After several years of digging and study, archaeologists are revealing an extraordinary—and enigmatic—mosaic discovered among the ruins of a Roman-era synagogue at a site in Israel known as Huqoq. Nothing like it has come to light in any other building yet known from the ancient world, experts say.It's hard enough to interpret ancient inscriptions, but interpreting ancient uninscribed decorative art is a whole other level of challenge. In this case other specialists have a completely different interpretation of the mosaic:
The scene includes elephants outfitted for battle—a detail that immediately suggests the story of the Maccabees, Judean leaders who mounted a revolt against the Seleucid Empire in the mid-second century B.C. The Seleucids, who were descendants of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, are famed for including elephants in their armies.
But excavation director Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has a different interpretation. She believes the leader of the army is none other than Alexander the Great himself. His meeting with the high priest of Jerusalem never happened, but it was a piece of historical fiction that would have been very familiar to the residents of ancient Huqoq. ...
[Karen] Britt, the art historian, agrees with Magness that the mosaic tells a story that would have held great meaning for ancient synagogue-goers. But she has come up with a different theory about what that story might be—a situation that’s not unusual as members of a research project consider the evidence from different points of view.I've heard that at least one peer-review publication on the mosaic is coming, and doubtless there will be more. Meanwhile, this article provides a good photo that specialists can start working on:
Britt and Ra’anan Boustan, a UCLA history of religion specialist who’s also [like Britt] a member of the excavation team, have spent the past two years consulting ancient literature, considering scenes of similar figures in ancient art, and visiting the ruins of synagogues around the Sea of Galilee.
They interpret the mosaic as the depiction of a Seleucid attack on Jerusalem led by King Antiochus VII (pronounced an-TIE-oh-cuss) in 132 B.C.
“I think you could make the case for a number of different interpretations,” says Magness. With the mosaic now revealed, and the likely possibilities outlined, she expects the debates to begin.Background on this particular mosaic from Huqoq is here and here. Follow the background links for some of the other ancient mosaics that have been found at the same site. And for a more recently discovered mosaic, again at Huqoq, see here.