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Digging into history: Local students help uncover ancient mosaic in Israel

Jennifer Sprouse • Aug 5, 2013 at 7:18 AM

“You feel like a kid playing in the sandbox,” Palmer Cantler, a junior religion major at Wofford College said while describing the archaeological dig she went on this summer in Israel.

Native to Johnson City, Cantler said she and three of her classmates — Ethan Tood, Grace DeMarco and Ben Giddens — went with Dr. Byron McCane, the chair of Wofford’s religion department, to Jerusalem on June 9 for a five-week dig of an ancient Jewish synagogue.

“Dr. Byron McCane ... leads a group of students every summer on an archaeology dig, usually in Israel. This year I was lucky enough to be chosen to go on the dig,” Cantler said. “We spent five weeks in Israel, spent the first week kind of touring Jerusalem and some archaeology sites near Jerusalem and then went to the Sea of Galilee and spent four weeks there participating in an archaeology dig.”

Getting up at 4 every weekday morning, the group from Wofford would be at the dig site by 5:15 a.m. with others participating in the excavation from the University of Helsinki in Finland, University of Leiden in Holland and University of Bern in Switzerland.

Cantler said the morning would consist of digging around in the exposed earth, and then after lunch the group would wash, sort and classify the finds from the day. Cantler said she and Todd, from Kingsport, had been working in one area of the site with a Finnish woman, who came across a section of what the group would come to find out was a complete, intact piece of a mosaic floor.

“We (Cantler and Todd) had been working in that area for a week and a half already, so we helped excavate and expose the mosaic,” Cantler said. “After finding tesserae — which are the individual pieces of a mosaic — for four weeks straight, it was really exciting to find one big piece. It was very exciting, just because as soon as we found it, we were calling ... the big names and the leaders of our dig over to kind of check it out. Once we figured out what it was, everyone was standing over top of our shoulders looking down, pointing out, taking pictures of something we hadn’t seen before.

“From what we could tell, it was all one color ... and it was just a traditional floor. It was really cool to have to get down, just nose to the dirt, and use dental tools to scrape back the dirt and reveal something that hasn’t ... seen the light of day in hundreds of year,” she said.

Cantler said the synagogue excavation site called Horvat Kur, meaning “the remains of Kur,” was believed to have been very domestic and said the complete tile mosaic is the only example of a complete find in the entire site. She said the synagogue, situated near the Sea of Galilee, was said to have collapsed in the 600s, a time when two big earthquakes were said to have rocked the ancient area.

“This is the first complete section of ... Horvat Kur that has been excavated and it’s a complete synagogue,” she said. “We know it was a synagogue or a public building, just based off of things like the ceiling tiles and ... that it was a very thick plaster floor and the structure. It was where the village was located, so it’ll be cool in future years to see how the synagogue is related to domestic life and kind of figure what these people were like.”

Unsure of exactly how old the mosaic is, Cantler said the site “is from the Byzantine period, which is about 400-800 C.E.”

Wanting to visit the Holy Land, but not necessarily wanting to do or see traditional tourist destinations, Cantler said her wish came true, as she was able to really dive into the biblical and historical significance of other sites in Israel.

While a career in archaeology is probably not in the cards, Cantler said she would like to someday return to the dig site at Horvat Kur.

“I’m really excited to hear about what the future of Horvat Kur and our site might be and so 20-30 years down the road, I would love to be able to travel over there again and maybe bring my family with me and be able to say ‘This is what I did. This is something that was untouched by humans for hundreds and thousands of years. This is something that I helped unearth,’ ” she said.

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