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The History of the Temple Mount in 12 Objects: #3 The Late First Temple Period

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As we continue with our 12-post series on objects in the history of the Temple Mount, let us turn to the Late First Temple period – Iron Age IIb-c, in the 8th through 6th centuries BCE.
During this time of the year, multitudes of business owners and legions of accountants spent many a sleepless night filling out forms, checking and double checking their numbers, all as part of a fundamental act to human society – paying taxes.
Taxes, in one form or another, have been around since the dawn of history – as soon as complex societies began to form. As long as people lived within small familial farms, they could afford to be jacks-of-all-trades and the same person could farm the fields during the day and guard them at night. But empires, kingdoms and even cities need full time guards and soldiers. And if you’re spending all your time patrolling – you’re not spending it growing food. Since the soldiers still need to eat (as do the judges, priests, rulers, etc.), food must be collected in the form of taxes and delivered to them. Enter another functionary of society – the clerk – who oversees the collection, storage and distribution of taxes.
The item we’ll be discussing this time was left behind by one such functionary.

This item, approx. 7x7mm in size is a sealing – a piece of clay, which, while still wet and soft, was affixed to a string used to tie up a rolled papyrus document. Looking at the righthand picture, you may be able to make out the impression left by the string and the strands of papyrus on the reverse side of the sealing.

On the left side, you can see the ancient Hebrew letters stamped into the sealing, which, despite two broken letters, can be read as saying Gibeon \ [belonging to the] king. The shape of the letters and comparison to similar artifacts date our sealing to the 7th century BCE.

This sealing belongs to a rare group known as “fiscal bullae”. Less than 60 of them were ever published, and until recently – all were unprovenanced artifacts from the antiquities market. This changed in the past few years, with the discovery of this sealing, which was also the first to mention Gibeon. Since then, excavations at the City of David have yielded two more sealings (bearing the names of Bethlehem and Eltekon, a city in the hills of Hebron). Another sealing, unearthed south-east of the Temple Mount, has yet to be published.

So, what exactly is a fiscal bulla? The term was coined by Prof. Nachman Avigad in the 90’s when he published a collection of sealings with some shared features. Avigad divided these sealings into two groups. The first group, into which our sealing fits quite nicely, was of sealings bearing three items of information:

  1. The date, as measured by years of the current king’s reign (our sealing is broken and missing its top third, so we cannot ascertain its exact date).
  2. The name of a city. To date, sealings bearing the names of 21 different towns have been published, mostly matching the list of Judean towns in Joshua 15.
  3. The word LMLK – “belonging to the king”.

The second group similarly showcased the date, but the 2nd and 3rd fields were replaced by a personal name – probably that of an official.

So why are these fiscal bullae so different? The answer lies in that final word – LMLK.

LMLK seal impression, discovered by Charles Warren at the foot of the south-east corner of the Temple Mount.

Many of our readers probably recognize this word from another type of artifact dating to the late days of the Kingdom of Judah (the 8th century BCE) – the LMLK jars. These jars, found throughout the Kingdom of Judah, bear on their handles a stamp impression comprised of a royal emblem, the word LMLK and the name of one of four cities: Hebron, Sochoh, Ziph and Mmšt.

These jars likely represent an elaborate economic system, which oversaw the collection of produce throughout the land via four central hubs. As a taxation system, these jars would likely end up in the royal granaries and storehouses.

The Bible gives some insight into the ancient Judean tax system. Most taxes mentioned in the Bible were the kind paid by the sweat of your brow – a period of forced labor, toiling to build governmental projects, but it also fell upon the residents of the kingdom to provide for the monarch. (1 Samuel 8:15-17, 1 Kings 5:7) This was likely done via the tax system discussed above – with local administrators, whose names appear on some of the fiscal bullae and LMLK jars, collecting agricultural produce.

The produce – such as grain, wine and oil — was collected in large sacks or earthenware jars. Sealings that were attached to these vessels helped prevent unauthorized tampering. Some of the so-called fiscal bullae, such as ours, were attached to documents such as receipts or bills of lading and still retain the impression of papyrus fibers, while others were attached to nothing at all and served as a token of debts paid.

