Chapel Hill’s Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones

Jan. 25, 2014 @ 10:40 AM

When she was a little girl, Jodi Magness did not dream of growing up to be a movie star.
From the time she was in the seventh grade, she says she dreamed of being an archaeologist. She made that dream come true. Today she is Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at UNC Chapel Hill, the leader of important archaeological excavations in Israel, and the author of several important books on archaeology.
All that, and still the dream she did not have came true anyway. Magness is also a movie star. She has an important role in a new National Geographic IMAX film about Jerusalem, opening next month at Raleigh’s Marbles Museum.
Here is what National Geographic says in promoting the film, titled simply “Jerusalem”:
“The film features renowned archaeologist and religious studies professor Dr. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who explains the many layers that chronicle this important crossroads of civilizations. In the film, Dr. Magness leads a group of students through an ancient water tunnel beneath the biblical-era city of Jerusalem, which conveyed water from the Gihon Spring outside the city walls to the residents of the city in the event of a siege by an invading army. She also gives audiences a tour of excavations around the Western Wall, marveling at one of the greatest feats of engineering in the ancient world.”
Each summer since 2011, as a part of UNC-CH’s study abroad program, Magness has been taking a group of students to work with her on the ongoing excavation of an ancient synagogue in the village of Huqoq (pronounced something like “hoo-coke”) near the Sea of Galilee. In 2011, after a month of digging, Magness and her students finally scraped through enough dirt and rocks to reveal they were working at the site of a synagogue. The next summer they reached the floor and found several mosaics in remarkably good condition. One featured a scene from the biblical story of Samson, from Samson and Delilah fame. Last summer her group found more, including one of Samson carrying the gates of Gaza.
These colorful mosaics attracted more attention than the coins and pottery that are the usual prizes of a successful dig. Although Magness hopes to find more of them on the floor of the synagogue when she returns to Huqoq this summer, she may be more interested in the coin and pottery fragments they find. These fragments help show the date of the synagogue’s construction, which Magness believes to have been in the fifth or sixth century A.D.
Many archeologists and historians do not agree with her. Synagogues, they say, were permitted by the Roman rulers before Constantine made Christianity the empire’s official religion in 316 A.D. Thereafter, these experts say Christian rulers prohibited the construction of new synagogues.
If the pottery and coins around the synagogue in Huqoq indicate it was built in the fifth or sixth century, Magness will have proved her point.
In the meantime, folks around Chapel Hill can take some pride in having a neighbor who is both an archeologist and a movie star.
It is like having both Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones living down the street.

Get more information about the film Jerusalem at
Find out more about Dr. Magness’s work:

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at