A group of masters students made not just one but two rare finds on the same day during their field trip in northern Israel last week. Prof. Mordechai Aviam and 23 of his graduate students from the Kinneret Academic College on the Sea of Galilee were visiting ancient Jewish village excavation sites in the Galilee region on March 1 when they discovered a rare coin and a basalt sculpture, possibly from a synagogue.
As part of a three-day practicum for a history course, “The Jewish Village in the Golan and Galilee in Antiquity,” Aviam had his students explore a few of the excavated villages in the north. At one ancient synagogue near the modern town of Katzrin, some of the students happened upon what authorities believe to be a 1,500-year-old sculpture of a lioness carved in basalt. The village was first excavated in the 1990s, but annual rains (and unauthorized treasure hunters) through the years can bring new findings to the surface.
“It’s a small Jewish village on a little hill, and right now, it’s surrounded by green and so beautiful,” Aviam said. “I told them, go out on your own to the site, identify the walls and buildings, write down some remarks, take photos, and come back after half an hour.”
When the students returned from their expedition, they reported seeing a sculpture.
“I said immediately, ‘What? Why didn’t you bring it?’ They said, ‘It’s really heavy.’”
They showed Aviam a photo of the piece. Other fragments of lions and lionesses have been recovered at this site, but this is the largest and most intact sculpture unearthed recently. Aviam said this lioness was discovered down the hill from the main excavation, so he wonders if perhaps treasure hunters had tried to steal it but had to abandon it due to its weight.
Aviam and the students notified the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) of the find immediately, but fearing that the piece would be stolen, they managed to cart the sculpture (which weighed over 60 pounds) back to their vehicle.
“I told them that it is a rare [finding], and I explained to them how important it is to report to the IAA whether you have to take it with you because you’re afraid someone else will take it. Or if you can’t move it, they should take a reference point. Luckily, now, everyone has GPS on their phones,” said Aviam.
Many synagogues during the Late Roman and Byzantine periods (200 to 500 years after the time of Yeshua) were decorated with carvings of lions, bears, and eagles. No one is exactly sure of the significance of the animals for the worshipping communities. Up until the 13th century, lions, hyenas, leopards, and other predators roamed Israel freely.
“They probably had meaning, not just as lions or eagles, but it was symbolic,” said Aviam. “During pilgrimage from the Galilee to Jerusalem, which took a week, Jews would have crossed forests and possibly met bears, hyenas and lions and leopards.”
The lioness wasn’t the only find of the day. Earlier, when the students were visiting the Majduliya archaeological site, a student spied something in the overgrown grass—it turned out to be a 1,800-year-old coin.
“During this visit, one of the students picked up a coin from the third century, which is the latest coin found here. We have found earlier coins, but this one is from the end of the village, so it’s an important discovery itself,” said Prof. Aviam.
The rare coin probably dates to around 260 CE, just before the village was abandoned. It features Emperor Gallienus. Gallienus ruled Rome with his father, Valerian, from 253 to 260 CE and then ruled by himself until 268, when he was murdered.
Aviam was very excited for his students and the day’s finds. “We teach the land of Israel by hiking it. They’re not sitting in class, or the library, or sitting and doing exams. They’re out hiking the land, understanding it by their own feet and hands.”