southern coast of Israel may enable archaeologists to finally unravel the origins of one of the most notorious and enigmatic peoples of the Hebrew Bible: the Philistines.

The discovery of a large cemetery outside the walls of ancient Ashkelon, a major city of the Philistines between the 12th and 7th centuries B.C., is the first of its kind in the history of archaeological investigation in the region. (Read more about ancient Ashkelon.)

While more than a century of scholarship has identified the five major cities of the Philistines and artifacts distinctive to their culture, only a handful of burials have been tentatively identified.

Simply put, archaeologists have found plenty of pots, but very few people.

Philistine Cemetary

Now, the discovery of a cemetery containing more than 211 individuals and dated from the 11th to 8th centuries B.C. will give archaeologists the opportunity to answer critical questions regarding the origin of the Philistines and how they eventually assimilated into the local culture.

Until this discovery, the absence of such cemeteries in major Philistine centers has made researchers' understanding of their burial practices—and by turn, their origins—"about as accurate as the mythology about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree," says Lawrence Stager, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Harvard University, who has led the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon since 1985.

"The search [for a cemetery] became so desperate that archaeologists who study the Philistines began to joke that they were buried at sea like the Vikings—that's why you couldn't find them," explains Assaf Yasur-Landau, an archaeologist at Haifa University and co-director of the Tel Kabri project.

The Philistines are among the most notorious villains of the Hebrew Bible. This "uncircumcised" group controlled the coastal region of modern-day southern Israel and the Gaza Strip and warred with their Israelite neighbors—even seizing the Ark of the Covenant for a time. Among their ranks were the devious Delilah, who robbed Samson of his strength by cutting his hair, and the giant Goliath, who made King Saul's troops tremble in their tents until a young man named David took him down with a slingshot.

In the archaeological record, the Philistines first appear in the early 12th century B.C. Their arrival is signaled by artifacts that belong to what Stager calls "an extraordinarily different culture" from other local populations at the time. These include pottery with close parallels to the ancient Greek world, the use of an Aegean—instead of a Semitic—script, and the consumption of pork (as well as the occasional dog). Several passages in the Hebrew Bible describe the interlopers as coming from the "Land of Caphtor," or modern-day Crete.

Many researchers also tie the presence of the Philistines to the exploits of the Sea Peoples, a mysterious confederation of tribes that appears to have wreaked havoc across the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age, in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. A relief in the mortuary temple of pharaoh Ramses III depicts his battle against the Sea Peoples around 1180 B.C. and records the names of several of the tribes, among them the Peleset, who are featured with distinctive headgear and kilts.

Around this time, the Peleset may have settled in or around Ashkelon, which had already been a major Canaanite port on the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. They also set up rule in four other major cities—Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza—and the region became known in the Hebrew Bible as the land of the Palestu, the origin of the modern term "Palestine."

The homelands of the Sea Peoples are also elusive, and researchers who associate the plundering Peleset with the Philistines think the cemetery finds may help provide answers to that archaeological mystery as well.

"I was once asked, if someone gave me a million dollars, what I would do," says Eric Cline, an archaeologist at George Washington University,National Geographic Society grantee, and author of a recent book on the Sea Peoples and the end of the Bronze Age. "I said, I'd go out and look for a Sea Peoples' site that explains where they came from, or where they ended up."

"It sounds to me like [the Ashkelon team] may have just hit the jackpot," he adds.

Other experts believe the origin of the Philistines is more complicated.Aren Maeir, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University who has directed excavations at the major Philistine city of Gath for two decades, sees them as more of an "entangled" culture, with various groups of people from different regions in the Mediterranean—including pirate-like groups—settling down over a period of time with the local Canaanite population.

"Finding the Philistine cemetery is fantastic because there are so many questions regarding their genetic origins and their interconnections with other cultures," says Assaf Yasur-Landau.Philisine Cemetary 3

The majority of archaeological and textual evidence has pointed to a Philistine homeland somewhere in the Aegean, but until the discovery of the cemetery in Ashkelon there were no human remains from indisputably Philistine sites for researchers to study.

While the Leon Levy Expedition has been excavating Ashkelon since 1985, it wasn't until a few years ago that a retired employee of the Israel Antiquities Authority told the expedition team that he recalled uncovering Philistine burials outside of the city's north wall during a construction survey in the early 1980s.

In the 2013 excavation season, archaeologists decided to dig some test pits in the area around the wall and kept coming up with nothing. By the end of the final day of digging, with 30 minutes left until the backhoe operator announced he would drive off, Adam Aja, assistant curator at Harvard's Semitic Museum and the excavation's assistant director, found himself staring into an empty pit roughly 10 feet (three meters) deep. Frustrated, he insisted that the digging continue until they hit bedrock.

