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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 Unless others are unpublished, this was the first glass astragaloi found in Jerusalem.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.

Evidence of Greeks on the Temple Mount

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It’s all Greek to Me

There are donuts EVERYWHERE and we are getting in the holiday season! As Channukkah approaches, we wanted to share with you one of our important finds relating to the Greeks on the Temple Mount. At the beginning of the project, we found a handle from an amphora that was stamped by an official from the Greek Island of Rhodes. This unique find from our sifting dates to the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV and constitutes a direct link to the Greco-Seleucid regime.

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Coin bearing the image of Antiochus Epiphanes IV, the villain of the Channukkah Story. Found by the Sifting Project

The Amphora handle is stamped with a round Rhodian stamp showing the Rhodian Rose and surrounded by the Greek legend  Ἐπὶ Θεαιδ̣[ήτου Ὑ]ακινθίου” – “during [the reign of the eponym] Theaidetos, [in the month of] Hyakinthios.” Theaidetos received one of the highest honors bestowed upon a government official, and the year was named after him. Because each official had the position of Eponym for only one year, dating artifacts marked with these symbols becomes very precise (though not perfect). Gerald Finkielsztejn dates Theaidetos to somewhere between 175-170 BCE which is  during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who looted the Temple treasury and introduced pagan worship to the Temple Mount.

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Rhodian Amphora Handle found by the Sifting Project

About 1200 stamped amphorae handles have been found in excavations in Jerusalem, but this is the only one found within soil from the Temple Mount. (We have found other non-stamped amphora handles.) Our research on this handle indicates that it may be related to the founding of the Akra fortress, the headquarters of the Seleucid garrison, which was constructed not far from the Temple Mount shortly after the date on the amphora handle. The amphora, which was used for the import of non-kosher wine from the Island of Rhodes, could have served the non-Jewish residents of the Akra. It is interesting that although many of these stamped Greek amphorae handles have been found in Jerusalem, most sites dating to that period having at least a few, we have only found 1 in the last 12 years of sifting. This shows a lesser Greek influence on the Temple Mount itself, despite Antiochus’ idolatry on the Temple Mount.

Akra

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Bust of Flavius Josephus

There is much debate in archaeology about where exactly the Akra was located. Both Macabees and Josephus talk about the fortress, but neither details its exact location. What we do know is that Antiochus IV Epiphanes built the Akra in 168 B.C. as a fortress for his Macedonian garrison from which the Jewish population could be controlled. Josephus records that it “commanded or overlooked the Temple.” In Antiquities 12.252, he writes that Antiochus:

“… built the Akra in the Lower City; for it was high enough to overlook the Temple, and it was for this reason that he fortified it with high walls and towers, and stationed a Macedonian garrison therein. Nonetheless there re­mained in the Akra those of the (Jewish) people who were impious and of bad character, and at their hands the citizens were destined to suffer many terrible things.”

It is important to remember that at that time, the Temple Mount was much smaller that that which we know today. The Second Temple, in its earliest form at the time of Nehemia through the Hellenistic period had a smaller, square shape. It wasn’t until Herod enlarged the platform and renovated the Temple around 20 BCE that the Temple Mount took the form that we know it in today.