Frankfort native does much more than dig his job
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com August 24, 2012 1:38PM
Professor Mathew Grey and student Bryan Bozung with the Huqoq mosaic. Photo by Jim Haberman.
Updated: September 29, 2012 6:04AM
It isn’t King Tut’s tomb, the Rosetta Stone or even the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail.
But what Frankfort native Matt Grey discovered on his summer vacation in Israel could provide significant insight into biblical and postbiblical life near the Sea of Galilee.
Grey, a 1994 Lincoln-Way Central High School graduate and now assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, supervised an archaeology team this June in Huqoq that uncovered a rare mosaic floor in an ancient Jewish synagogue — a work of art that no one had seen for 1,500 years.
The mosaic, made of high-quality stone cubes, depicts two female faces with a Hebrew or Aramaic inscription that refers to blessings on those who follow God’s commandments, Grey said.
It was unearthed by Bryan Bozung, a BYU graduate who was one of many student volunteers on the dig. He had been hoeing in search of the floor when he scraped upon something. He immediately called over Grey and project leader Dr. Jodi Magness, of the University of North Carolina. As they gently cleared the area, faces emerged through the dirt.
“We just stood there looking at these human faces. Then it dawned on us that this is a significant contribution to the study of ancient Judaism,” Grey said. “This type of discovery does not happen often.”
As they continued to clear the site, another scene became evident — depicting Samson placing torches between the tails of foxes as noted in the biblical Book of Judges.
Only a few ancient synagogues were decorated with mosaic floors, even fewer had faces and fewer still featured biblical scenes. One of Samson is exceptionally rare.
“There’s only one other known image of Samson, and that’s two miles away (from this site),” Grey said. “Something about Samson resonated with them.”
Following his dreams
Born and raised in Frankfort, Grey grew up when the Indiana Jones movies were popular, and even dressed like the famous archaeologist as a kid.
He knew this was “something that doesn’t happen every day,” he said.
“You can go years and years without finding a thing,” said Grey, who has participated in a few other digs.
Never mind that he’s “not as good looking” as Indiana Jones, he said, and he’s not being chased by treasure hunters. Grey quickly realized that this detailed piece of artwork could offer fascinating insight into ancient religious practices.
Still, he conceded he was surprised at how much media attention the discovery has created.
An ancient mosaic synagogue floor is a treasure that not only archaeologists find thrilling, but Grey believes it would appeal to anyone interested in ancient Judaism or early Christianity.
“It gives us a better understanding of what that world was like, how they worshipped and connected to biblical stories in this community on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee,” he said.
It also reveals some insight about the economy of the ancient village of Huqoq.
This “very expensive” mosaic floor also revealed to his archaeological team that this must have been a wealthy village, he said.
“We thought this was a modest village. We are now rethinking the economics of this village and we are rethinking ancient synagogue artwork,” he said.
In June 2011, Grey and the team of archaeologists began the five-year Huqoq Excavation Project to excavate the remains of a pre-1948 village of Yaquq and document the history of a modern Arab village and identify the location of the ancient synagogue.
This remote site was unexcavated previously, but artifacts found on the surface dating back to a late Roman period led them to believe there was an ancient synagogue down there, Grey said.
Last year, his team found a room of a pre-1948 house, the contents of which gave them a glimpse of Palestinian village life. But days before their session ended, they unearthed the eastern wall of the ancient synagogue — two courses of massive building stones. By month’s end, they had excavated an ancient Jewish ritual bath and an underground system of tunnels and cisterns used by Jewish villagers for hiding during the revolt against Rome.
More digs, more finds
This year, they picked up where they left off.
“The discovery of the ancient synagogue was exciting. But the discovery of the tile floor was even more exciting,” Grey said. “There should be more to come.”
They plan to return to the site next June and continue digging in hopes of shedding more light on the ancient agricultural village during Jesus’ time. Huqoq was within walking distance to several prominent sites during Jesus’ life, such as Capernaum and Migdal, the hometown of Mary Magdalene.
Until then, they will share what they have learned in academic publications and discuss what it all means.
The team works on the site only during June, since most are on staff at the sponsoring universities, including BYU.
For the most part, the work of an archaeologist isn’t as romantic as that depicted in the Indiana Jones movies, Grey said.
“It’s not what you see in the movies. It’s a lot of digging and sifting through dirt. It’s a very difficult process,” he said.
So how did a boy from Frankfort end up digging along the shores of the Sea of Galilee?
As a kid, Grey said he was not a “habitual digger” and was more interested in music — the Marching Knights and Madrigals — at Lincoln-Way Central. But he also had some “very inspiring” history teachers in high school.
“I came out of high school with a love of history and fine-tuned that in college when I focused on the ancient world,” he said of his studies. As an undergraduate, he spent a semester in Jerusalem and went to an archaeological site.
“That cemented my desire to pursue archaeology,” he said.
He received a master’s degree in archaeology from Andrews University, a second master’s in Jewish studies from the University of Oxford and a doctorate in archaeology and the history of ancient Judaism from the University of North Carolina. He lives in Utah with his wife Mary, who shares his love of archaeology, and their three children.
He returns to Frankfort at least once a year, usually during Fall Fest. No matter how far he travels and how many ancient villages he rediscovers, “I still consider Frankfort home,” he said.