The discovery of a distinctive table used to measure standard amounts of liquids by a paved town square along the road leading to Temple Mount suggests that ancient Jerusalem’s main agora has been found, archaeologists say.
The production of wine and olive oil were major industries in this region for thousands of years, produced throughout the arable areas of what is today Israel, from the Negev to the north. Facilities used to produce industrial amounts have been found from many periods: olive oil goes back at least 8,000 years, and wine goes back at least the same.
Israel Antiquities Authority researchers Nahshon Szanton, Moran Hagbi and Meidad Shor directed the excavations along the Pilgrimage Road and previously found a large, open area dating back around 2,000 years on the street to the Second Temple. Now, the discovery of the measuring table and a large number of scale weights, all made of stone, attest to brisk trading there, says Ari Levi of the IAA.
To be clear, the table – found in excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the City of David National Park – wasn’t used to sell the liquids. It belonged to the Roman inspector of measurements and weights, known as the agoranomos, and was used to “calibrate” the vessels that merchants used to sell the liquids, for the peace of mind of all.
Consider: you are a merchant in antiquity. Your customer wants the ancient equivalent of a liter of olive oil. You want to sell him a liter of olive oil. So far so good. Your customer doesn’t want to get less and you don’t want to give more. So, you use a vessel approved by the inspector of measurements and weights.
Exact volumes in the merchants’ vessels would be marked using these distinctive tables.
These tables had multiple dips with a hole in their bottom, each dip being of a specific volume. The surviving fragment of the newly found table had two different volume cavities, each with a drain at the bottom.
The inspector would “plug” the drain at the bottom of a given cavity, probably with a finger. Then he would fill the cavity with the requisite wine or olive oil up to the requisite point – say, the equivalent of a liter. Then he would remove his finger and allow that liter to drain into the merchant’s vessel. The merchant could then mark the side of the vessel to show “This much is a liter,” as confirmed by the inspector.
In other words, this distinctive table created a standard by which the market would operate fairly. Traders could calibrate their measuring vessels using this uniform standard, the Israel Antiquities Authority explains. “In my childhood we would buy milk this way,” says Prof. Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa and a consultant on the discoveries.
The fragment the researchers found is a few dozen centimeters long and itself would have stood on its legs on another table, probably made of wood. The merchants’ vessels would be placed on that wooden platform beneath the relevant drains.
Liquid measurement tables used by ancient Rome’s inspectors here have been found so far only in Jerusalem, while excavating the Old City’s Jewish Quarter in the 1970s, and another in Shoafat. Another was found at Maresha (in Beit Guvrin): that one had four volumes, Reich tells Haaretz.
Since it is broken, we can’t know how many volumes the Jerusalem market table could measure, he adds. Hopefully the rest of it will still be found.
Reich says the discovery of the table fragment could indicate that this part of the Second Temple-period city – the road between Siloam and Temple Mount – housed the office of the agoranomos of Jerusalem. It was a commonplace function in other cities throughout the Roman Empire in ancient times, he says.
Its manufacture of stone is interesting, because making vessels with stone whenever possible was a hallmark of ancient Jewish Jerusalem. “In that period they preferred stone for many types of vessels. Observant Jews had developed rules for purity and decided that stone cannot become contaminated. We don’t know why they decided that,” Reich says. Now as then, it’s simply a given. “So, whenever possible – they made things of stone.”
Pottery, on the other hand, cannot be purified once contaminated, according to the rules: defiled vessels have to be discarded. Wood, metal and textile objects may be purified anew by being dipped in a mikveh (ritual bath), of which around 200 have been found in ancient Jerusalem alone – a vast concentration. A family even found one underneath its living room.
It is true that some implements don’t lend themselves to migration to stone. For instance, cooking pots can’t reasonably be made of stone because they won’t get hot enough in any reasonable amount of time. They need thin walls, Reich explains.
But this is why manufacture with stone became, specifically during the ancient Roman period of Jerusalem, quite the obsession, he says. Jewish households of the time – and not only in Jerusalem – also ate off tableware made of stone.
In 2017, a factory making stoneware for Jewish households 2,000 years ago was found in the Galilee. A combo cave-quarry-workshop, its existence between Nazareth and Kafr Kana has led archaeologists to postulate that the Jews of the Galilee were just as observant as their Jerusalemite brethren. It bears adding that other peoples of antiquity happily used clay vessels for their food storage and usage.
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