Archaeology'Of course, it’s connected to Passover'

Intriguing Greek-inscribed token was likely traded for feast offerings at Second Temple

Experts think several small clay artifacts uncovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project were used by visitors to Jerusalem during the three pilgrimage festivals

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Clay token found in the sifting of dirt from the Temple Mount, bearing a Greek inscription and impression of a wine jug. (Zachi Dvira/Temple Mount Shifting Project)
Clay token found in the sifting of dirt from the Temple Mount, bearing a Greek inscription and impression of a wine jug. (Zachi Dvira/Temple Mount Shifting Project)

A small, 2,000-year-old clay token inscribed with Greek letters and an image of a wine jug, found among sifted debris from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, was probably used during the Second Temple period when making offerings at the Temple, according to an announcement last week from the Temple Mount Sifting Project.

It is likely that pilgrims purchased ceramic tokens and then exchanged them for an offering during one of the three traditional pilgrimage festivals, a practice described in the Mishna, the press release noted, while adding that many unanswered questions surround the artifact. The holiday of Passover, which begins this year on Monday evening, is one of those pilgrimage festivals, along with Shavuot and Sukkot.

“Of course, it’s connected to Passover, it’s a time of pilgrimage when people bring their offerings. They would ascend to the Temple and bring their tributes, usually the first produce and other kinds of items that the Torah requires,” explained Zachi Dvira, co-founder and director of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, speaking by phone with The Times of Israel.

“First, you have the Passover sacrifice. Then they used to stay in Jerusalem during the [week-long] holiday, and for their private offerings would buy the tokens” to exchange for offerings because it was impractical for pilgrims to bring with them all the specific offerings needed, Dvira said.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project began in 2004 and is dedicated to slowly combing through the tons of debris and dirt that was dumped outside of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1999 by the Jordanian waqf, the Islamic authority that has official religious control over the Temple Mount.

The ceramic token that continues to intrigue researchers was found back in 2011 and contains an impression of a type of wine jar along with six Greek letters which some experts think spell out the word “Doulês,” a known personal name in Thrace, Macedonia and parts of the Black Sea, areas which at the time had thriving Jewish communities.

This picture taken from the Mount of Olives shows the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 8, 2024. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

This token with Greek lettering and wine jug impression aligns with Mishnaic text which discusses wine offerings in the Temple, Dvira explained. The practice of purchasing tokens and then exchanging them for the actual offerings is discussed in a separate section of the Mishna.

The Greek lettered token can be “firmly dated” to the first century BCE, the time of King Herod, due to the “shape of the wine jug” and its similarity to other known tokens, Dvira explained.

“You know, all Jews didn’t speak Hebrew, they came from abroad, and Greek was an international language even in the Roman world,” so it could be that the token was specially made for Greek-speaking pilgrims, Dvira said. It is known that some Greek was used for administrative purposes in the Temple compound, he noted.

‘Pure to God’?

The Greek-inscribed token is very similar to another found around the same time which has an impression in Aramaic, and has been interpreted as either spelling out “pure to God” or as abbreviations representing the date when the token was purchased, which could have been an attempt to prevent counterfeiting, a known concern.

These two specific artifacts, along with two others found in Jerusalem’s Old City, represent the only clay tokens found of this type and were examined in a 2023 article, “A New Type of Roman Period Clay Tokens from Jerusalem,” by Dr. Yoav Farhi, an Israeli archaeologist who specializes in numismatics — the study of coins and currency — in ancient Israel.

Speaking to The Times of Israel by phone before the Passover holiday, Farhi explained that these four tokens, although related to other seals and tokens found in Jerusalem and throughout the Roman and Greek worlds, are unique because of their conical-shaped, pinched backs.

“We are familiar with hundreds of clay seals, tokens and bulla from the Temple period. Here it’s totally different because the back is so different. It seems they were not attached to documents” like regular seals would have been, Farhi explained.

Tokens of different kinds were used “everywhere in the Roman and Hellenistic world,” he said, similar to paper tickets or coupons today, which are purchased or acquired and then traded for a specific item or service.

“They had no paper, they had clay. The importance is what appears on the clay. If you have the seal on it, it changes its function. It’s not like a coin, made of metal, which has its own value. Here, the clay has no value, but since it is stamped with the stamp of someone, this gives importance to the token,” Farhi explained.

Wet-sifting dirt at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (courtesy)

Because of their unique shape, the Mishnaic mention of tokens used in acquiring Temple offerings and the discovery of the Jerusalem tokens in proximity to the Temple Mount, “I do believe they are related to the Temple, but we don’t have clear proof… We have more questions than answers regarding these objects. Who made them? In which context? How were they used? Were they one-time tokens? Or you could reuse them again and again?” Farhi asked.

There are certainly more of these items, but finding them is “more luck than anything else,” Farhi said. “We hope to discover more evidence in the future and find a definite answer someday.” In the meantime, “it’s okay to say we aren’t sure.”

A kaleidoscope of eras

Archaeologist Zachi Dvira, co-director of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, June 2, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

The Temple Mount Sifting Project has over the years found thousands of small items from various historical periods, and has especially provided unique insight into the First and Second Temple eras. Most of the work is done through a labor-intensive wet-sifting process, in which debris and dirt are systematically washed with water to reveal small items that might have been otherwise overlooked, such as the clay tokens discussed here.

However, the project has “always had problems with funding,” co-director Dvira lamented, and is currently facing a cash crunch due to a shift by donors to projects related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

“We are in a big problem now… we can continue until June, but after that, I don’t know what we will do,” Dvira said, noting that the organization has had to fire half its staff this year.

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