Elephants in Galilee?

Detail, elephant mosaic, from the Huqoq Exploration Project, Jod

There are many amazing characters and creatures described in the Hebrew Bible, but elephants are not among them.

Imagine the surprise of a team of archaeologists who were in the midst of their fourth summer of excavations at an ancient synagogue in Israel’s Lower Galilee when they discovered elephants in a mosaic panel where they expected only to find biblical scenes.

There on the floor of a 5th century synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq was an entire mosaic panel depicting non-biblical scenes, uncovered for the first time in 1,600 years. Until now, every other decoration archaeologists have discovered on an ancient synagogue has depicted scenes from the Hebrew Bible, as Director of the Huqoq excavations Jodi Magness from the the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) told HuffPost.

Three previous summers of excavations unearthed some fascinating but traditionally biblical discoveries, but during the 2014 dig season Magness and her team discovered an entire mosaic floor panel in the synagogue that depicted a three-part scene, which Magness said the creators likely intended as a story-telling decoration.

“The three registers probably depict a story that was meant to be ‘read’ from bottom to top,” Magness told HuffPost, “with the top register representing the culmination of the story.”

At the bottom of the panel is a depiction of a dying soldier pierced by a spear and holding a shield and a dying bull, who is also pierced by spears. The middle section shows a row of male figures dressed in ceremonial white tunics and mantles, Magness said, each framed by an arch. The central figure is elderly and bearded and holds what Magness said appears to be a scroll. The other men are young and hold swords or daggers.

At the top of the panel there are two large, bearded male figures depicted in the center. One is a Greek military commander and ruler, which Magness said is indicated by his elaborate military attire, purple cloak and corded diadem, leading a bull by the horns. The other is an elderly bearded man — apparently the same one depicted in the middle scene. To the left of the elderly man are young men in white tunics and mantles, as in the middle section. To the right of the commander is a row of soldiers and, surprisingly, battle elephants with shields tied to their sides.



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