A huge gold medallion and a trove of gold pieces went on display at the Israel Museum for the first time since their discovery last year at the base of the Temple Mount, the museum announced Monday.
The find, made last year by a Hebrew University team led by Professor Eilat Mazar near the Temple Mount’s Southern Wall, was dated to the early 7th century CE, in all likelihood the time of the brief Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE. It includes 36 gold Byzantine coins, gold bracelets, earrings, a silver ingot, a gold-plated hexagonal prism and the large golden medallion embossed with Jewish motifs.
David Mevorach, senior curator of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Archaeology, said that the special exhibit showcasing the rare artifacts was open in time for the Jewish High Holidays, which is appropriate given the decorations on the medallion. The gold disk, which is believed by Mazar to have served as ornamentation for a Torah scroll, is emblazoned with a seven-armed menorah, a shofar — the ram’s horn traditionally blown on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement — and what Mazar identified as a small Torah scroll.
Mevorach, however, is less certain of the Torah scroll hypothesis. Speaking with The Times of Israel, he explained that there are no depictions of a vertical Torah scroll from the 7th century CE, as would appear on the medallion. The holy text is typically shown horizontally inside an ark in representations from that period and before, he said. A 1,700-year-old gilt glass disc from Rome on display at the museum features such a decoration.
Instead, he contends that the symbol to the menorah’s right is a bundle of myrtle, willow and palm branches — three of the four species bound together during the Sukkot holiday. While at first glance the object on the right appears to be a Torah scroll covered in an embroidered mantle, “the fact of the matter is that we don’t know such Torah scrolls from the 7th century CE. We’ve never seen such things.”
“We do however know of depictions of the lulav (palm) and haddasim (myrtle) on the right side of a menorah,” albeit stylistically different, Mevorach said.
Mazar, however, pointed out that a palm frond is always depicted as pointy, and never in the fashion of the object depicted on the medallion. The item, she noted has the unmistakable rounded ends of a wooden roller.
“The more logical thing is that we have a Torah scroll here,” she argued. “To say it’s the four species, especially a lulav, it’s impossible.”
Mazar added that depictions of the holy text alongside a menorah were far more common in the Diaspora than in Palestine at the time, and that Diasporic Jews in the 6th and 7th centuries ascribed greater divinity to Torah scrolls than their Palestinian coreligionists.
“In the Land of Israel, the Torah scroll itself wasn’t lent real holiness — they didn’t consider [the object itself] sacred,” she explained. “In the Diaspora it received such interpretation, much more so than in the land [of Israel].”
Despite the scholarly disagreement over the symbolism found on the four-inch diameter ornament, there’s no question of its uniqueness.
The medallion was “really something exceptional,” he said.
“We know similar chains with medallions or other pendants from the Christian world at the time that priests…[and] other senior members of the Church wore in ceremonies, and we have quite a number of them in excavations and collections” from the 6th and 7th centuries CE, Mevorach explained. But its style is undocumented in the Jewish world at the time.
The small exhibit, located in the archaeology wing’s early Christian-era section, includes a short video on where and how the collection of gold and silver objects was found, “so people can appreciate exactly where the find was, so close to the Temple Mount, which is of course relevant.”
The treasure’s exact origins and purpose remain uncertain. Archaeologists don’t know why it was assembled, don’t know why exactly it was hidden, don’t know to whom it belonged, and don’t know the nature of the building in which it was buried and found roughly 1,400 years later, Mevorach said. Even the year it dates from is not entirely clear.
“We assume it was hidden in 614 CE during the Persian conquest,” he said. “Usually the reason to hide a treasure or hoard is some kind of catastrophe or danger, and 614 is a good candidate for that.”
In that year, after centuries of Roman rule, the Sassanian Empire under King Khosru II invaded Byzantine Palestine and, with 20,000 Jewish soldiers from the Galilee, took Jerusalem. In the tumultuous 14 years that followed, Palestinian Jews were taxed and deported to Persia, until the Jews sought Roman help to drive out the Sassanians, which was accomplished in 628.
Mazar pointed out that the trove was found divided into two purses, one of coins and the other of silver and gold items which included the medallion. She posited that the assorted objects — a coil of gold, a couple of silver rods she identified as clasps, golden earrings — were ornamentation for a Torah scroll.
“I don’t think it just so happened that there was a Torah scroll next to the menorah,” she said, ” but rather that all these items were essentially decorations for an entire Torah scroll.”
Mevorach voiced greater skepticism. “Was it just another hoard, like the ones we know at Beit She’an or other places, collected for their value, to melt and use as a monetary source? Was it used by a silversmith for the metals?”
“We’re in the dark as to the purpose of the collection,” he said.