Though the preservation and sharing of sacred space might seem to be the task of those who run churches, synagogues or mosques, Jodi Magness is responsible for the conservation of spaces and objects that were considered sacred millennia ago.
Magness is an archaeologist specializing in Palestine and Israel and a senior endowed chair in the Department of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She will give a lecture titled “Sacred Space: What Makes Jerusalem Special?” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
“As archaeologists, we not only uncover ancient remains, but we also are responsible for the preservation of the site,” Magness said. “Everything we bring to light is part of a shared world heritage. Whatever archaeologists uncover, especially in a case like Jerusalem, belongs to a heritage that is shared by everybody across the globe.”
Magness has participated in 20 Greek and Israeli excavations. Her current project is an excavation of Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Galilee.
The excavation of Huqoq began in 2011 and has revealed several late Roman-Byzantine mosaics that cover the floor of a synagogue.
In March, the discovery of a mosaic depicting an elephant and a military leader was announced in National Geographic. Alexander the Great is speculated to be the military leader.
“There is such a rich history and archeology in the Holy Land. It just doesn’t end,” Magness said. “Even though Israel is probably the most intensively explored country on Earth [from an] archaeological point of view, there’s just so much, and so much we don’t know.”
Magness’ current dig in Huqoq seeks to answer questions about the fate of Jewish communities after Christianity became the official religion of Rome, she said. While many scholars thought Jews likely suffered under these religious laws, the excavation is challenging those ideas.
“So far, [Huqoq] indicates that these Jewish communities, at least some of them, certainly continued to flourish and continued to prosper,” she said. “Our archaeological evidence indicates that there was still great diversity in Judaism [at that time].”
While it’s easier to get permission to dig in Israel than it is in many other Middle Eastern countries, the study of the region’s ancient past can help to make sense of the present, Magness said. Though the situation in the modern Middle East is not the same as it was in antiquity, Magness said the kinds of conflicts that arose in the ancient world can help to clarify those that occur today.
“When you study the past, you see that the picture was no less complex than it is today,” she said. “All throughout time, there are different people and different religions, all sometimes coexisting and all sometimes coming into conflict in this region. So in a way, the story we see today in the Middle East between the religions and the political conflicts is something that’s been going on for a very long time.”