ASOR Boston 2017, November 15–18, Conference – Abstracts on Synagogue

The relevant abstracts that dealt with ancient synagogues at ASOR 2017 are included below:


The Synagogue at Horvat Kur

Tine Rassalle (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Rick Bonnie (University of Helsinki), and Annalize Reeder (University of Augsburg), “Architecture and Stratigraphy of the Horvat Kur Synagogue Area”
Between 2010 and 2016, Kinneret Regional Project exposed the remains of a Byzantine synagogue at the site of Horvat Kur in the Galilee. Although the architectural outline of the building is relatively clear, the structure shows many signs of construction phases and repairs, producing a complicated stratigraphy. Based on our current research, we believe that at least two different buildings can be discerned. The first synagogue building seems to have been erected sometime post-337 C.E., possibly partly built over the remains of earlier Roman houses. The floor of this rather small building was decorated with a mosaic floor. Sometime in the first half of the fifth century, the building underwent radical changes and it was considerably expanded, especially on the eastern side. The mosaic floor was replaced with a simple plaster floor. This second building, a broad house synagogue, received at least one more major renovation around 600 C.E., possibly necessitated by earthquakes. During this and other minor renovation phases, the benches, the bemah, and the floors were altered until the building finally went out of use sometime in the seventh century. In this paper, we aim to show the complex history of this communal building.


Philip Bes (Leiden University) and Dennis Braekmans (Leiden University), “Fifty Shades of Clay: Roman and Byzantine Pottery from the Horvat Kur Synagogue (Galilee, Israel)”
In this paper, and in line with KRP’s research questions, we wish to highlight our archaeological and archaeometrical data, and share our observations with regard to chronology and economic exchange. The large quantity and variety of architectural and small finds have been the focus of scientific study in tandem with the excavations. Pottery finds are particularly plentiful, and their study within the stratigraphic framework contributes significantly to the reconstruction of the synagogue’s building history, even if questions remain. In order to determine the provenance and technological background of the various ware groups, both mineralogical (optical microscopy) and chemical analyses (WD-XRF) were carried out. Results of these analyses provide clear fingerprints for comparisons with potential production areas. Preliminary results suggest that the majority of the pottery was regionally manufactured, whereas a small yet significant portion comes from as far away as Tunisia and the Black Sea. Also interesting is that a small percentage of roof tile fragments came from Cilicia. Given the detailed and comprehensive study, the pottery (as a proxy) offers insights into regionally-embedded as well as pan-Mediterranean exchange constellations. These preliminary patterns nonetheless prompt us to ask new questions with regard to socio-cultural and socio-economic connectivity and standing of Byzantine villages in this part of the Galilee.


Patrick Wyssmann (University of Bern), “The Numismatic Evidence from Horvat Kur”
During fieldwork at Horvat Kur, a large quantity of numismatic material came to light. All in all 1248 coins were found and most of them were digitally mapped. This makes it possible to reconstruct and visualize the different contexts precisely. As each and every coin was cleaned and registered, the complete record of the numismatic evidence is available now. Most of the numismatic finds are bronze coins minted at the end of the fourth century C.E. They were part of a large coin assemblage placed beneath the floor in the portico of the synagogue. Such so-called foundation deposits are a well-known, though poorly understood, phenomenon attested in numerous synagogues all over the Galilee and in the Golan. Additionally, eight gold coins minted in the second half of the sixth century C.E. are of particular interest. It is most probable that they originally formed a small gold hoard, which was hidden in the synagogue, like similar sixth century gold hoards in the region. The purpose of the paper is to give a detailed overview of the numismatic evidence and its composition. It presents the most important finds in their context and offers a possible interpretation. In addition, the significance of the coin finds for the dating of the different phases of the synagogue will be shown.