Instead, they hit what looked like fragments of bone. Aja was lowered into the pit in the bucket of the backhoe to investigate, and picked up a human tooth. "When I saw the tooth, I knew that was the moment when it was all going to change for us here," he recalls.

The investigation of the cemetery continued up through the project's final excavation season, which ended on July 8 of this year with the recovery of the remains of more than 211 individuals.

The excavations revealed a burial practice that is very different from that of the earlier Canaanites or the neighboring Judeans. Instead of laying a body in a chamber, then collecting the bones a year later and moving them elsewhere (a "secondary" burial), the individuals buried in the Ashkelon cemetery were buried individually in pits or collectively in tombs and never moved again. A few cremation burials were also identified.Philistine Skull

Unlike the Egyptians, the Philistines deposited very few grave goods with each individual. Some were adorned with a few pieces of jewelry, while others were buried with a small set of ceramics or a tiny juglet that may have once contained perfume.

The remains of the very few children found in the cemetery were deliberately buried under a "blanket" of broken pottery pieces. The archaeologists say that it is too early to determine whether these burial practices have concrete ties to cultures in the Aegean.

An international team of researchers is currently conducting DNA research, isotopic analysis, and biological distance studies to determine the origin of the population of the Ashkelon cemetery, as well as their relation to other groups in the area. Since the majority of the burials date to at least two centuries after the initial arrival of the Philistines—which may have involved generations of cultural exchange and intermarriage—direct insights into their original origins may be complicated.

"From our standpoint, [the excavation] is just the first chapter of the story," says Daniel Master, an archaeology professor at Wheaton College and the Leon Levy Expedition's co-director. "I've been at Ashkelon for 25 years, and I guess it's just the beginning."

While some other Philistine cities were destroyed in the late ninth to eighth centuries B.C., Ashkelon thrived until its destruction at the hands of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar in 604 B.C. The city was ultimately reoccupied by the Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Crusaders, and was ultimately wiped out by the Mamluks, Egypt's Islamic rulers, in 1270 A.D.

The archaeologists are capping off three decades of excavation this year with an Ashkelon retrospective at the Israel Museum that opens on July 11. "There couldn't be a better way to end this excavation," says Stager, referring to the fortuitous cemetery discovery. "It's marvelous."

But there are still years—if not decades—of research ahead on the artifacts from the recently discovered and completely unanticipated Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.

"So much of what we know about the Philistines is told by their enemies, by the people who were fighting them or killing them," says Master. "Now, for the first time at a site like Ashkelon, we'll really be able to tell their story by the things they left behind for us."


Noah’s Ark Mosaic Uncovered

Mosaics depicting prominent Bible scenes were uncovered during annual excavations of an ancient synagogue in Israel's Lower Galilee.

During the excavation in June, archaeologists found two new panels of amosaic floor in a Late Roman (fifth-century) synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village. One panel showed Noah's ark with pairs of animals, such as lions, leopards and bears. The other panel depicted soldiers being swallowed by large fish, surrounded by overturned chariots in the parting of the Red Sea.

Such images are extremely rare for the time period, according to excavation director Jodi Magness, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose work was funded by the National Geographic Society. [Photos: Unusual Mosaics Decorated Ancient Synagogue in Israel]

Noah Ark Mosaic

"I know of only two other scenes of the parting of the Red Sea in ancient synagogues," Magness told National Geographic.

"One is in the wall paintings at Dura Europos [in Syria], which is a complete scene but different from ours — no fish devouring the Egyptian soldiers," Magness said. "The other is at Wadi Hamam [in Israel], but that's very fragmentary and poorly preserved."

The ark scenes are also uncommon; Magness said she knows of only two other mosaics showing such depictions.

Along with a team of university scholars and students, and the Israel Antiquities Authority, Magness has excavated at Huqoq since 2012. Previous mosaic discoveries have depicted Bible scenes such as Samson and the foxes and Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders.

The Huqoq excavations revealed the first nonbiblical mosaic found in an ancient synagogue. That three-tiered mosaic included a scene showing a meeting between two important male figures, thought to be the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.

These previous discoveries were uncovered in the synagogue's eastern aisle, and the researchers were uncertain whether the mosaics would continue into the nave, the large central area of the synagogue. However, the excavations did, indeed, reveal the Red Sea and Noah's ark mosaics.

"This panel is exactly as it should be," Magness said of the ark mosaic. "It's facing north, so people could see it as they entered from the south," where the main door would have been located.

Excavations at this site also uncovered coins spanning 2,300 years.

"The ancient coins … are critical for our knowledge of the monumental synagogue and the associated village," Nathan Elkins, a member of the research team and a professor of art history at Baylor University, said in a statement.

As is the case after each excavation season, the researchers will remove the uncovered mosaics for conservation and backfill the excavated areas. Excavations are scheduled to continue in the summer of 2017. 

Original article on Live Science.