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News From the Field: Huqoq Excavation Project, Part I

Area 2000

Located to the northwest of the Sea of Galilee is the ancient village of Huqoq—a small agricultural site that was inhabited in the biblical, postbiblical, medieval, and modern periods. Huqoq is mentioned briefly in the Hebrew Bible as belonging to the tribal lands of Naphtali (Josh 19:34, though compare 1Chr 6:75, where it is said to belong to the tribe of Asher), and archaeological surveys indicate that it flourished as a Jewish agricultural village in the late Hellenistic and Roman eras.

Huqoq is not mentioned by name in the New Testament, but its close proximity to Capernaum and Magdala places the village in the heart of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. References to Huqoq in rabbinic literature (for example, y. Shevi’it 9:1, 38c) indicate that the village continued to be inhabited by Jews in the late Roman and Byzantine periods, before it became the Muslim village of ‘Yaquq (an Arabic variation on the earlier Hebrew name) sometime in the Middle Ages. Ottoman and British Mandatory documents show that ‘Yaquq was a small Muslim agricultural village until Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, when it was abandoned; it was bulldozed in 1968.

Huqoq was an ideal candidate for archaeological excavation for several reasons: the occupational history of the site, the visible remains among the surface rubble, its current accessibility, and the fact that it was previously unexcavated. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill organized the Huqoq Excavation Project (HEP) and began excavating the site in the summer of 2011. HEP is a group effort that includes Brigham Young University, Trinity University (Texas), the University of Toronto, and the University of Wyoming. In 2011 the consortium included Wofford College, and in 2012–13, the University of Oklahoma.

The initial goals of the HEP were threefold: to locate and excavate the village’s ancient synagogue in order to clarify the dating of Galilean-type synagogues; to excavate part of the ancient village to provide a context for the synagogue and refine the chronology of local pottery types; and to preserve the history of the pre-1948 village of ‘Yaquq through excavation, archival research, and the collection of oral histories. The HEP has now completed three seasons of excavations, and already these goals are being met and exceeded in exciting ways.

During the first three seasons, excavations in the area overlying the ancient synagogue uncovered rooms and courtyards dating to the 19th and 20th centuries. The discoveries include tabuns (clay ovens); small finds such as keys, coins, and lice combs; and a 19th-century musket and musket balls, all shedding light on village life during the Ottoman period. Insights into the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq have come from excavations some distance to the east of the ancient synagogue, which have exposed numerous rooms and the central courtyard(s) of one or more domestic structures from the late Roman period and have provided large quantities of pottery and small finds that clarify the dynamics of Galilean village life in antiquity. Other features of the ancient village include miqva’ot (Jewish ritual baths), tombs, agricultural installations, and an underground hiding complex used by villagers during the First or Second Jewish Revolt against Rome.

Excavations have succeeded in locating the village’s ancient synagogue. This monumental building dates to the fifth century C.E. and was constructed of large ashlar blocks coated with a thick layer of white plaster on the interior. During the second and third seasons of the HEP, excavations uncovered portions of the synagogue’s mosaic floor, which contained biblical and possibly apocryphal scenes adorning the aisles. So far, these scenes have included portraits of female faces, a Hebrew inscription, depictions of Samson’s victories over the Philistines (the episodes of the foxes and the gate of Gaza from Judg 15-16), and a possible collage of martyr and battle scenes from 1-4 Maccabees. Needless to say, these mosaics will shed valuable light on our understanding of Jewish art and synagogue worship in late antiquity. In subsequent articles we will explore specific aspects of these discoveries and the impact they are having on the study of ancient Judaism.

  • Chad Spigel

    Chad Spigel is an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. His book, Ancient Synagogue Seating Capacities: Methodology, Analysis and Limits, was published by Mohr Siebeck in 2012.   

  • Matthew J. Grey

    Matthew J. Grey is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He is also an area supervisor for the Huqoq Excavation Project.