When Gentile archaeologists and explorers began attempts to excavate the ancient sites of the Land of Israel in the 19th century, their primary interest was in finding artifacts from the era of the Hebrew Bible. It was only when Jewish archaeologists began their work in the 20th century that the remnants of the later eras came to light. Among their findings were ancient synagogues, which Lawrence Schiffman describes:
So far, in Israel alone, some 78 ancient synagogues have been excavated and another 54 are known, bringing the total of those discovered to 132. This is in addition to the ancient Diaspora synagogues that have come to light, and we can certainly expect more to be discovered and excavated.
The 6th-century Beit Alfa synagogue, located near Beit Shean [in northern Israel], displayed virtually all of the features that would be observed in numerous late Roman- and Byzantine-period synagogues. In antiquity, this synagogue was a colonnaded two-story building and included a courtyard, entrance hall, and prayer hall—the actual shul. The first floor of the prayer hall consisted of a central chamber, and on the south side was the apse that served as the resting place for the [ark] and the bimah, [a raised lectern]. The building was aligned southwest, in the direction of Jerusalem. Two inscriptions graced the synagogue. An Aramaic inscription indicated that it was built in the time of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (518 to 527 CE) and paid for by communal donations. A Greek inscription thanked the artisans who had built it.
Three scenes were beautifully preserved on the [synagogue’s] mosaic floor: (1) the binding of Isaac; (2) a zodiac with the sun, seasons, and constellations labeled in Hebrew; and (3) on the southern side facing Jerusalem, in front of the ark, a representation of an ark with two menorahs on each side and a variety of other Jewish ritual symbols. . . . While zodiac scenes were also found in Graeco-Roman art, for Jews, the clear meaning was that God created and rules over the orderly progression of time.