CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – An archaeology student from Concord has helped uncover a “stunning” historical find during an excavation at an ancient synagogue in Galilee.
Megan Hynek, a 2010 graduate of Jay M. Robinson, was part of a UNC archaeological team that discovered a mosaic depicting Samson at a synagogue in Huqoq (or Hokok), Israel.
The ancient Jewish village was home to a synagogue that dates to the 4th or 5th century. During a UNC dig the previous summer, the team led by professor Jodi Magness made news around the archaeological world when they uncovered a mosaic of Samson, depicting him tying torches to foxes' tails in order to burn his enemies' crops.
When Magness announced plans for another excavation this summer, Hynek jumped at the chance to be on the team.
After weeks of hard work and meticulous excavation, Hynek found herself a witness to history.
“After last year's finds, we were hopeful that we would find more mosaics, yet when Orna [Orna Cohen, a prominent Israeli conservator] sponged away the last bit of dirt from Samson's face, so we just had a big pair of eyes staring up at us, that was special,” she said. “Besides being beautiful and well preserved, nothing like this has been found.”
The “new” mosaic, it was later determined, depicted Samson breaking the gates of Gaza, a story told in the Book of Judges in the Old Testament.
“History was being made in front of us,” Hynek said. “People ran across the site to see once we got the all-clear to come, and there was a lot of laughing and hugging.”
For Hynek, that moment of discovery must have seemed a gratifying reward for her decision to major in archaeology.
“Archaeology is … not just about understanding history. It is about discovering it, and I couldn't resist being a part of it,” she said.
“The first thing that appealed to me about archaeology is the travel involved, which is my greatest passion,” she said. “I loved that archaeology would allow me to get my hands dirty.”
Hynek had plenty of chances to get her hands plenty dirty during the four-week excavation in Huqoq that ended in June.
An archaeological excavation involves demanding and tedious work, often in harsh conditions. In Huqoq, Hynek’s days began at 4 a.m., getting to the site at 5 a.m. and working until noon before the winds made work impossible.
But for an archaeologist, the historical treasures unearthed were worth the grind.
“Each day we'd find a range of small artifacts, including pottery, glass and animal bones,” Hynek said. “The goal of my square that I worked in was to dig down to the synagogue level and find the southern wall.
“Each day would consist of taking elevations to see how far down we had gone, using large tools like picks, wheel barrows and hoes, but also using small equipment when we would come across a floor or something interesting, like a small Arab oven called a “taboon,” she said.
Hynek’s team spent most of their time working outside the synagogue itself, looking for walls. On the last day of the dig, they located the corner formed by the southern and eastern walls of the synagogue.
The team found the new Samson mosaic a few weeks into the excavation. The team determined that the mosaic depicts Samson breaking the gates of Gaza because Samson is carrying gates on his shoulders.
“We found the mosaics a couple weeks into digging, at which time everyone who was working in synagogue squares was relocated in order to allow our conservator Orna to work on properly cleaning and excavating,” Hynek said.
The team knew they were getting close to the mosaic floor when “the dirt we were sifting from the square started coming up with a lot of tesserae, the small tiles that make up mosaics.
“We identified our mosaic as Samson based on last year's find of Samson and the foxes, and this year's mosaic clearly displays the same figure with gates on his back,” she said. “The story of Samson breaking the gates of Gaza seems to be the most probable solution.”
Hynek is back in Chapel Hill after the thrilling discovery, but she’s already looking forward to returning to Huqoq next summer.
“What we've discovered is only the far eastern aisle of the synagogue,” she said. “We have no idea yet how big this structure will be or what other mosaics will be found.”