Wofford College students working on an archaeological dig in Israel this summer uncovered an ancient tile mosaic under the remains of a Jewish synagogue that once overlooked the Sea of Galilee.
The mosaic was uncovered near the end of a five-week excavation that involved Byron McCane, the chair of Wofford’s department of religion, and four students.
McCane, who has lead Wofford students on archaeological digs in Israel and Jordan since 2005, said the synagogue collapsed in the early 600s, but it’s unclear when it was built.
The structure was rebuilt several times, he said.
The Wofford students — Ethan Todd, Grace DeMarco, Palmer Cantler and Ben Giddens — were tasked with digging through layers of dirt in search of artifacts.
Todd, a religion major and rising senior at Wofford, said the group found ancient nails and pottery before coming across the mosaic near the end of the dig.
Todd and Cantler found the tiles, which once adorned the floor of the synagogue and were buried under three layers of plaster, McCane said.
Earlier excavations had revealed countless out-of-place tiles, McCane said. But the intact piece was a first for the site.
Cantler said the find energized everyone.
“The entire dig group was looking over our shoulders,” she said.
It’s unclear what, if anything, the mosaic depicts.
McCane said the students were hand-selected and represent many backgrounds. While Cantler and Todd are religion majors, the other two students were biology and psychology majors.
“This is one of the great strengths of the small liberal arts colleges like Wofford,” McCane said of the undergraduates’ involvement in his research. “It’s a unique educational opportunity.”
McCane said the students were more than just observers; they were uncovering artifacts that hadn’t seen the light of day in 2,000 years.
“They’re hands-on. They’re doing the actual excavation work,” he said.
Todd said the students often began digging at 5 a.m. and worked until the heat and wind became unbearable, usually around noon. In the afternoon, the students washed the pottery they discovered and analyzed the shards in a lab.
Cantler said it was an amazing trip, both because of the dig and the opportunity to tour Israel.
“I wanted to experience something different,” she said.
Todd said he was drawn to the dig by his interest in religion and his childhood fascination with the fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones.
“Inside of us all we want to discover something,” he said. “I had to go. I was pumped.”
McCane said Todd joked for weeks about finding a mosaic and was ecstatic when he and Cantler did.
Todd said he danced after the find.
“I just wanted to find something, anything,” he said. “I felt like I was a little kid digging in a sandbox.”