IN PHOTOS: Excavating the Great Temple at Motza Near Jerusalem

Ruth Schuster
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Dawn light strikes the ancient temple under the highway bridge at Motza
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

One isn’t usually grateful for an overpass over one’s head. But if this accoutrement to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway hadn’t been erected, we might never have seen the huge early ninth-century B.C.E. temple at Motza, contemporary with the First Temple in Jerusalem just 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) away. And the archaeologists wouldn’t be able to peacefully and meticulously excavate in the shadow of the bridge as traffic roars by overhead.

Shua Kisilevitz of Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority and Prof. Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University are leading the 2021 summer dig of the temple at Motza (alternatively spelled Moza). But who exactly was worshipped there is quite the question.

On Monday, the archaeologists unearthed a rather weatherbeaten horse figurine. Another one, that is. The coarsely depicted quadruped was apparently one of many figurines that had squatted on a shelf inside the temple, which was built in exactly the same format as the First Temple (reportedly built by Solomon), according to the biblical account of what that edifice had been like.

And possibly also like Solomon’s temple, this one may have served to worship various deities, including Yahweh.

Among the other finds at the site are silos. A lot of silos. Dozens of them. They probably served to store grain. And lo, in contrast to the great temple in Jerusalem, this one survived the ages, and may survive many more thanks to the shelter provided by Route 1. Here are some of the latest discoveries at the Summer 2021 excavation of the great temple at Motza.

In the shadow of the Route 1 bridge
The altar in the Motza temple
The altar at the Motza temple, from the early 9th century B.C.E.
The altar at the Motza temple, from the early 9th century B.C.E. Credit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

Who exactly was worshiped there is not clear.

Horse figurine discovered this summer
Weathered but unmistakable
Credit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

The temple had a whole shelf of figurines. Asked it could have been a donkey, Lipschits says, No.

Through the gap between the lanes
Dawn light shines on the temple at Motza
Dawn light strikes the ancient temple under the highway bridge at Motza
Dawn light strikes the ancient temple under the highway bridge at MotzaCredit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

Yes, the pillars supporting the bridge "trample" part of the ancient temple. Supervisor Vanessa Linares (sitting) documenting finds while Assistant Area Supervisor Nicole Callaway from TAU and Julian Meyer from Osnabruck University remove buckets of earth from the square and Jana Krizova (below) from Charles University in Prague articulates the various floor layers of the temple courtyard as seen in a section remaining from the 2012 season.  

The site features dozens of silos
The silos at Motza weren't huge in diameter
Credit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

Area Supervisor Jocelyn Burney of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill exposes yet another early silo north of the temple

Food storage goes back over 7000 years
A concentration of silos at Motza
Credit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

A field of silos that predate the temple is exposed to its north, indicating that the site was first and foremost an economic center for the storage of agricultural produce during the early first millennium BCE

A highway bridge was built smack on top of the temple
But on the bright side -
Credit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

If it hadn't been, we wouldn't know about the temple, Oded Lifschits points out.

Stone arrowhead found at Motza
Very finely manufactured, of flint
Credit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

The First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This one wasn't

First all dug-up dirt is closely examined
And once the dirt is deemed barren - it gets tossed
Credit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

Via a human chain passing pails of debris down the line

A first at Motza:
The site was evidently settled during the Persian period
The first Yehud stamp impression found at Moẓa. This impression and additional vessels found in the collapse of a structure south of the temple courtyard prove that Moẓa was still settled during the Persians Period.
The first Yehud stamp impression found at Moẓa. This impression and vessels found in a collapsed structure south of the temple courtyard prove that Motẓa was still settled during the Persian periodCredit: David Raphael Moulis (Charles University, Prague)

Yehud stamp impressions were used for about a century during the Persian and Hellenistic periods

Prof. Martin Prudky of Charles University, Prague
A fragment of a large bowl from the Iron Age
Prof. Martin Prudky with a bowl fragment
Prof. Martin Prudky with a bowl fragmentCredit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

Just one of many pottery vessels the professor retrieved from the collapse of a structure south of the temple courtyard

Lots of pottery was found at the site
Including some large fragments -
Bowl fragment, Motza
Bowl fragment, MotzaCredit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS
Rim of a storage jar
Some of these were huge
Base fragment
Bowl fragmentCredit: DAVID RAFAEL MOULIS

Talisa Gross from Osnabruck University in Germany, happy with the discovery of the rim of a late Iron Age holemouth storage jar

Team directors see results
Fragments that tell stories
Shua Kisilevitz  (left), Oded Lipschits (middle right) studying fragments found at the site
Shua Kisilevitz (left), Oded Lipschits (middle right) studying fragments found at the siteCredit: David Raphael Moulis (Charles University, Prague)
Happiness is -
Finding the base of a juglet in an Iron Age II town near Jerusalem.
Linda Buhmann of Osnabruck University in Germany showing off the base of a juglet from the late phase of the temple courtyard.
Linda Buhmann of Osnabruck University in Germany showing off the base of a juglet from the late phase of the temple courtyard.Credit: David Raphael Moulis (Charles University, Prague)

Linda Buhmann of Osnabruck University shows the base of a juglet from the late phase of the temple courtyard

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