Israeli archaeologists digging the foundations of the Western Wall in Jerusalem have uncovered a two-shekel weight that was used more than 2,600 years ago during the First Temple period.
The domed limestone pebble, inscribed with an Egyptian symbol, comes from a time when coinage had not yet been introduced and was used to weigh precious metals with which people bought goods and services.
The find dates to the eighth or seventh century B.C.E. and may have been used at a nearby market where pilgrims or residents could acquire animals for sacrifices before ascending to the Temple, archaeologists said.
The artifact emerged during an excavation by the Israel Antiquities Authority under the so-called Wilson’s Arch, part of a Roman-era causeway that led to the Temple Mount, the IAA announced Tuesday.
The weight was not spotted during the excavation itself but by a project that uses volunteers, including tourists, to sift through debris removed from digs on or around the Temple Mount, the IAA said in a statement.
The project has previously yielded some important finds from the First Temple period, including another weight from the era and a seal impression bearing the name of the biblical king Hezekiah. The newly-uncovered two-shekel weight is typical of the time of the First Temple, which according to the Bible was built by King Solomon sometime in the 10th century B.C.E., but it was found at the base of the Western Wall, which was raised centuries later, in the Roman period, as part of King Herod’s grand redesign of the Second Temple.
This is because the builders of the Western Wall apparently used soil that contained remains from the biblical era to support and backfill the foundations of the massive structure, which today is the most visible remnant of the Second Temple.
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Those layers of sediment contained other refuse from the First Temple period, including fragments of pottery and figurines, said Tehillah Lieberman, an IAA archaeologist who co-directs the dig.
The excavation under Wilson’s Arch has uncovered a jumble of remains from different eras, including a small theater from the late Roman period that was built at the foot of the Western Wall.
“The theater dates to the second century, and now we are digging beneath it, exposing the foundations of the Western Wall,” Lieberman told Haaretz. One of the goals of the project is to determine who in fact built the Western Wall, she said. While it is common knowledge that Herod the Great began the expansion of the Temple Mount in the late first century B.C.E., recent archaeological evidence from the area suggests that he did not see the project completed, and that construction continued under Roman governors right up to the Great Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Temple by Rome’s legions in 70 C.E.
The two-shekel find that emerged from the dig will not help archaeologists answer this particular puzzle, but it illuminates a much earlier era.
The ancient weight is inscribed with an Egyptian symbol, slightly resembling the Greek letter gamma, which represented the biblical shekel unit, as well as two parallel lines, indicating that this was a double mass of the basic measuring unit, explained the IAA’s Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon, who heads the dig with Lieberman. We know from previous finds of this kind that the biblical shekel weighed 11.5 grams, and sure enough the artifact found next to the Western Wall weighs 23 grams, the archaeologist said.
“The accuracy of the weight attests to advanced technological skills as well as to the weight given to precise trade and commerce in ancient Jerusalem,” he said. “Coins were not yet in use during this period, therefore accuracy of the weights played a significant role in business.”
The word shekel comes from the Hebrew root S-Q-L which means “to weigh.” Back then, various sizes of this measurement unit would be placed on a scale to balance out silver or gold used to pay anything from the yearly half shekel tax for the upkeep of the Temple to food and other goods, Monnickendam-Givon said. The ancient system has inspired the name of modern Israel’s currency, which also has a two-shekel coin that could be considered the “descendant” of the 2,600-year-old weight which was found at the base of the Western Wall.
While it’s not every day that artifacts from the First Temple period emerge, the find is not exactly rare, as hundreds of weights from the era, of this and other standardized sizes, have been unearthed in Jerusalem and across Israel, Lieberman noted. What is more interesting to archaeologists is the location of this particular two-shekel weight, on the western side of the Temple Mount, she said. While it was not in its original context, it must have come from nearby, as the Roman-era builders of the Western Wall would have had no reason to bring in soil from far away to shore up their structure, she said.
Traditionally, biblical Jerusalem was believed to be mainly located to the south of the Temple, in what is today known as the “City of David” and was the original nucleus of the ancient town. But in recent years, archaeologists have uncovered many structures and finds from the late Iron Age, that is the end of the First Temple period, to the northwest of the City of David, indicating that Jerusalem had already expanded into the surrounding hills before it was captured and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.
In particular, the two-shekel weight suggests that there was a market nearby and the area was bustling with activity in the time of the First Temple.
“This was a place to see and be seen,” Lieberman told Haaretz. “Possibly there was a market at the foot of the Temple Mount where you could buy sacrifices or even just your lunch.”
“The more we excavate, the more we get a feel of what the city looked like during the First Temple period,” she added. “This find emphasizes that this was a central area already during this time and that Jerusalem was not only located to the south of the Temple Mount.”