On March 1, Mordechai Aviam, a professor of archaeology, took a group of students to the site of the ancient Jewish village of Ein Nashut in the Galilee. He expected that the excursion might turn up some minor ancient artifacts, but he was both surprised and pleased when two students found a 62-pound stone carving of a lioness nursing her young, which apparently had been part of Ein Nashut’s 5th-century synagogue. Melanie Lidman writes:
In previous expeditions, archaeologists discovered eight fragments of carvings of lions or lionesses at the site, but this was the largest and most complete specimen discovered recently. There is one complete lion carving from Ein Nashut, which was taken from the site while the area was still under Syrian control before 1967, Aviam said. It’s now housed in a museum in Katzrin. The current carving was found a bit down the hill from the synagogue, leading Aviam to believe that it had either rolled there or someone had tried to steal it and gave up because it was so heavy.
Similar carvings, especially of lions and eagles, are well-documented at synagogues in the area during the late Roman period in 200–300 CE, and continued during the Byzantine period through 500 CE. . . . Lions roamed freely across Israel until the 13th century, alongside a number of large predators. “During a pilgrimage from the Galilee to Jerusalem, which took a week, Jews would have crossed forests and possibly met bears, hyenas, and lions and leopards,” explained Aviam.
Decorative stone carvings were more common at synagogues than churches during the Byzantine era, but lions also appeared in church decorations, usually as part of mosaic floors. However, Jewish communities were much more likely to use lion symbolism than their Christian counterparts, Aviam said.
More about: Ancient Israel, Archaeology, Golan Heights, Jewish art, Synagogues