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New Mosaics Discovered in Synagogue Excavations in Galilee

Huqoq Theatre Mask
photo credit: Jim Haberman
This press release on the 2015 excavations at Huqoq (Israel) was first published on Dr Dennis Mizzi (Department of Oriental Studies, University of Malta) is an area supervisor and in charge of the publication of the stone and metal artefacts from the site.

Excavations this summer in the Late Roman (fifth century) synagogue at Huqoq, an ancient Jewish village in Israel’s Lower Galilee, have revealed stunning new mosaics that decorated the floor.  

The Huqoq excavations are directed by Professor Jodi Magness of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-directed by Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority. 

Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and work has continued each summer since then.

A mosaic discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle in 2013 and 2014 depicts three horizontal registers (strips) containing human and animal figures, including elephants. The top register, which is the largest, shows a meeting between two men, who perhaps are intended to represent Alexander the Great and a Jewish high priest. It was the first time a non-biblical story had been found decorating any ancient synagogue.

This summer, additional portions of this mosaic were uncovered, as well as the rest of a mosaic immediately adjacent to it, which is connected with a Hebrew dedicatory inscription that was uncovered in 2012. 

New digging has revealed that the inscription is in the centre of a large square panel with human figures, animals and mythological creatures arranged symmetrically around it, Magness said. These include winged putti (cupids) holding roundels (circular discs) with theatre masks, muscular male figures wearing trousers who support a garland, a rooster, and male and female faces in a wreath encircling the inscription. Putti and masks are associated with Dionysus (Bacchus), who was the Greco-Roman god of wine and theatre performances, she said.

This summer’s excavations also brought to light columns inside the synagogue that are covered with plaster and painted ivy leaf designs. 

“The images in these mosaics — as well as their high level of artistic quality — and the columns painted with vegetal motifs have never been found in any other ancient synagogue,” Magness said. “These are unique discoveries.”

In 2012, a mosaic showing Samson and the foxes (as related in the Bible’s Judges 15:4) was first discovered in the synagogue’s east aisle. The next summer, a second mosaic was found that shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3).
“It is not clear if there is a thematic connection between the Samson scenes and the other mosaics in the east aisle,” Magness added.

Sponsors are UNC, Brigham Young University in Utah, the University of Toronto in Canada and the University of Wyoming. Students and staff from UNC and the consortium schools participated in the dig. Financial support for the 2015 season was also provided by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council and the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, and the Loeb Classical Library Foundation.

The mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled. Excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2016.


03 July 2015

Prestigious Appointment for Professor Godfrey Baldacchino

At its latest meeting held at Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland, the Governance Committee of RETI - the excellence network of island universities - appointed Professor Godfrey Baldacchino as the Head of its Scientific Board. 

The current members of the Scientific Board are Dr Jim Randall (University of Prince Edward Island, Canada), Ms Linda Stewart (University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland, UK), Professor Ioannis Spilanis (University of the Aegean, Greece) and Professor Baldacchino.

With 26 universities (including the University of Malta) currently as its members, RETI (Reseau d'Excellence des Territoires Insulaires) was set up following the initiative of the University of Corsica, France, in 2010. It promotes cooperation amongst small island-based universities and institutes of higher education.

A RETI symposium and school focusing on island tourism is planned to be held in Valletta in November 2016, with the University of Malta's Centre for Labour Studies and the Institute for Tourism, Travel and Culture as hosts.

Further information on RETI at

Governance Committee of RETI
RETI Governance Committee meeting in progress; Prof. Baldacchino is second from left.


30 June 2015

University of Malta-led study pins down the real culprit of childhood motor neuron disease

Scientists at the University of Malta and the Institut de Génétique Moléculaire de Montpellier (CNRS/Université de Montpellier) have shown that fruit flies and brewer’s yeast, which are genetically and biologically similar to humans, can reveal clues about the cause of Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), the most common genetic killer of infants.

SMA is a devastating neuromuscular disorder that robs children of their ability to walk, eat, or breathe. Mostly caused by an inherited flaw in the Survival Motor Neuron (SMN) gene, SMA is presently without a cure. A key reason is the lack of detailed information on the workings of the SMN protein, in living organisms.

