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New Year for the Trees, New Life for Ancient Forgotten Beams

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Happy Tu B’Shevat! Today is the Jewish new year for the trees which is celebrated annually on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. Customs vary, but many Jews will eat a new fruit they haven’t tried before or eat one (or all!) of the seven species described as plentiful in the land of Israel (wheat, barley, grapes (vines), figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (honey) (Deut. 8:8)). Growing up in America, my family often sent money to plant trees in Israel through our synagogue and I’m pretty sure we read, “The Lorax” every year as well.

To celebrate this fun holiday with all of you, we at the Sifting Project thought we would share with you some interesting research about wooden beams found on the Temple Mount.

The Ancient Beams of the Temple Mount

The restoration of Al-Aqsa Mosque in the 1930s and 1940s included the removal of dozens of wooden beams that predate the mosque’s construction. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority Scientific Archives.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque has been renovated a number of times throughout its history. Notably, after a massive earthquake caused major structural damage to the mosque in 1937, a lot of work was done to strengthen the building, and a number of wooden beams were removed, many of which are now in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. In the 1970s, more wooden beams were removed from the Temple Mount and some were sold to a merchant in Ramallah. Some Israelis actually purchased these beams and sent them for Carbon 14 and dendrochronological (tree ring) dating at the Weizmann Institute. Most of the beams were found to be from cypress trees or cedar trees from Lebanon and some were oak from Turkey. While the vast majority of tested beams dated to the Byzantine period (6th century CE), some of the beams date much earlier. There are two beams in particular that date to the First Temple Period, one of cypress dating to around the 7th century BCE, and one of oak dating to around the 10th century BCE according to the C14 tests.

So how did these early beams end up in the Al-Aqsa Mosque? Wood was expensive in ancient times, so builders would use what was available to them. Many of the beams measured over 14 meters and were made well and of strong wood. Consequently, they were used over and over again. One of the beams from the Al Aqsa Mosque carbon dates to the early Hellenistic period but also has a Greek inscription from the Byzantine period. It seems this beam was in at least tertiary use in the mosque, and we are grateful that this reuse of material preserved it for us to study now.

The beams offer a fascinating historical record of Jerusalem, including Byzantine buildings, early Muslim houses of prayer and, not inconceivably, the ancient temple complex itself. Unfortunately, the several hundred existing beams have never been studied in depth, and many are in danger of decay and disintegration.

Destruction through Negligence?

Beams (left) near the Golden Gate on the Temple Mount. Photo: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel

We have witnessed first hand how beams remain open to the elements on the Temple Mount without any cover or protection. Though Jerusalem may have hot and dry summers, the climate is not conducive to the preservation of wooden artifacts. These beams are pretty unique because they were so well preserved due to the fact that they were sheltered within the Al-Aqsa Mosque for so much of their history. The fact that such negligence is being practiced and that these beams are not being preserved is truly unfortunate. Our researcher, Peretz Reuven, is doing his PhD on all of the known beams, and upon closer inspection of the uncovered beams on the Temple Mount, he saw carvings and markings on one of the beams that show correlation to Roman motifs and styles. You can see carved leaves, pomegranates, and even a rope pattern widely appearing in 2nd and 3rd century CE monuments. This beam is most likely a late Roman period relic from one of the monumental buildings of Roman Jerusalem.

Peretz’s article in the BAR. Photo: Peretz Reuven

Needless to say, much more research is needed on the beams from the Temple Mount. We at the Sifting Project can do our small part on the small wooden beam fragments covered with bits of gold-colored paint, but the more comprehensive research will have to include all of the full length beams that can be accessed by researchers. Our research will be presented in volume four of our planned publication, and we can’t wait to see what Peretz uncovers while completing his PhD.

For more information about these beams see:

The Times of Israel

Biblical Archaeology Review Here or Here

Video of Gaby explaining starting at 2:30

Pictures in Arutz Sheva

Israel HaYom

Jerusalem Day Activities

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Where will you be on Jerusalem Day?

Here are our plans. Make sure to stop by and say Hello!

21:00 (May 23rd – the night before) – Hebrew Lecture at Ohel Nechama by Zachi Dvira. 3 Shufan St. They have activities beginning at 19:55.

8:00 AM – tour of the Temple Mount. Please email development@tmsifting for more information.

ALL DAY!! We are talking 9AM to 9PM sharing some of our special finds and selling some of our amazing replicas in the Old City. Stop by and touch a piece of the Second Temple floor. Drop a shekel in our Tzedakkah box or buy your mom a replica coin as a belated Mother’s Day gift. We will be in the main square of the Jewish Quarter by the Moriah jewelry store.

 

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Early Islamic Destruction Layer?

