When a major mosaic pavement is excavated, who gets to spread the exciting news?

Illustration by Tina Guo, 2018.
The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.

Following the discovery of the elephant mosaic panel in a synagogue at Huqoq (Israel), the academic world was in need of a refresher, or even a clarifier, as scholars from many parts of the world set out to interpret the sensational find.

Before the excavation team members could publish their own findings and possible interpretations in a scholarly setting, a flurry of initial interpretations spread around the Internet (and the world) following an image of the mosaic that was briefly featured on the National Geographic Society’s website in the context of a publicity interview with Jodi Magness, the project director. It was at the start of May 2017 when Magness became aware of an academic article by Asher Ovadiah and Rosario Pierri, two scholars completely unaffiliated with the project, in which they offered their own interpretation of the Elephant mosaic panel based on the aforementioned image featured online. Well before that date, however, much discourse about the mosaic had already circulated in the news, on blogs, at conferences, and even in print publications in locations as remote from North America as Russia. Ever since a preliminary report on a section of the Elephant panel was published in JRA back in 2014 when the mosaic first began to be uncovered, Nina Braginskaya of the Russian State University for the Humanities has been persistently disseminating her research both in print and online. Her ideas were featured in at least 2 Russian anthologies and an unidentifiable number of conferences, some of them international. A number of Russian-Israeli blog and news websites have further voiced their views on what they considered the likeliest interpretations, alongside unauthorized images of the panel, quoting Braginskaya and other scholars such as Mikhail Korol.

S106cover 2
JRA S106 front cover, 2017.

These developments were the reason for JRA’s offer to publish the official Huqoq team’s report as soon as possible. It was with the aim of calling for a certain set of rules to ensure responsible behavior by scholars in the increasingly digitizing academic world that JRA consented to proceed rapidly with publication of the text in the form that its authors desired. As John Humphrey warns in JRA’s Editorial Preface to the Supplement “The Elephant mosaic panel in the Synagogue at Huqoq: official publication and initial interpretations”,

“If archaeologists working on a legal excavation have to be constantly on guard against unauthorized photographs being taken on site, or if they must decline to give initial information to the local department of antiquities or to share significant discoveries with bona fide news organisations, and must even seek to conceal important discoveries until their own scholarly publications have appeared in print, then the long-accepted norms under which excavations have always operated will be destroyed, access by visitors to ongoing excavations will be denied, and all those interested in the past will be the poorer for it” (JRA S106, p. 8).

With the intense digitalization of academic and non-academic spheres alike, establishing an “honour code” with respect to the publication of new discoveries can be particularly difficult:

“It would seem that the protocol for what other scholars may do with original material that somehow appears on a website, whether as part of a news release given to the press by those responsible for the discovery, a news release put out by the home university or other sponsoring institution of the project in question, or simply as a photograph taken on an archaeological site by a visitor without permission, has not been clearly delineated. With the demand for open access and the expectation for instant announcements of brand new discoveries, it may be time for the major archaeological bodies to draw up accepted rules of behaviour with respect to the publication rights pertaining to new discoveries” (JRA S106, p. 8).

Indeed, the line is very thin between uploading a picture online and “publishing” it, if the prevailing assumption is that once something is made publicly available, anyone is free to write his or her own academic article about it. Yet crossing this line implies threatening a long-observed principle:

“That principle is that the archaeologists engaged in an authorized excavation have both the responsibility and the exclusive legal right to provide, within a reasonable period of time, the first scholarly publication of their own discoveries.”

In the case of the brand new discovery of the Elephant panel, this principle was clearly violated.

In light of what has been occurring, JRA cynically anticipates that unauthorized parties will post a scan of the (copyrighted) supplement on the Internet as well. We ask those considering such a wrongdoing first at least to read the full version of our editorial preface, and then kindly to purchase the full book: http://journalofromanarch.com/order.

Food for thought:

  • What is your definition of a “published” image or text?
  • Is an image posted on social media to be considered “published”?
  • How can we protect the archaeologists’ rights against unauthorized photographs appearing online?
  • Is it better for archaeologists not to release photographs of their major discoveries until they have had them officially published?

Stumbling upon a treasure in the twenty-first century? Not a fairy tale.

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.

Ever dreamt of accidentally stumbling upon an ancient treasure? Well, these archaeologists carrying out a dig before the opening of a New Yorker clothing store in Croatia actually did!