Using extensive genetic manipulations, the research team found that SMN forms an alliance with a set of diverse proteins known as Gemins. So incredibly fragile is this alliance that it can be broken if the perfect balance in protein levels is upset. The consequences are catastrophic and range from lethality to flies with muscles that are too weak to support flight. The breakthrough discovery, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE, strengthens the fight against SMA.

'Our study is the first to show that the special relationship between SMN and Gemins exists in a living model system,' said the study’s lead author Dr Ruben Cauchi, a senior lecturer at the University of Malta Faculty of Medicine & Surgery. 'Furthermore, what we see in Game of Thrones is intriguingly true in cells. Upsetting the delicate balance of power leads to grave repercussions,' he added with a smile.

SMN in partnership with Gemins is thought to have a role in assembling the constituents of the gigantic machine that edits messenger RNA, the genetic mail carrier of instructions for building proteins. Whether a fault in this process is to blame for the neuromuscular problems experienced by patients is still an open question.

Cauchi’s team recently showed that a selective deficiency of Gemins within the motor system results in manifestations that are reminiscent of those uncovered when SMN levels are reduced. These findings coupled with those in the present study, indicate that a collapse of the SMN-Gemins alliance is responsible for SMA.

Right now the researchers are hunting for friends and foes of the alliance mostly because these open lines of therapeutic attack. 'Current therapies in development for SMA are based on boosting SMN levels. Broadening the therapeutic targets is essential for an effective treatment. Model organisms hold the key for the successful implementation of this strategy,' remarked Dr Rémy Bordonne, CNRS Principal Investigator and study co-author.

The study entitled 'Genetic Interactions between the Members of the SMN-Gemins Complex in Drosophila' by Rebecca M. Borg, Rémy Bordonne, Neville Vassallo & Ruben J. Cauchi was funded by the University of Malta Faculty of Medicine & Surgery Dean’s Initiative, the Malta Council for Science & Technology through the National Research & Innovation Programme 2012 (R&I-2012-066), the Embassy of France to Malta, and a Malta Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship (part-financed by the EU’s European Social Fund). The paper can be obtained online.

The real culprit of childhood motor neuron disease
University of Malta-led study bolsters the fight against SMA, the leading genetic killer of newborns.


30 June 2015

Europe's World

Europe’s World is the only independent Europe-wide policy journal, produced in association with some 100-plus leading European think tanks and academic institutions. Since its launch in 2005 it has become the premier ideas platform for new thinking on political, economic and social issues, read by over 100,000 of the most influential decision makers and opinion formers across Europe.

Published every 4 months, Europe’s World’s objective is to stimulate the much needed debate over topical policy issues by encouraging citizens and stakeholders within civil society, media, academia, business and government, to engage in a series of genuine and informed political debates which reach beyond the Brussels village.

To date over 300 authors, including Heads of State, corporate chiefs, top academics, leading NGO activists or policymakers, have contributed articles, firmly cementing Europe’s World’s reputation as a platform for new thinking and ground-breaking ideas.

Europe’s World’s newly extended website,, is designed to further promote debate on the policy challenges facing Europe. It spans articles and reactions to articles published in Europe’s World, but is not limited to the journal since it also features studies and reports from think tanks throughout Europe.

Its aim is to give readers direct access to the latest in policy thinking across the EU, and encourage visitors to submit their own reports and comment on any of the contributions featured on the website. 


06 November 2009

Professor Louis F. Cassar Appointed President of CIHEAM Scientific Advisory Board

At the last meeting of its Governing Board held in Bari, Italy, in June 2015, the International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies (CIHEAM) appointed Professor Louis F. Cassar, Director of the Institute of Earth Systems, as President of its Scientific Advisory Board.
Founded in 1962, CIHEAM is an intergovernmental organisation composed of thirteen member states (Albania, Algeria, Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia and Turkey). It works to promote Mediterranean-wide cooperation in the fields of agriculture, food, fisheries, and rural territories, through capacity development, research, diplomacy, and political partnerships. CIHEAM has four campuses across the Mediterranean region, in Bari (Italy), Montpellier (France), Chania (Greece) and Zaragoza (Spain), with the General Secretariat of the organisation based in Paris. The Scientific Advisory Board consists of a number of eminent scholars appointed for a period of four years by the Governing Board, selected from research and higher education institutions across the region; the Board is responsible for providing advice to the CIHEAM Governing Board. 


06 July 2015


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