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Preserving the Heritage of Everyone

Amidst all the stress of trying to find the funding to keep our research lab open, we cannot forget our purpose: to share our research with you. We truly believe that our research is important to the heritage of the all who connect to the Temple Mount: billions of people across the world in all three of the world’s major monotheistic religions. We are finding artifacts that are part of the heritage of Jews, Pagans, Christians, Muslims, and all those in between. We’ve written recently about the Christian connection to the Temple and the Jewish connection to the Temple, so today we are going to share some Islamic history of the Temple Mount.

Lailat al Miraj

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Buraq as seen on a reproduction of a 17th century Indian Mughal miniature

Last night marked the beginning of the holiday of Lailat al Miraj, which falls on the 27th day of Rajab and like the Jewish calendar, begins at nightfall the day before. This is the Muslim holiday that commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s nighttime journey from Mecca to the “Farthest Mosque” where he then ascended to heaven, met G-d and earlier prophets, and was told of the duty of Muslims to recite Salat (ritual prayer) five times a day. Muslims believe that the “Farthest Mosque” refers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount here in Jerusalem. They believe that two angels provided the Prophet Muhammad with the mythical winged steed called Buraq, and they named the Buraq Wall (also known as the Western Wall or Kotel) as the place where Muhammad tied this winged steed. In some traditions, Buraq has the head of a women and the tail of a peacock. The full story of Lailat al Miraj are described in chapter 17 of the Quran and also in hadith, supplemental writings about the life of Muhammad.

dome_of_the_rock13235570190061Finds

The Temple Mount’s history is not only rich during the First and Second periods, though those have been in the news a lot recently. We have recovered a huge amount of material from the Early Islamic period and the Ottoman empire including the golden glass mosaics from the original Dome of the Rock and many ottoman smoking pipes. In September we also recovered this beautiful mother of pearl decoration with the Dome of the Rock on it. You may also have heard about the many Ottoman seals that have been recovered by our project including one with the name of the Deputy Mufti of Jerusalem, a possible ancestor of the current leader of the Waqf.

Last summer, we recovered an intact oil lamp from the Early Islamic period. While that may seem like an obvious find in most excavations, because the material that we are sifting was excavated by bulldozer, everything we find is broken. To find something intact is quite special for our project. Even more interesting than that, the cluster of earth in which the oil lamp was found included many other artifacts (including many large pieces) from the earliest stages of Islamic occupation on the Temple Mount itself. The finds seem to come from a violent destruction of the site, possibly the earthquake of 658 CE. Usually, large or unbroken finds like this are only found in sealed layers of excavations. These finds from the Temple Mount indicate the possibility that at some time in the last millennium, someone dug a hole somewhere on the Temple Mount and hit an Early Islamic layer with lots of pottery. The debris from this dig was dumped in the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount and was subsequently removed by the Waqf in 1999, reaching our hands.

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Early Islamic Period (Abbasid) oil lamp Credit: FARLI.org

Unfortunately I can’t show you ours until more research has been done. Here is a similar Early Islamic Period (Abbasid) oil lamp which will give you some idea of what we are talking about. Credit: FARLI.org.

Finding the remains of the destruction caused by the earthquake of 658 CE is one of the more interesting things we have discovered in our research, and is greatly dependent on the statistical analysis of our artifacts. Click here for more information about our methodology and our use of statistics to understand archaeological data.

How Much Does It Weigh?

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Find of the Month: February!

After a week away in the field, it is so nice to be back at the Sifting Project. It is my pleasure to present February’s “Find of the Month!” Now, this find requires a lot more research because it is pretty rare.

image-1Nicolle Perez from Ma’ale Adumin found this round stone that is likely to be a scale weight. It was her first time volunteering at the Sifting Project and she was really excited to have found something that could potentially be very important to our understanding of the history of the Temple Mount. It is amazing how something so small can provide so much information.

We have found a number of weights in the sifting. Our expert in weights is still looking for parallels that match this stone, because it is unlike most of the other weights we have found in the sifting. By parallels of shape and raw material, this stone is likely from the First Temple period, but more research is necessary to eliminate other possibilities.

In antiquity, before coins were used, weights were used to regulate and measure trade and barter. Most often, these weights would be used to weigh small pieces of silver which were traded as “currency,” although still very different from coinage.

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A 4 Gerah Judean scale weight found by the Sifting Project

Weights were used across the ancient world from India to the Aegean and beyond. In the land of Judah, including of course Jerusalem, the system of measurement for weights was based on the Shekel and is also mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament.

The shekel had many sub-units. This meant things could be weighed by half a shekel, or commonly in multiples of 2, 4, and 8 and deviations of Beqa, Pym, and Nesef. We know of Beqa and Pym from the Bible as well as smaller deviations known as Gerah.  The system was centered on a central unit of c. 11.33g.