Jürgen Zangenberg (Leiden University), “The ‘Mysterious’ Stone Table and Its Functional Context in the Synagogue at Horvat Kur (Galilee)”
At the end of the 2012 season, Kinneret Regional Project (KRP) found a large, rectangular table hewn from a single piece of local basalt. The object has been published recently (Zangenberg 2016). In the same volume, Mordechai Aviam proposed that the object was “another reading table base,” and founded his hypothesis on a popular interpretation of the so-called “Magdala stone” (Aviam 2016). Did these two objects indeed have the same function, and to what extent was that function “liturgical”? In order to find a convincing answer to these questions, however, it is not only necessary to look at the form and decoration of the table; a close examination of its archaeological context is equally important. On the basis of KRP’s ongoing analysis of the synagogue’s stratigraphy, the paper will take a close look at the architectural and chronological context in which the table was found. It will become apparent that the last use of the table cannot necessarily help us identify the purpose for which the table was made in the first place. Original function and secondary use of this “mysterious object” need to be carefully distinguished.


Byron R. McCane (Florida Atlantic University), “The Mosaic Floor in the Horvat Kur Synagogue: Context and Interpretation”
This paper will describe and interpret the partially-preserved mosaic floor from the ancient synagogue at Horvat Kur. Two prominent features have aroused scholarly interest: 1) the Aramaic inscription with the name of the benefactor who endowed the floor, El’azar bar Yudan bar Susu; and 2) the depiction of a menorah with lighted lamps characteristic of the Byzantine period. Other topics for description and discussion in this part of the workshop will include: a) a close description of the floor, including measurements, tesserae, bedding, and restoration; b) the precise location of the floor within the synagogue; c) the stratigraphy of the floor, including its terminus post quem and terminus ante quem; d) the epigraphy and interpretation of the inscription, including similarities with an inscription in the synagogue at Bar‘am; e) description and interpretation of the menorah, including its relation to other Late Roman and Byzantine representations of menoroth; f) the historical context of the floor, including its similarities with a nearby Byzantine Christian mosaic floor at Tabgha. Photographs, plans, and stone-by-stone drawings will assist participants in evaluating possible answers to these important archaeological and historical questions.



Marcela Zapata Meza (Universidad Anáhuac México Sur, Magdala Center Archaeological Project) and Jordan Ryan (Wheaton College, Magdala Center Archaeological Project), “Rethinking the Layout of the Magdala Synagogue”
The discovery of the synagogue at Magdala in 2009 has provided archaeologists and scholars of early Judaism with crucial data for understanding early Roman period synagogue art and architecture. One of the mysteries of the Magdala synagogue is the location of its main entrance, whose architectural elements were not discovered in context. However, the Israel Antiquities Authority has suggested that the primary entrance was located on the west side of the building, and has reconstructed it there. The work of restoration involves interpretation, and may not always accurately represent the past exactly “as it was.” An analysis of the synagogue’s architecture, the archaeological drawings of it, and the early photos taken when the structure was first excavated in 2009 leads us to conclude that the primary entrance was located on the south side, bordering the southern east-west street. So far as we know, the whole town of Magdala is located to the southeast, and there is no clear evidence of settlement to the west. A secondary access by the west is not impossible, but the current evidence is not sufficient to support its existence. The location of the entrance impacts our understanding of the functions of the rooms on the west and south sides of the building, as well as our understanding of the architecture of the Magdala synagogue as a whole. This, in turn, should influence our broader understanding of the architecture and functions of early synagogues in general.


Acoustic Typology of Ancient Synagogues in Greater Galilee

Paul Flesher (University of Wyoming), “Acoustic Typology of Ancient Synagogues in Greater Galilee”
The acoustic character of ancient Galilean synagogues has been largely ignored in archaeological research. Interpretations of architectural remains emphasize the visual over the aural. This talk will identify three main synagogue types according to their acoustic character, examining in particular the way each one enhances speakers’ voices and/or takes steps to augments the ability of listeners to hear. First, at Gamla and other first century synagogues, speakers were placed in an open, central area equally accessible to those sitting in tiers of benches around it. Second, at Khirbet Shema and other broadhouse November 15–18 | Boston, Massachusetts ASOR PROGRAM GUIDE 2017 | 121 synagogues, speakers stood on a raised platform. Third, at Beth Alpha and similar synagogues, an apse was built into the synagogue to direct the sound of speakers’ voices towards the congregation. Each of these three designs intentionally used acoustic techniques known at the time to boost the sound that travelled from speakers to the congregation seated in the hall. During the talk, I will address acoustic phenomena in general and present calculations measuring the effectiveness of each

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