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Rare 2,000-year-old Jewish pilgrim clay token found at Temple Mount

Token sheds new light on practices surrounding Jerusalem's early Roman and Second Temple periods.

The clay token discovered at the Temple mount sifting project (Photo: The Temple mount sifting project page on Social media).

A clay token with a Greek inscription dating back 2,000 years was recently discovered during the ongoing effort of the Temple Mount Sifting Project in Jerusalem.

The remarkable artifact was discovered several years ago but was only recently announed.

The token sheds new light on the practices surrounding Jerusalem's early Roman and Second Temple periods. Among the array of findings from the sifting of debris was this small clay token adorned with an intricate Greek inscription and featuring a depiction of a wine jug.

The Temple Mount sifting project began in 2004 and has been led by the archaeologists Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira since 2004. According to the project's Facebook page, the Greek inscription was deciphered by a leading expert from Hebrew University, Dr. Leah DI Segni. The inscription, ΔΟΥ-ΛΟ[Υ] (DOULOU), should read "Doulês", the genitive of a personal name, a common name in Thrace, Macedonia and the northern regions of the Black Sea, where Jews had settled by the late Hellenistic-Early Roman periods.

These tokens may have played a pivotal role in the rituals carried out at the Temple during the annual pilgrimage festivals, such as Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. During these festivals, countless Jewish pilgrims flocked to the sacred city, offering tributes at God's Temple as part of their religious observances.

According to the archaeologist Zachi Dvira, it is likely that Jewish pilgrims acquired these ceramic tokens in exchange for offerings, as transporting specific items directly would have been impractical. These tokens may have provided a practical solution for pilgrims to partake in the religious rites mandated by the Jewish commandments and the Torah.

The unearthing of this token provides a fascinating glimpse into the vibrant religious life of ancient Jerusalem, particularly during the era of King Herod in the first century B.C.E. The Greek inscription and depiction of the wine jug hint at connections to Greek-speaking pilgrims, underscoring the diverse linguistic and cultural tapestry of the ancient Jewish world.

It is well known that the Jewish diaspora had already expanded during this period, mainly for commercial reasons. Jews settled in different places around the Mediterranean Sea and especially in Greek and Hellenistic towns like Alexandria. Their main language was Greek.

Setting it apart from conventional clay sealings, known as bullae, this token boasts a distinctive pinched back, suggesting it was designed for handling rather than for attachment to a document or container. This unique feature boosts its significance, offering valuable insights into its intended function and the prevailing customs of the period.

Adding to the intrigue is the striking resemblance between this token and another specimen unearthed near the Temple Mount, which bears an Aramaic inscription. Initially understood to express the notion of being "pure to God," this Aramaic token correlates with Mishnaic texts that discuss offerings, especially the wine libations that were poured at the Temple altar.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project is dedicated to unraveling Jerusalem's rich history, with thousands of artifacts that provide a glimpse into the daily lives, religious practices, and cultural interactions of ancient times. The project remains steadfast in its mission to unearth and safeguard Jerusalem's heritage for future generations. However, due to the ongoing Iron Swords War, the project urgently requires additional funding to support these critical scientific efforts to preserve Israel's history.

Initiated in 2004, the sifting project aims to salvage the vast quantities of soil and debris forcibly removed by heavy-duty trucks from the Mount's vicinity, then discarded beyond the confines of the Old City walls. This illicit operation, orchestrated by the Muslim Waqf – a religious body tasked with overseeing the upkeep of the Temple Mount – sparked outrage among Israelis. They argued that the Waqf prioritized Islamic interests while disregarding Israeli authorities and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

In the aftermath, during the years following the illegal Waqf's digging, critics lambasted the government for permitting the Waqf's actions, which resulted in irreparable harm to the World Heritage site. Jewish organizations subsequently lobbied for the establishment of the sifting project in response to these concerns.

Dr. Yoav Farhi published an extensive research paper focused on various clay tokens unearthed in Jerusalem. These include the two aforementioned tokens discovered during the Temple Mount Sifting Project, along with another token bearing a poorly preserved impression. In addition, a token excavated during an archaeological dig led by Prof. Nachman Avigad in the Jewish Quarter in 1970,was also featured in his study.

As researchers delve deeper into the significance of these discoveries, the narrative of Jerusalem's history generally, and the Second Temple period specifically, continues to evolve, offering fresh insights into the traditions and beliefs of ancient civilizations.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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