Further information on the Judean taxation system can be extrapolated from similar systems in the ancient Near East: From regional hubs, the taxed produce would be transported to a central hub in the royal compound, there to be received by an official, whose job usually ran in the family. If we are indeed dealing with taxes related to the Temple, it is likely that this person would be a member of the Immer family, of which we know of two members connected to administrative duties on the Temple Mount: one who was a “Chief officer in the house of God” (Jer. 20:1) and the other, whose seal-impression was discovered in the sifting project. An upcoming post will discuss this sealing and what we can ascertain about the Temple treasury.

The Temple Mount in the Late First Temple Period

Those of you following this series of posts are already familiar with the royal compound erected on the Temple Mount in the time of King Solomon. Biblical times knew the mountain-top compound and the hill upon which it resided by different names. The terms “Temple” and “Temple Mount” were popularized by the sages in post-2nd Temple literature, but in the Bible, the Temple is mainly referred to as the “House of the Lord”, and the Temple Mount as Mount Zion, such as in Psalms 48:3, which describes the royal compound on Mount Zion, north of Biblical Jerusalem (in the Byzantine Period, the name “Mount Zion” shifted to a nearby hill, known to this day by that name).

The history of the Kingdom of Judah saw the Temple through some high and low points. The Biblical author has a clear vision of how things should be – the children of Israel worshiping one god in a single place – but constant reprimands against the people and their rulers tell us that this ideal was rarely realized and even when the all-present idolatry was curtailed, the people would still worship in individual shrines, eschewing the Temple. A few kings orchestrated religious reforms, but these rarely had lasting effect, and would need repetition within a few years. Hezekiah reopened the locked Temple doors and reinstituted the Passover sacrifice, (2 Chr. 29-30) and yet, three generations later, King Josiah is said to once again re-institute the Passover (2 Kings 23). And so at the celebration of Sukkot following the inauguration of the 2nd Temple, (Nehemiah 8:17) the festivities are not said to be like any of those seen at the 1st Temple, rather, a comparison is drawn from the olden days of Joshua.

Artifacts from this period discovered within the Temple Mount complex are sparse, and insufficient to paint a coherent picture, but some further information can be garnered from items discovered in the sifting. These finds are currently being cataloged, studied and analyzed, and their discussion is beyond the scope of this post.

The sealing discussed above provides a glimpse into the tax collecting system whose central hub was on the Temple Mount, but here we run into a problem – even though tough responsible archaeologists try to refrain from making arguments based on negative evidence, sometimes the absence is just overbearing. If indeed LMLK jars were brought from all over the kingdom to a royal compound located on the Temple Mount, we would have expected to find a significant amount of such jar handles in the sifted debris –

Remains of a royal storehouse discovered in the Ophel excavations. Did similar ones exist in the Temple Mount?

but in fact, only a single one was discovered. The conundrum intensifies when nearby discoveries are considered – many LMLK jar handles were discovered by excavators just outside the southern wall of the Temple Mount (including the first ones ever found – once again, by our all-time-favorite tunneler, Charles Warren). But perhaps this very fact points at a possible solution – the administrative center may have been in the southern part of the Temple Mount, possibly even beyond its current border. A significant number of sealings discovered in the Ophel excavations, including one bearing the name of King Hezekiah, gives further credence to this hypothesis. Of course, it is always possible that while the administration took place at the Temple Mount, the actual storehouses (treasuries) could have been in a separate location.

In summary, in the Late First Temple period, the Temple Mount complex served as a governmental and administrative center of the Judean monarchs, as well as a ritual religious center. The Temple itself obviously resided within the confines of the modern-day Temple Mount enclosure, but the administrative and palatial complexes are harder to pin down – they could have been included as well within the same area or in the Ophel, below the modern-day southern wall, or could have possibly spanned both areas alike.

Did the Temple Mount serve as a pilgrimage center throughout the First Temple period? What was the relation between the worship of the God of Israel and foreign deities within the Temple and its environs? Were there residential buildings atop the Temple Mount? These are only some of the questions to which archaeology may provide evidence that will shed light towards an answer, and we hope to be able to address them as we continue our research. But as of this moment, data from the sifting is still being processed, and other information from the Temple Mount is too scant to support any conclusions.

Join us next time, as we delve into the enigmatic Persian period!

