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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.

It’s All Fun and Games!

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Find of the Month: December

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Alumah, age 10, holding an astragolos

Over Chanukkah, we had 1356 people come and sift with us! Out of the thousands of amazing finds recovered in the last week and the last month, our find of the month is this fantastic astragolos also commonly known as a game piece from the game of Knucklebones (though it isn’t the knuckles but rather the anklebones from the hind legs of sheep and goats that are used to play this game of chance). This artifact was found by the Bar Yosef family from Eli and seems to be the perfect fit for this fun-loving family! See Alumah, age 10, holding the astragolos found by her family.

The origin of Knucklebones is probably a more primitive form of dice. Sophocles ascribed the invention of knucklebones to Palamedes, who taught it to the Greeks during the Trojan War. It became one of the most popular games of chance in antiquity. The knucklebones, or astragaloi, were used like fivestones, dice, or jacks. The game is played with five small objects (10 with jacks) that were thrown in the air and caught in various ways such as on the back of the hand. Many have been found in funerary contexts and may have been intended to help the deceased entertain themselves through eternity.

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Bone astragolos found by the Bar Yosef family in the sifting

Today, variations of this game with specific rules and combinations of throws and catches are still played in different contexts across the world. Here in Israel, children play “Chamesh Avanim,” which is similar in concept but played with small metal dice or cubes. (This archaeologist can admit that her nieces always beat her).

Sometimes these game pieces were also made out of glass, bronze, stone, and terracotta, or had a hole and were used as a bead. Most astragaloi come from Hellenistic or Roman contexts. In October, while sorting through a collection of bones found the day before, one of our staff noticed that one of the bones looked like it was made of glass. He had found a glass astragolos! Though there have been many glass astragaloi discovered in Greece, its dependents, and the Eastern Mediterranean, they are rare here in Israel. A few have been found in Samaria, Maresha, Dor, and Jaffa. Unless others are unpublished, this was the first glass astragaloi found in Jerusalem. More research will determine the significance of this find and refine its dating, so stay tuned for a future article about this.

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Glass astragolos from the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv that is like the one found by the Sifting Project.

Crusader Columns

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Crusader Column Fragment

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John and the column fragment

Find of the Month: November!

This month’s Find of the Month is this fantastic fragment of a column from the Crusader Period. It was found by volunteers, John Walker and Timothy Ressler, who were visiting from America. Though we have found many fragments of architectural elements over the years, finding a piece as intact and clearly identifiable as this one, is rare. We really appreciate Tim and John’s help and the help of all of our volunteers who help us uncover archaeological gems like this one.

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Crusader column with curls like the one found at the Sifting Project

Crusader period columns are usually very simple in design, and there are actually columns and pieces of columns from the Crusader period still on the Temple Mount that match this fragment found in our soil. My first question about the artifact was, “Is it from Solomon’s Stables?” The answer is that it probably is not from inside the stables, which uses mostly stones from the Herodian period. More likely, the column fragment comes from the Crusader Church or Monastery that was destroyed at the end of the Crusader period when the Muslims retook control over the Temple Mount. It is possible that this fragment is from that initial destruction, but it is also possible that the column it came from was put in secondary use during the Ayyubid or Mamluk period and was broken later on. Either way it is a really interesting look at a time period on the Temple Mount not often discussed.

When I started asking about this fragment, Frankie, our expert in Opus Sectile, but also really knowledgeable about the Temple Mount and the Crusader Period, began describing the layout of the Temple Mount during the Crusader period and what happened afterward. I managed to get it on film, so here is a quick video. I hope you enjoy!

Follow us on YouTube for more videos like this one and for archaeology related playlists!

Check out some of our other recent Finds of the Month!

Find of the Month: October

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This October, sisters Or and Naya Korshaya found the leg of a figurine, most likely of a horse. Though they are from Jerusalem, it was their first time at the Sifting Project. Finding something so special was a great way to spend the day and it sparked an interest in archaeology!