Before construction of the store could begin in the town of Vinkovci, a team of archaeologists under Šime Vrkić conducted a rescue excavation during the course of which the world was greeted by a major hoard of Roman silverware sitting just 70-170 centimeters below the surface. Boasting a total of 48 items that add up to almost 34 kilograms in weight, the Vinkovci treasure compares with the largest hoards of 4th-century A.D. dining silver. Vinkovci’s counterparts include Germany’s lost Trier treasure (which weighed over 100 kg), the controversial Seuso treasure claimed by Hungary, Kaiseraugst (Switzerland’s 58 kg of silver objects), and Mildenhall (England’s collection of tableware which includes a single platter weighing 8 kg alone) – none as brand new as the Vinkovci treasure of A.D. 2012.

The Vinkovci hoard greatly complements our knowledge of Roman high dining culture, which was most sophisticated from at least the 1st century A.D. While most objects in the assemblage are meant for either dining or toilet purposes, a few of them display incredible silversmith artistry that transcends the needs of practicality–in particular, the Tantalus vessel. Completely unadorned on the outside, the vessel features an elaborate scene of a marine revel on its interior: an abundance of sea nymphs known as Nereids, naked or partially draped and wearing beaded necklaces and armlets, appear riding a variety of sea-creatures and interacting with Tritons (mythological sea messengers). The collection’s unquestionable highlight and the only known “greedy cup” from the ancient world, it is a technically sophisticated bowl that can never be filled to the brim because the liquid would “magically” disappear. Through a system of holes and tubes, the water or wine could never rise past a certain level and thus Tantalus’ perpetual punishment would continue. Inside on the bowl’s base is a sheet-metal figurine of Tantalus seated on a rock, whose mythical punishment – he was damned to spend eternity surrounded by water which would recede every time he reached down to drink – is turned into a joke because liquid, when poured into the bowl up to a certain level, would drain out through a hole in its base. Late-antique luxury dining was often expected to involve such amusements, with caprice at the expense of functionality serving to convey the host’s high status.

Pieces no less whimsical are a heart-shaped silver vessel with a dolphin handle (supposedly for serving flat fish such as flounder) and a platter with a scallop shell rim. The latter is notable not only for its 12 moulded shellfish recesses evenly spaced around the rim, but also for the loosely bacchanalian theme in the centre and other parts of the rim, featuring a hunter on horseback galloping over a dying lion, surrounded by round-eyed female busts, ferns, a standing panther, and leaping hares. What on earth does all this imagery have to do with a vessel for serving shellfish?  

As much as it is tempting to hypothesize who the treasure belonged to and why it was buried, there is not much that can actually be proven yet, unless one of the silver-gilt platters with a scene that includes a shepherd and a building is a Biblical allegory rather than a vignette of rural life. The silver-plate set was found buried in a stack, but intense building activity from the 18th century onward had resulted in the total destruction of the surrounding late Roman layers, which could have provided some context. The most credible narrative to account for what may be the first great treasure trove of the 21st century links its burial with the defeat of Valens, the Eastern Roman Emperor, by Gothic rebels in A.D. 378. For one thing, Vinkovci is where Valens was born and would have had many supporters, but also, more significantly, his defeat resulted in much unrest in this part of the empire around the Danube and Rhine. And when things go so sour, one had better hide the valuables.

Once conserved and restored, the treasure will be the jewel in the Vinkovci Museum’s displays. To gain a deeper insight into the contents of the treasure and for several photographs, see the JRA Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/JournalofRomanArch. To get access to the full scholarly article, see H. Vulic, D. Doracic, R. Hobbs and J. Lang,  “The Vinkovci treasure of Late Roman silver plate: preliminary report,” JRA 30 (2017) pp. 127-150, or to order the whole issue, go to: http://journalofromanarch.com/order.html

Food for thought: 

  • This vessel is incredibly elaborate in design as well as in the mechanism used to control the level of water. What does this elaborate vessel say about the economy at the time of its production? Can the economy of other periods in ancient or modern history be reflected in personal items such as dining vessels or toiletry objects?
  • What is your perception of this vessel? Can it be viewed as expressing both tragedy and comedy?
  • What is the significance of including Tantalus in this vessel?
  • One interesting aspect of this vessel is that the liquid “magically” disappears. This is caused by the hidden mechanism beneath the rock. Is this magical disappearance of liquid important to the observer of the vessel? Does this magical component better illustrate the punishment of Tantalus? Are there other items from antiquity or modern time that similarly incorporate a magical component?
  • How does the other marine-related decoration connect to this vessel and its function?

Is Journal of Roman Archaeology in danger of becoming Journal of Huqoq Studies…?

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.

A mosaic panel with unparalleled iconography (now popularly known as the “Elephant mosaic”) has been discovered in the 5th c. A.D. synagogue at Huqoq in Israel–but what is its imagery about? The excavation project has been in progress since 2012 and is scheduled to continue for a few more years, but will even that be long enough to arrive at a definitive interpretation of the meaning of the mosaic? The signs so far are that it will not.