The History of the Temple Mount in 12 Objects: #2 The Early First Temple Period

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Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and meet this month’s guest – the earliest piece of weaponry ever to be recovered from the Temple Mount:

The arrowhead is made of bronze, in a flat, lanceolate shape, while the tang (the bit that gets inserted into the shaft) is slightly thicker, with a rhomboid midsection. Tip-to-tang, the arrowhead just tops 6 ½ cm and weighs about 9 grams.

This type of arrowhead is well known throughout Israel and surrounding areas, with examples discovered in Megiddo, Kadesh Barnea, and more. This type of arrow remained popular for several centuries, but Late Bronze Age archers seemed to prefer longer arrowheads, while in the Iron Age IIB, bronze arrowheads become scarce, and their tang would have a circular midsection, leaving our arrowhead nestled comfortably in the middle in the 10th century BCE.

To this date, less than a dozen such arrowheads have been discovered within 10th century BCE contexts throughout the country, but this speaks less of the arrowheads and more about the period in general. The 10th-9th centuries BCE are notoriously hard to pin down in an excavation for one simple reason – peace. As opposed to periods that ended violently, leaving behind entire destroyed and abandoned cities, the transition from the Iron Age I (the 12th-11th centuries BCE) to the Iron Age IIa (10th – 9th centuries BCE) was nonviolent – arrows went unfired, pottery went unsmashed and anything broken through normal use wasn’t left lying around on the floor in order to make the archaeologist’s job easier, but found its way to the city dump, such as the one we have discovered on the eastern slopes of the Temple Mount, which indeed contained copious amounts of pottery dating mostly to the 9th Century BCE.

But let’s leave the arrowhead for a moment and focus on the Temple Mount – what did it look like during this period?

Not much is known about the Iron Age I (12th-11th centuries BCE). The city of Jerusalem was controlled at the time by the Jebusites, a group of possibly Hittite origin, who are only known to us from the Bible. The Temple Mount itself was outside of the city proper, and was utilized for agricultural purposes, such as Araunah’s threshing floor, which we’ve previously discussed.

The Iron Age I draws to a close around 1000 BCE with the founding of the Davidic dynasty and the conquest of Jerusalem.

As opposed to the city itself, the Bible tells us that the nearby hill, which will come to be known as the Temple Mount, wasn’t conquered by force, but was purchased from Araunah, King of the Jebusites.

According to the Biblical account, King David only built an altar on said hill. It was his son, Solomon, who expanded the city to include the Temple Mount, and built upon it  a royal compound, with numerous buildings listed by the Bible (1 Kings 9):  the Temple itself (The House of God), the House of the King, the House of the Forest of Lebanon, the House of Pharaoh’s daughter, the Great Courtyard, and the Other Courtyard. The text also mentions several halls (Hall of the Throne, Hall of Pillars, etc.), but it is unclear whether these are separate buildings, or rooms within the buildings previously mentioned.

The entire complex stood atop the Temple Mount, renovated from time to time, until the destruction in 586 BCE.

The issue of the historical accuracy of the Bible has been the subject of much heated scholarly debate over the last few decades; some simply accept the Biblical description as historical fact, others dismiss out of hand the idea of gleaning any historical data from the Scriptures. The vast majority of academic scholars are situated somewhere between these extremes, and carefully try to tease out historical meaning from the text.

The description of the building of the Temple Mount complex given in 1 Kings includes many dry, technical details: building materials, measurements, adornments, etc. The buildings’ layout and techniques fit nicely with what we know of buildings of the period from the Ancient Near East, leading credence to the notion that the Biblical author based himself on authentic documents from the Temple archives.

Towards the end of the 10th century BCE the Temple Mount saw a decline in opulence. The Bible tells us that King Shishak of Egypt marched upon Jerusalem, and King Rehoboam placated him by delivering the treasures of the Temple and royal palace. Back in Egypt, Pharaoh Shoshenq I recorded a military campaign (ca. 920 BCE) on the walls of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, Egypt. There, the capitulating city of Jerusalem is not mentioned among the list of conquered towns, but despite the discrepancy, this is still considered the first Biblical event to be recorded by external contemporary sources.

