Remains of Nazi-Destroyed Synagogue Found Using Radar


Ground-penetrating radar is helping archaeologists locate the buried remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilna in Lithuania, a Jewish place of worship that was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) reports. The synagogue dates back to the 1600s, when it was built in a Renaissance-Baroque style. Lithuanian Jews, also known as Litvaks, worshipped there until it was lost during the Holocaust about 70 years ago, according to the IAA.

In June, archaeologists used radar to locate the remains of the synagogue, now partially buried under a modern school. Excavations of the synagogue are scheduled to commence in 2016, and any artifacts found will be put on display as part of a memorial for the synagogue and its congregation, the IAA said.

During the initial survey, researchers used ground-penetrating radar to create a map of the synagogue’s remains. The radar device, which looks a bit like a LEGO lawnmower, can send FM radio waves about 16 feet (5 meters) deep into the ground. When the waves hit parts of the buried structure, they bounce back, helping the researchers create a map of the underground environment, said Harry Jol, a professor of geography and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

What’s more, the radar is “noninvasive and does nothing to affect the school behind us,” Richard Freund, a professor of Juadic studies at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, said in the video. The detailed maps will also help the researchers do “pinpoint archaeology,” meaning they will know exactly where to dig without significantly damaging the school or the surrounding site, Freund added.

During its heyday, the Great Synagogue of Vilna was the epicenter of a thriving Jewish population in the region. It was surrounded by a number of buildings that formed an inclusive center for Torah study, including 12 other synagogues, the community council, the famous Strashun Library, kosher meat stalls, a complex of ritual baths and other communal institutions, the IAA said.