With views on the iconography diverging even between the project’s director, mosaic specialists, and other team members, let alone other scholars completely unaffiliated with the project, it could take a new series “Huqoquiana” to publish every possible perspective on the significance of the mosaic. But before the quantity of scholarship on the panel explodes even further, here is an attempt to summarize the main interpretations voiced so far.

Mosaic in the eastern aisle of the Huqoq synagogue.
The panel is made up of 3 horizontal registers, with the greatest height given to the top register where two men seem to engage in a confrontation. The left-hand man, who is set precisely at the center of the panel, is rather old with white hair and beard and wears a tunic and a mantle, with his right index finger pointing upwards to the sky. Behind him (at left) is a group of armed men, similarly dressed, who are sheathing or perhaps rather drawing their swords. The right-hand man at the center, who has a reddish beard, wears a cuirass and a diadem in the manner of a king. He has a bull in tow. Behind him (at right) is a group of armed soldiers accompanied by two war elephants. The middle register shows 9 figures beneath a continuous arcade; an oil lamp set on top of each arch. At the center it seems to show the same white-bearded man, seated on a throne and holding in his lap a scroll or perhaps rather a codex. To his right and left stand presumably the same or similar unbearded men as appear in the top register, a total of eight. Each has a sheathed sword at his side and wears a white tunic and mantle decorated with gammadia, as they look towards the seated man. The bottom register shows the end of a battle, including a fallen soldier and a fallen war elephant with its rider, and a speared bull. For a more detailed description, see JRA S106. Photograph: Elephant panel at Huqoq, detail of encounter between white-haired leader and a Greek monarch (?) in the top register (courtesy J. Magness; Jim Haberman, photographer).

A biblical scene? As part of the decoration of the floor of an ancient synagogue where six other Biblical panels have already been found, narratives from the Hebrew Bible are the default option. But when the authors of S106 K. Britt and R. Boustan further explore such a possibility, it proves challenging to find a plausible enough narrative. The most promising interpretation, in their view, would center around the figure of Abraham. The portrayal in the mosaic bears striking resemblance to some depictions of him in Christian mosaics, as shown in his encounter with either Melchizedek or Abimelech. These narratives both share “the theme of powerful outsiders coming to recognize and even bless a representative of the God of Israel” (S106, p. 44), which seems to match the sentiment behind the Huqoq panel’s top register. The Biblical scene would then be set anachronistically within a Greek or Hellenistic historical context. “Given the movement in the narrative from bloody conflict to mutual recognition and exchange”, the team members argue, “our panel might reflect one such episode, during which the patriarch, having established his military dominance, forges an alliance or covenant with a non-Israelite king through an act such as shared sacrifice.” Ultimately, this interpretation founders, they believe, because the Biblical narratives not only include numerous elements absent from the panel, but also do not account for many of the specific details that are present in the panel.

JRA has recently received, and intends to publish in 2018, an article from another pair of scholars. They identify the scene as a (different) classic story from the Hebrew Bible.  

A “Maccabean” interpretation? A second possibility is that the panel might refer to the mounting conflict between the Judaeans and the Seleucid kingdom under Antiochus IV Epiphanes during the late 170s and 160s B.C, a period during which the Judaeans were subjected to religious repression by Greek rule. According to Britt and Boustan:

“Among the most promising aspects for interpreting the mosaic as a depiction of episodes from, or traditions about, the period of the Maccabean Revolt is its emphasis on various stages of military conflict and negotiated peace between the people of Judaea and the Seleucid king or his representatives. Moreover, armored Indian elephants frequently appear in narratives about attempts by the Seleucid military to subdue Judaea and Jerusalem. Lastly, for political, economic and religious reasons Jerusalem and its temple served as the focal point of the conflicts. By the Maccabean interpretation, the youths in the top register would represent members of the Maccabean family, their military forces or other pious Jews preparing to enter battle against the Seleucids, who are depicted as a Macedonian-style phalanx with their war elephants massed behind their king or general. This hypothesis might also explain the 9 lamps set over the arches in the middle register: they could be related to the practice of kindling Hanukkah lights to commemorate the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. Alternatively, […], the white-robed youths and the older man might represent those martyred during the Revolt” (S106, 45-46).

A slightly different interpretation relating to the Maccabean legends was proposed by Asher Ovadiah and Rosario Pierri in an article originally submitted to Liber Annuus, but never quite published.