Until recently, the only source of information regarding the Temple Mount in this period was the Biblical text itself. The lack of archaeological data allowed for the profusion of different theories, which remain untestable.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project has uncovered several artifacts that help paint an archaeological picture of the Temple Mount in the early days of the Kingdom of Israel. We have discovered a fair amount of pottery datable to this period, mainly hand-burnished bowls and cooking pots. Comparison of the amount of pottery sherds leaves no room for doubt – this is indeed the period that saw the beginning of intense human activity atop the Temple Mount.

A few other artifacts provide us with glimpses into the types of activity that said inhabitants might have been engaged in. The arrowhead with which we opened might have belonged to one of the Temple or palace guards. Administrative activities carried out within the royal compound might be reflected by a rare cone-shaped stone seal depicting a pair of animals (read more here) and a bronze weight carrying an early Hebrew inscription, purportedly discovered on the Temple Mount a century ago, while various finds from the garbage pit on the Temple Mount’s eastern slope and from the Ophel excavations all add up to paint a colorful picture of the diverse human activity taking place atop the Mount at this time.

Until such a time that a proper archaeological excavation will take place at the Temple Mount, we won’t know if there are any structural remains from the Iron Age IIA. However, in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount complex, there are some parts that clearly predate Herod, and have been suggested to date to the First Temple Period by some scholars. Given that – they may very well date to the Early First Temple Period.

Apart from the Temple itself, this period saw the Temple Mount as home for the kingdom’s governmental center that, at least in term of acreage, dwarfed the Temple and is likely the source of most of our recovered artifacts. However, irrespective of its size, the Temple was a source of inspiration to all activity conducted in nearby public buildings and governmental institutions. The Bible ascribes to the Temple a central part in the people’s religious and national life. Tithes and offerings were brought to the Temple, and there the people gathered three times a year and directed their prayers towards from afar. Such a place would have cast a light on any cultural, economic, administrative and judicial act carried out nation-wide. Any conflict would have been resolved therein, and from hence the Torah would be dispersed among the Nation of Israel and the world.

Did this utopian vision actually take place at any point during the First Temple Period? Does archaeology have anything to add to this question? Stay tuned for the next blog post in the series, as we move on to the Late First Temple Period!

The History of the Temple Mount in 12 Objects: #1 The Late Bronze Age

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Hello everyone!

As those of you who follow our newsletter know, the blog is about to embark on an exciting new journey: Inspired by the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, we will, over the course of the coming year, showcase objects of different periods in the Temple Mount’s history, telling you about them and about the periods they represent.

So without further ado – here’s the first post, of the Temple Mount back before there was a temple:

Back in 2011, a nice Israeli family joined us in the sifting facility for a rummage through the debris of the Temple Mount. They were expecting some of what we’ve come to think of as run-of-the-mill finds: some pottery sherds, a few mosaic tesserae, bits of glass and stone, and maybe a coin – if they got lucky. But they got more than they bargained for when they spotted a broken faience (a soft glass-like material) amulet which clearly showed some hieroglyphs. So we immediately knew it was ancient, and connected to Egypt, but the deciphering took a while longer, and it was only a few years later that news sites around the world carried the title Girl, 12, finds ancient Egyptian amulet at Jerusalem dig.

The Amulet was examined by our staff and by Baruch Brandl, leading Israeli expert in Egyptian glyptic items, who noted the different elements visible in the amulet:

Amulet of Thutmose III found in the Temple Mount soil by the Sifting Project (click to enlarge)

Above: The eye within the sun.

Below, to the right: The broken top half of the looping tail of the Uraeus (Egyptian Cobra).

Below, to the left: An oval cartouche containing hieroglyphs – on the top is visible a circle representing the sun-disc; below it, looking like an upside-down comb – a board with game pieces on it – the famous Egyptian game of senet; below the senet board, just barely visible above the break – you can spot the forelegs of the scarab beetle.

Put together, the hieroglyphs in the cartouche spell the word “Men-kheper-Ra”. Literally – Lasting is the Manifestation of Ra (check out other variants in this nifty little site), the throne name of the pharaoh better known as Thutmose III, who ruled Egypt in the 15th Century BCE.

But what’s an Egyptian amulet doing way out here, 420km away from Thebes?

