Dr. Hill and students

Wofford students involved in significant archaeological finds

Digs in Horvat Kur, Galilee, yield basalt stone table, household pottery

Stone Table 382x255
The most "spectacular" object unearthed in the excavations in Horvat Kur, Galilee, is a basalt stone, shaped like a table, according to the co-directors of the digs.

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – An international team of students and scholars from Leiden University in Holland, the University of Bern in Switzerland, the University of Helsinki in Finland and Wofford College has uncovered a unique combination of synagogue features from the Byzantine period during excavations on Horvat Kur in the Lower Galilee region of Israel. 

The finds demonstrate the importance of the synagogue as a center of religious and community life, according to the co-directors of the archaeological dig, Leiden professor Jürgen Zangenberg; Bern scholar Dr. Stefan Münger; Helsinki docent Dr. Raimo Hakola; and Dr. Byron R. McCane, the Albert Outler Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religion at Wofford. 

The most “spectacular” object unearthed is a basalt stone, shaped like a low table and decorated with figurative elements on one side and geometric patterns on the other three sides, according to the international team of excavators. In addition, in a cistern near the synagogue, a wide array of intact late Roman/early Byzantine household pottery also was found, including many types that had never before been found complete. 

“These finds are a substantial step forward in what we know of ancient synagogues,” McCane says. “These are items that have not been found before.” 

James A. Ballard of Spartanburg, who graduated from Wofford in May, supervised the excavation of the household pottery while Thomas E. Tafel of Columbia, S.C., who also graduated in May, assisted in the excavation of the table. They are among six Wofford students who participated in the five-week dig that occurred from mid-June through last week. 

“This was an extraordinary educational experience for these students, a chance to be involved first-hand, to excavate with their own hands these significant items,” McCane adds. “This does not happen every day.”

He says all 26 students from Wofford and the three global research universities of Leiden, Bern and Helsinki “learned the art of archaeological field technique while working at the digs, and it’s because they knew how to dig carefully that we were able to make the discoveries the way we did.”

The stone table resembles a similar piece discovered several years ago at nearby Migdal, although the Horvat Kur stone is made of a different material, basalt. It was found integrated into a wall dating from the 6th century AD, but is thought to belong to an earlier phase of the synagogue building. Scholars have been divided about the function of the “stone table” from Migdal; it may have been used as a reading table or as a stand for a lectern. The Horvat Kur stone may help answer these questions, although it also may lead to entirely new lines of research, members of the team said.

Within the Horvat Kur synagogue, a stone seat with two steps leading up to it was found in situ on top of the bench along the southern wall. Excavators believe the seat probably was used by the leader of the congregation during gatherings, and they say it is the first such seat ever found on its original place in Israel. In addition, the center of the southern wall excavators found the remains of the podium, called a “bemah,” on which the torah shrine would have been placed. Several architectural fragments of the shrine were found, including a threshold in classic style, a finely decorated corbel stone, the remains of a lion relief and a rosette.

The objects found in the cistern demonstrate the “high significance of the podium in the synagogue” and help confirm “the importance of the synagogue as a center of community and religious life,” a statement by the excavators says.

Tyrell Jemison 183wideAll of the objects from the synagogue and the cistern now will be studied intensively and made available to the academic community for further research. Officials from the Israel Antiquities Authority emphasize that the discoveries will more fully illuminate the features of synagogue life in Byzantine period Galilee and will certainly stimulate the growing field of synagogue research.

The other Wofford students participating in the digs were Tyrell Jemison, Class of 2014, of North Charleston, S.C.; Nicholas Lowe, Class of 2013, of Charleston, S.C.; Erin Simmonds, Class of 2015, of Baldwinsville, N.Y.; and Rob Levin, Class of 2014, of Mount Pleasant, S.C.

The excavations are part of the Kinneret Regional Project 2012 campaign on Horvat Kur, sponsored by the University of Bern, the University of Helsinki Leiden University, and Wofford College. To find out more, go to http://www.kinneret-excavations.org/.