Nina Vladimirovna Braginskaya, a Classics scholar at the Moscow State University for Humanities, has published a separate Maccabean interpretation of the Huqoq panel, according to which the narrative served to convey historical background to the Hanukkah tradition. If she is correct, the mosaic must be depicting a battle between the Maccabees and the Seleucids, with the spotlight falling on the middle register which Braginskaya considers “the most important one due to its centrality” (in Braginskaya and Tuval, edd., p. 545).  

Alexander the Great meeting a Jewish high priest? The argument favored by the project director Jodi Magness was featured in the Daily Mail and the National Geographic, and is now referred to in more detail in S106, pp. 9-11 and 48-61. Indeed, this has been by far the most publicized interpretation. The heightened publicity is not surprising considering that the panel would become the first of its kind to depict the encounter between the Macedonian and Jewish leaders.  The story of Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem and his encounter with the high priest Jaddus circulated widely in multiple languages and across a range of cultural contexts, Jewish as well as non-Jewish. Since it has proven difficult to fix the date and provenance of the story itself, with suggestions ranging from the early Hellenistic period to the middle of the 1st c. A.D., and Alexandria and Palestine being equally likely venues, most scholars have concluded that the episode is legendary. Examining textual accounts of the encounter between Alexander the Great and a high priest, the authors of S106 consider two narrative traditions, the first dictated by Josephus’ Antiquities, and the second by Rabbinical literature. According to Magness, the panel would present the glorified tale of Alexander’s piety as he recognized the Jewish god and offered him a sacrificial bull, with the middle register showing Jaddus waiting for Alexander at the city gates.

A Seleucid king meeting a Hasmonean leader? The fact that Hellenistic kings asserted their power and legitimacy through visual links with Alexander the Great, referred to as the imitatio Alexandri phenomenon, is both good and bad news. The bad news: it raises the problem of how in a late-antique mosaic one can identify any particular ruler who might be depicted in that kingly tradition. The good news: it raises the possibility of looking for a parallel encounter set at a later date. “Since it was the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties that exercised control over regions with significant Jewish communities”, the authors of S106 argue, “we can reasonably focus on events involving these two dynasties” (S106, 63). Britt and Boustan thus favour the view that the upper register shows a truce between the Seleucid king Antiochus VII and the Judean king Hyrcanus I, following the former’s invasion of Judea. The episode is recorded in Josephus. The middle register would depict Hyrcanus and his fighters standing to protect the city, while the lower register would show the actual hostilities prior to the truce. In this manner, they read the panel from bottom to top.

Alternative views. Detailed arguments against the interpretation presented in S106 have been raised by two articles recently submitted to JRA that will be published in 2018. One of those argues that the mosaic depicts an historical event in the High Imperial (Roman) period, identifying the main right-hand figure in the top register as a Roman emperor.

Further discussion. An anonymous referee for S106 remarked that one should try first to read what is actually on the mosaic, in which case the dominant element should be the young men standing triumphantly under the arcade, above the dead bodies of their enemies. It is important to analyze all pieces of the panel together rather than individually, and not have to explain away the parts that do not seem to fit a particular historical scenario. One needs to recognize the local intent and accept that we cannot understand an ancient work of art better than the audience for which it was intended. As Britt and Boustan remark in quoting Kevin Butcher, a fruitful approach would imply accepting that “Symbols of identity tend to be addressed to those who are best equipped to understand their nuances” (S106, 81).

Food for thought:

  • In which direction do you think the panel should be read? Reading the three registers from top to bottom or from bottom to top? Should the middle register (depicting the young men with their leader) be identified as the dominant panel? In that case, what would be the implications for the lamps set on top of the arcade?
  • Is the white-haired leader in the top register exchanging money or is he holding something else in his hand?
  • If the top register shows Alexander meeting the High Priest, how do we explain the central register with the arcade?
  • Is there a relationship between the animals depicted in the top register and those in the bottom register? Is it the same bull in both registers? Do the two registers work together or is the lower frieze more decorative or symbolic? Is the bull in the top register smiling/grinning? Is the bull there to be sacrificed or for some other reason?
  • Are the elephants (the most remarked-upon aspect of the mosaic) actually a “red herring” distracting us from reaching the correct interpretation of a particular legendary or historical event?
  • Is it possible or even plausible that a 5th-century A.D. mosaicist would have included anachronistic details in the rendering of Biblical scenes and historical characters? In other words, does the depiction of costume, weapons and elephants etc necessarily point to a Greek/Hellenistic army as central to the episode being shown?
  • Are we today sufficiently knowledgeable about which written sources were most important to the members of a late-antique Galilean synagogue that we will ever be able firmly to identify the scene?