To understand that, let’s take a quick dip into ancient Egyptian\Israeli history:

Pharaoh Thutmose III reigned in Egypt from 1479 – 1425 BCE. He was part of the 18th dynasty, which ruled in the beginning of the Egyptian Era known as the New Kingdom, and he did a bunch of interesting things down there, which aren’t the topic of this post. ? Meanwhile, in the land the Egyptians knew as Retjenu, and which the bible calls “Canaan”  – the Late Bronze Age was in full swing, and the country was divided among local “kings” – rulers of city states.

Thutmose III helped turn Egypt into a superpower by stretching his empire from Southern Syria through to Canaan and Nubia. We know a lot about his military campaigns because records of his campaigns are inscribed on the wall of the temple of Amun in Karnak. The first, and probably largest of Thutmose III’s 17 military campaigns took place in Canaan. The Canaanite city-states revolted against Pharaonic attempts at hegemony but were soundly trounced by Thutmose’s superior forces and tactics at the Battle of Megiddo in 1457 BCE.

And so, the Egyptians ruled the land until the mid-12th Century BCE, leaving their mark on archaeological sites throughout the country – Jaffa, Megiddo, Bet She’an, and Ashkelon, to name a few.

Within the Late Bronze Period, the part we know the most about in terms of Israel\Egypt relationship is the Late Bronze period II – corresponding in time to the Egyptian Amarna Period, so called because, luckily for us, in 1336 BCE Pharaoh Akhenaten moved the capital to the site of Amarna. Why lucky, you ask? Because this move, among with other reforms enacted by the Pharaoh were reviled by Egyptians of following generations, and after the death of his son (the famous Tutankhamun), his new capitol was abandoned – leaving behind its rich archives to be discovered some three millennia later.

These archives relate a rich correspondence between the Pharaoh and the rulers of the city-states of Canaan, including the King of Jerusalem, Abdi-Heba. In his 6 letters, Abdi‑Heba beseeches the Pharaoh for his help against the Habiru people, and the rulers of cities such as Shechem, Gezer, and Lachish who, unlike himself, show no loyalty to the Pharaoh.

Strangely enough, when reading each of the other rulers’ letters, it would seem that they are the only ones truly loyal to the Pharaoh. Go figure, huh?

The archive contains only letters sent to the Pharaoh, and we don’t know what answer Abdi-Heba received from the Pharaoh’s scribe. However, several years ago, while Dr. Eilat Mazar was excavating in the Ophel (south of the Temple Mount) and outsourced her sifting needs to us, we managed to find a tiny piece of a clay tablet of the same type as the Amarna archive. So even though the fragment was too small to decipher a meaningful message – at least we know that Abid-Hepa’s correspondence wasn’t one-sided.

But even though we learn from the archives that ancient Jerusalem, while not exactly a super-power, was definitely a city to be reckoned with, its remains remain a bit elusive.

A scant amount of pottery dated to this age was found in excavations in the City of David and the Ophel, including some imported material from Cyprus and the Agean world, to which we can add our pottery (which we’ve already discussed in a previous blog post) and a few other finds such as two scarabs, three fragments of stone vessels and a finger from a possible Egyptian Late Bronze statue.

These artifacts can be added to other finds dated to the Late Bronze Age discovered in past years in the City of David as well as artifacts hinting to the possible existence of an Egyptian temple in the premises of the Dominican monastery of St. Étienne north of the Damascus Gate.

Several tombs were discovered in the city’s environs – on the Mount of Olives, Armon Hanatziv, and as far away as the modern neighborhood of Nachla’ot – and yet, the buildings associated with such a bustling city have not been discovered – an occupational hazard inherent to excavating a city continually inhabited and rebuilt for over 3 millennia…

All in all, even though the archaeological remains from this era in Jerusalem as a whole are somewhat meager, in the Temple Mount their amount is even smaller. This fits well with the well-established notion that the Temple Mount was uninhabited and not included within the city proper, but was rather used for agricultural purposes, such as the biblical Araunah’s threshing floor.

Winnowing in a Threshing floor at the village of Majdal Shams (taken in 1967 by Sari Sapir ). Was this the main activity that took place at the Temple Mount during the Late Bronze and Iron Age I periods?

Join us in our next post, as we continue into the Iron Age I and beginning of the First Temple Period!