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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.

Making Seal Impressions

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As you know, the first 25 donors from our Annual Appeal are going to receive a clay seal impression (Bulla in Hebrew) that we made from one of our 10th century BCE stamps found in the sifting. Those lucky few will get a bulla and a whole explanation, but we thought we would share the process with all of you as well!

The 10th century BCE falls within the Iron Age and is the time period of the Jebusites, from whom David conquered Jerusalem—as well as the construction of the Temple by his son, King Solomon. Other similar seals found in Israel dating from the late 11th to the beginning of 9th centuries BCE allow us to date our seal to this time period as well. The stamp seal that we used is conical in shape and made of brown limestone. Two animals, one above the other, are carved on its circular base, maybe representing predator and prey. The seal is perforated which enables it to be hung on a string and worn.

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Imer Bulla. Notice it is broken and there is an impression of the sack on the back

In antiquity, legal or administrative documents, or other objects or goods that needed to be authenticated and approved were “signed” using a stamp seal. (Personal items could also be stamped. We have a number of stamped handles from clay vessels that have been found in the sifting.) But how do we get bullae? A document was rolled and tied, or a package of goods was tied with a string. On the knot of the string was a piece of clay that was then stamped with a seal. These seals could either be worn on a string, like the one that we used, or set into a piece of jewelry such as a ring. The bulla is the clay seal impression left behind. In order to open the document or package, the bulla would be broken. This was a great form of protection, but could also be the reason than all of the bullae we have found are broken.

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Bulla made in our lab

How We Made the Bullae

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First, we mixed regular store bought clay with some of the ashy Temple Mount soil left over from the sifting. This is called tempering the clay. Untempered clay will shrink and crack during drying or firing. In ancient times, as today, different forms of temper are added to wet clay in order to provide greater strength. Sand, crushed rock, or even crushed broken pottery can be used as temper, and each material, and the percentage of temper used, affects the finished product. Haggai added about 5% Temple Mount soil to the clay. (Right)

Next, a marble sized piece of clay was then folded around a string. We then used the stamp seal to impress the clay onto a sack. (The seal is stone, and was therefore unaffected by the clay. Don’t worry! We take care of our artifacts!) The impressions are real, but they are modern and not an antiquity. We therefore wrote “copy” on the back so that none of these bullae will be mistaken for antiquities or sold on the black market.

Finally, the impressions were burned in a fire. Because fires, unlike ovens, do not have a consistent temperature, some of the bullae blackened while others maintained their brownish color. Some also fell into the ashes. All of this actually made these bullae look much like the seal impressions that we have found at the Sifting Project.

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20170105_135709We then boxed them up in the cardboard finds boxes that archaeologists know so well and gave them their own artifact tag. Archaeologists need to label where their important finds were found, so tags always include the site, the area, the locus, and the basket number designating the place that the artifact was found. They also include the date and a short description. Our seal impressions don’t have a real provenance, so the numbers on our tags are the actual numbers from the seal itself!

Watch the whole process!!

I don’t know about you, but this whole process has made me want my own stamp seal. I could send letters sealed in wax! I wonder what the post office would think… I have vivid memories of doing that with my dad and sealing letters with old coins and green wax.

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