Most of the figurines found by the Sifting Project are from the Iron II period (8th-6th centuries BCE) and may be related to cultic activities. Our expert, Aaron Greener, is researching these figurines, which provide an important addition to the thousands of similar figurines found in Judahite sites from that time period.

The Sifting Project does not have any completely intact figurines, but rather small broken pieces, most broken in antiquity. We have a number of female pillar figurines and a variety of four legged animals. Most of these are horses and some of them have riders. It would be interesting to know if the leg found by the Korshaya sisters was from a horse with a rider, but because we only have the bottom of the leg, we can’t see the leg of a rider if there were one.

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Other fragments of figurines found by the Sifting Project

Because of their fragmented condition, some scholars have related the broken figurines of the Iron Age Judahite sites to the biblical account of Hezekiah’s or Josiah’s religious reforms. According to the Bible, symbols of idol worship were systematically destroyed and abolished.

Aaron will be presenting his research at the Annual Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies Conference in January and will be published in the first volume of our planned publication.

Thank you so much to the Korshaya family for volunteering with us and finding something so valuable to Israeli archaeology and our understanding of the Temple Mount.

Find of the Month: September!

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img-20160914-wa0002_resizedSeptember’s “Find of the Month” is this gorgeous mother of pearl inlay with an image of the Dome of the Rock carved onto it. It was found by Hadassa Amiri, age (a lady never reveals her age!). For more information on Mother of Pearl and archaeology, see this post. Most likely, this inlay was attached to some small object, such as an inlaid box or prayer book. Generally speaking, walls and furniture with mother of pearl inlay do not use engraved inlay like this. Engraving is reserved for smaller objects where there is a larger focus on the particulars of a small piece of mother of pearl.

d792Interestingly, when I started searching for a parallel object that would help us date this artifact, the search “pearl Quran” immediately came up with this image. The Dome of the Rock is clearly a standard and traditional image to depict on religious artifacts. Islam frowns upon the use of human images and generally speaking, Islamic art and architecture use natural and geometric designs.

The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra in arabic) is an iconic symbol of Jerusalem and has an important place in Arab and Muslim culture. Built between 685 and 691/2 by Abd al-Malik, probably the most important Umayyad caliph, the Dome of the Rock was one of the first Islamic buildings ever constructed and is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the entire Islamic world. Though it is commonly thought of as a mosque, the Dome of the Rock is actually a shrine built around a large rock believed to be the place from which Muhammad ascended to heaven, met other prophets such as Jesus and Moses, witnessed heaven and hell, and saw G-d. In Judeo/Christian tradition, this rock is the place where Abraham was to sacrifice his son Isaac.

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The Dome of the Rock sits on a platform known as the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif. This platform is holy for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. It was the site of the First and Second Jewish Temples, the headquarters of the Knights Templar during the Crusades, and today houses the Al-Aqsa mosque, madrasas, and several other religious buildings as well as the Dome of the Rock. Please read this essay detailing the history and iconography of the Dome of the Rock by Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis for more information.

The Dome of the Rock is an important part of the long history of the Temple Mount and pieces of gilded mosaics and glass window fragments discarded during numerous renovations consistently show up in our sifting. The Dome of the Rock is a testament to the Islamic Golden Age and the Muslim connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. It is an indisputable part of Islamic heritage, and therefore comes through in the iconography on such things as a small engraving on mother of pearl.

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The Dome of the Rock is a building of extraordinary beauty, solidity, elegance, and singularity of shape… Both outside and inside, the decoration is so magnificent and the workmanship so surpassing as to defy description. The greater part is covered with gold so that the eyes of one who gazes on its beauties are dazzled by its brilliance, now glowing like a mass of light, now flashing like lightning.
—Ibn Battuta (14th century travel writer)

Find of the Month!

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No grit no pearl

This month’s find of the month is actually two finds! With a bit of hard work, determination, and a little luck, two brothers found pearl artifacts on the same day while sifting with us at Emek Tzurim. What a lucky family.

IMG-20160811-WA0010Eitan and Amichai Strik from Israel came to the sifting project with their family over the school summer holiday and really enjoyed their time with us. People often ask us how to pick a “good” bucket. I personally don’t have an answer to this question, but clearly we should all be asking the Strick family for bucket picking tips.

