Archaeology'We teach the land of Israel by hiking it'

Students on northern Israel field trip stumble onto 1,500-year-old lioness carving

Lucky group from the Kinneret Academic College led by Prof. Mordechai Aviam discovers basalt sculpture that likely adorned synagogue, and a rare 1,800-year-old coin, on same day

Students from the Kinneret Academic college help bring the 62-pound lioness carving from Ein Nashut to their bus on March 1, 2023, in the Golan Heights. (courtesy Mordechai Aviam)
Students from the Kinneret Academic college help bring the 62-pound lioness carving from Ein Nashut to their bus on March 1, 2023, in the Golan Heights. (courtesy Mordechai Aviam)

A group of students taking a class on the history of early Jewish villages in northern Israel became part of the story they were studying last week after stumbling across a 1,500-year-old carved lioness sculpture that likely adorned an ancient synagogue.

Prof. Mordechai Aviam of the Kinneret Academic College on the Sea of Galilee was leading 23 masters students on a three-day practicum called “The Jewish Village in the Golan and Galilee in Antiquity” on March 1 when they discovered the carving.

They were hiking around northern villages, and Aviam wanted the students to apply what they’d learned over the past few days.

At an ancient synagogue in Ein Nashut near the modern town of Katzrin, Aviam told the students to wander through the site on their own. The site was excavated in the 1990s by Prof. Zvi Maoz, also of the Kinneret College.

“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 and shared their findings, students Zvia Dahan and Michael Benish said they had seen a stone carved like a lioness.

“I said immediately, ‘What? Why didn’t you bring it?’ They said, ‘It’s really heavy.’”

When they showed Aviam a photo of the carving, he knew immediately it was something special. In previous expeditions, archaeologists discovered eight fragments of carvings of lions or lionesses at the site, but this was the largest and most complete specimen discovered recently.

The basalt carving of a lioness suckling her young discovered at Ein Nashut by students on a field trip on March 1, 2023, in ancient Israel. (courtesy Mordechai Aviam)

There is one complete lion carving from Ein Nashut, which was taken from the site while the area was still under Syrian control before 1967, Aviam said. It’s now housed in a museum in Katzrin. The current carving was found a bit down the hill from the synagogue, leading Aviam to believe that it had either rolled there or someone had tried to steal it and gave up because it was so heavy.

Because they were worried about the possibility of theft, Aviam and the students decided to notify the Israel Antiquities Authority and take the carving with them immediately. The IAA inspector for the region is a former student of Aviam’s, and he was just as excited to hear about it, Aviam recalled.

But the carving was made from basalt and exceptionally heavy — somewhere around 28 kilograms, or about 62 pounds, Aviam estimated. While the students debated about how to carry it, one strapping young student, Lael Maimoni, got some help hoisting it onto his shoulders and trudged uphill back to the bus with the sculpture balanced on his orange backpack.

Kinneret College student Lael Maimoni carries the carving of the lioness from Ein Nashut to their bus on March 1, 2023, in northern Israel. (courtesy Mordechai Aviam)

“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,” Aviam said.

Lions and tigers and bears

Similar carvings, especially of lions and eagles, are well-documented at synagogues in the area during the Late Roman period in 200-300 CE, and continued during the Byzantine period through 500 CE.

“They probably had meaning, not just as lions or eagles, but it was symbolic,” said Aviam, who has extensively studied ancient synagogues and churches in northern Israel.

Lions roamed freely across Israel until the 13th century, alongside a number of large predators. “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,” explained Aviam.

An example of a more complete carving of a lioness, discovered in 2017 at the El Araj site, believed to be the biblical Bethsaida. (courtesy Mordechai Aviam)

Decorative stone carvings were more common at synagogues than churches during the Byzantine era, but lions also appeared in church decorations, usually as part of mosaic floors. However, Jewish communities were much more likely to use lion symbolism than their Christian counterparts, Aviam said.

Aviam added that after a high-profile incident last week of a potsherd being identified as fake the day after its heralded announcement, he feels quite certain the lioness carving is authentic.

“Taking a block of basalt and carving it takes days and days, and you need to be very skilled to do it,” he said. “That’s a big difference from… taking a piece of pottery and scratching it with some writing.”

An exceptionally lucky group of students

The lioness carving wasn’t the only thing of note that these students found on their trip. Earlier that same day, the students visited the Majduliya archaeological site with the Kinneret College’s Prof. Mechael Osband, who is leading the excavation at Ein Nashut. As they were walking around, a student spotted something in between overgrown weeds and picked it up.

The face of Emperor Gallienus on a coin discovered March 1, 2023, at the ruins of an ancient synagogue at Majduliya in northern Israel by students on a field trip. (courtesy Mechael Osband)

“During this visit, one of the students picked up a coin from the third century, which is the latest coin found here,” said Aviam. “We have found earlier coins, but this one is from the end of the village, so it’s an important discovery itself.”

The coin featured Emperor Gallienus on one side, a Roman emperor who ruled together with his father, Valerian, from 253 to 260 CE. He was the sole emperor until 268, when he was murdered by his senior officers.

The coin likely dates from around 260 CE, just before the settlement was abandoned, Aviam said.

Exploring places of prayer in Israel’s north

Aviam has excavated many of northern Israel’s most stunning mosaics, including a church with a mosaic that is dedicated to Peter, one of Jesus’s disciples, and may have been built in the biblical Bethsaida, on the site of Peter’s home.

He’s also helped excavate a number of church mosaics in the north that were sponsored by women, leading to a radical reconsideration of the status of women in early Christianity.

This summer, Aviam, who has been digging in Israel for almost half a century, is returning to some of his favorite spots. In the spring he will participate in the ninth dig season at Shikhin, a Jewish village near Zippori that once hosted an ancient potter’s studios that created oil lamps, and the sixth season at El Araj, which could be the biblical Bethsaida.

For now, he and his students are still reveling in their discoveries from last week’s class.

“For me as a professor, to earn these points for the students, that’s why we do this,” he said. “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.”

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