But the find only became more exciting as scholars continued removing dirt. They exposed an inscription and another face. Then an intriguing biblical tale came into focus. It was an image of Samson tying torches to foxes' tails, an allusion to the Old Testament story in which the long-haired strongman ignited the Philistines' fields (Judges 15:4) with the help of 300 foxes, according to Matthew Grey, a BYU assistant professor of ancient scripture supervising the synagogue dig.
"Biblical images are rare in ancient synagogues. This one in particular is unique because it's Samson. You would expect David and other popular heroes of biblical legend," Grey said.
The mosaic is also noteworthy for its artistic mastery in using tiny colored stone cubes, according to project leader Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"This, together with the monumental size of the stones used to construct the synagogue's walls, suggest a high level of prosperity in this village, as the building clearly was very costly," Magness said.
BYU's involvement in the multi-year project began after Grey's arrival in Utah last year with a newly minted doctorate from UNC, where he studied under Magness.
An expert on ancient Judaic history, Magness was interested in the site because it had been occupied for centuries before the Israelis cleared out its Arab inhabitants in 1948 and bulldozed it. The site had never been excavated and had been protected by the rubble of the demolished Palestinian village, according to Grey, who participated in the inaugural excavation last summer.
Initial investigations had discovered fragments of architectural features, suggesting a grand synagogue was hidden deep under the debris. Last summer, Magness' team located the eastern wall of a monumental structure. They concluded it was a synagogue built between 300 and 600 AD. The archaeologists returned this summer in search of the building's margins, as well as the surrounding village.
Among this season's volunteers was Bozung, who had just graduated with a degree in economics and decided to go to Israel at the last minute. The team had yet to locate the synagogue's floor so they were unsure how deep it was.
"We had to move significant amounts of dirt and be sensitive to what could be down there. Bryan was pulling back the fill with a hoe. His technique was great. He didn't damage the mosaic at all," said Grey.
When Bozung discovered the floor, he quickly called Magness over. To the left of the face they found an inscription, possibly in Aramaic, that Grey believes confers blessings on those who do good deeds or heed the Commandments.
The team promptly notified Orna Cohen, a prominent Israeli conservator, to preserve what was clearly a cultural treasure. She arrived that night and invited Bozung to assist as she carefully exposed more floor over the next several days. That's when the figure of a man took shape. Identifying the figure was difficult because the face had been destroyed, but they could make out his garments and a distinct ornamental piece binding his robes. Then the foxes with burning tails came into view.
"That was immediate confirmation that, sure enough, this was Samson," Bozung said. This mosaic is only the second image of Samson discovered in an ancient synagogue. The other, recently discovered at a site a few miles away, shows the hero smiting Philistines, the Jews' enemies, with the jawbone of a donkey. This Samson wore a robe piece similar to the one worn by the Huqoq figure.
"This proves that a Jewish community in the Byzantine period found great value in the Samson story. Something about Samson killing Philistines resonated with this community," Grey said. "It helps us understand the diversity of Jewish thought and worship in this period."
At the time the mosaic was made, the region was still under Roman rule and Jews faced occasional persecution as Christianity spread around the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium.
Also participating in the excavation, which is officially licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority, are Trinity University in Texas, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Toronto.