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Judean scale weight

More than 500 inscribed Judean scale weights from the Iron Age have been found and published and they create a very homogenous weight-system. Most of these weights are made of local limestone and shaped as domes with flat bases. Many are inscribed with the names of the various units of measurement such as the Nesef and Pym, while smaller units (Gerah weights) and larger units (multiples of the Shekel) are often inscribed with hieratic numerals. Across Judah, these weights appeared in the 8th century BCE, but they mainly come from the stratigraphic layers dating to the 7th century BCE. Recent research done in Khirbet Qeiyafa by our own expert of scale weights show that the system of the Judean Shekel was used as early as the 10th century BCE.  It seems as though weights went out of use by 586 BCE and did not function by the time of the Persian period where we see the first coins.

The first dome shaped weights were found in Jerusalem in 1881 by the German excavator Hermann Guthe. Judean scale weights have been found in large numbers in almost every excavation of the Iron Age ever done in Jerusalem, supporting the fact that Jerusalem in the First Temple Period was a center of economic activity. This may possibly also support the idea that the Temple itself was a center of the economy.

Some scholars argue that the Temple might have used a slightly different system of weights from the daily shekel, and it is possible that they were marked in a different way. More research needs to be done on this “Shekel of the Sanctuary” mentioned in the Priestly Code of the Pentateuch (Torah) and in Ezekiel. It is possible that this weight system was a later creation in the history of weights, but still dating before the use of coins. It is also possible that the economic system of the Temple was connected with the royal house, as the Kings of Judah made decisions regarding the property of the Temple in times of emergency and supervised its maintenance (II Kings). Only a few weights have been found that might match the biblical accounts of this separate but connected system of weights and measurements. Perhaps more weights found from the Temple Mount itself would help archaeologists better understand this system of measurement and commerce.

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A selection of various weights (not all of the same system) found by the Sifting Project

Aren’t You Dying To Know?

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Find of the Month: January

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Singer Family and the Murex Shell

Aren’t you dying to know what this month’s “Find of the Month” is? Well, if you can’t tell from my bad pun, this month’s find of the month is a murex trunculus: a rock snail shell. It was found by the Singer family from Jerusalem, who were really excited to have found something so special. This shell is another piece to a puzzle we have been trying to put together here for years.

The murex family of snails are medium to large predatory, tropical, sea snails, also known as murexes or rock snails. They have elongated shells with spines of fronds and brightly colored inner surfaces. Aristotle used the word murex, and Vitruvius described the dye made from these shells, making this one of the oldest shell families still known today.

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Modern tzit tzit with blue strings mimicking tehelet

What makes the murex trunculus so special is that they are connected with the ancient process of making tehelet, the blue dye we know from the Bible that was used in priestly garments and the Israelites’ tzit tzit (fringes). This snail family was also used to make the purple dye known in the Bible as argaman.

Making tehelet or argaman requires special skills as well as a lot of snails. Dye can be collected by crushing the snails, or by laboriousy poking (milking) the snails and collecting the excretion. 12,000 snails might yield 1.4 g of dye, which is only enough to color the trim of a single garment.[1] Because of this, this Royal Blue or Royal Purple dye was very expensive, making it an almost exclusive sign of kingship and royalty. Interestingly, the color of this dye becomes more vibrant when left in the sun, and it is possible that different versions of the color can be made by making the dye in the sun or in the shade.

slide1Much of the production of this type of dye we attribute to the Phoenicians. The purple is also known as Tyrian purple (from the Phoenician city of Tyre). Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of dye production at Phoenician sites in Morocco and all across the Mediterranean, including Israel. There is a lot of evidence at Tel Dor for Phoenician dye production in the Iron Age as well as the merchandizing and trading of goods like colored fabrics and wool.

So what was this murex shell doing on the Temple Mount? Any time we find a shell, we know that it was used by humans because Jerusalem is too far from the sea for sea creatures (and their shells) to dwell there. This means that shells were brought to Jerusalem for a purpose. We have discovered over 20 of these murex trunculus shells in the sifting, and it leads us to wonder why. Is it possible that there was a workshop for dye production on the Temple Mount? Perhaps these shells were used to create the dye for fabrics used in the Temple. Maybe it was produced on site for purity reasons.

Unfortunately, we can’t date these shells until we have evidence that would link them to another, datable, artifact such as something else used in cloth or dye production. With more funding, we might be able to carbon date them, but each test costs about $400 and in order to reach statistical significance, we would need to test samples from 20 shells. Regardless, there is a lot of research yet to be completed on this, but these shells certainly raise a lot of really interesting questions.

Just because, check out this video see archaeologists extracting dye from one of these shells.

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[1] Jacoby, “Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2004:197–240) p. 210.

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