Amichai found a mother of pearl bead while his younger brother Eitan found a beautiful mother of pearl inlay. We have not yet dated either item as dating pearl is very hard to do when the item is out of context. Jewelry trends cycle, so trying to date these items by comparing them to similar items found in other excavations is also complicated.

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Mother of pearl inlay and bead found by the Strick brothers.

Mother of pearl is the common name for iridescent nacre, which is a combination of minerals that is secreted by oysters and other mollusks and deposited inside their shells, coating and protecting them. Nacre is the same material that is deposited around a tiny particle lodged in a mollusk that builds and eventually becomes a pearl.

Most of the mother of pearl found by the Temple Mount Sifting Project was imported from the Nile River. We have a lot of pieces that are considered industrial waste from inlay projects, but also a lot of natural pieces left over from the food consumption of Byzantine monks who had a love of clams. Finding mother of pearl beads or actual pearl inlay is rare in our sifting. We have some inlay that are from the Dome of the Rock and were removed with the gilded glass mosaic tesserae that were installed there during the shrine’s construction in the late 7th century CE. Here are some of the other pieces we have found.

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Pearl inlay artifacts found by the Sifting Project

Picturesque Palestine pg. 133  m-o-p beads 1Mother of pearl has been used for centuries. In Israel, mother of pearl inlays became common after the Late Second Temple period. The Book of Esther (1:6) describes the floors of Achashverosh as made of precious stones, marble, and mother of pearl. The book, Picturesque Palestine (1881), in describing and illustrating the tours of Harry Fenn and J.D. Woodward, show the mother of pearl workers of Bethlehem (right). This was part of the bustling trade with pilgrims in Bethlehem, especially around the holidays of Christmas and Easter. The most popular items for sale were rosaries, some of which included mother of pearl beads, as well as pearly scoops made from the shells of the giant oysters of the Red Sea and brought to Bethlehem from Suez, which were loved by English visitors. Other items for sale to pilgrims in Bethlehem included relics, palm-boughs, scallop shells, crosses, and little images.

Today, wood inlay with mother of pearl is popular on guitars and other stringed instruments. In jewelry, pearls and mother of pearl are in two different categories. Pearls are more rare, and are rounded gems that can only grow to a certain size. Alternatively, mother of pearl is much more common (though not found coating all mollusks). Because the nacre coats the entire inside of a shell, it also provides much more material to work with.

Today, due to awareness of unsustainable pearl-farming techniques, pearls and mother of pearl are not as widely used and much of the jewelry and inlay on the market is antique or vintage. Some companies are working on initiating more ecologically sustainable ways of collecting their material, so perhaps this beautiful substance will gain again in popularity in the near future.

For more information on pearls today, click here.

Finally, a little pearl wisdom:

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Find of the Month!

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View of Emek Tzurim

Life must go on, and what better way to move forward than to focus on the positive things that have been happening at the Sifting Project? We are continuing to do research in our lab, and the summer holidays have brought us a ton of volunteers from all over the world to help us sift.

As you all love to see what we’ve been finding, we have decided to show you a special “Find of the Month.” Some of our more special items we cannot publish because we don’t enough about them in such a short amount of time, but we find many things that are absolutely amazing that we can describe and show you right away.

This month, the special find we want to share with you is a bone spindle whorl.

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Bone Byzantine Spindle Whorl

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Liliana Grobman with the spindle whorl she found.

9 year-old Liliana Grobman from São Paulo, Brazil loves coming to sift at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. This time, while on vacation with her family, she found this fantastically well preserved bone spindle whorl dating to the Byzantine period. That’s about 1500 years old!

Spindle whorls are used in the process of spinning thread. They can be made of a variety of materials including metal, glass, wood, bone, or even antler. They are generally round or disc-shaped (like this one) and they are fitted onto the spindle of a spinning wheel to increase and maintain the speed of the spin.

 

Stay tuned for next month’s “Find of the Month!”