Unique Second Temple-era podium has Jerusalem archaeologists puzzled

Researchers believe pyramid of stone blocks newly uncovered on Second Temple-era street may have been a public stage

Joe Uziel, co-director of an Israel Antiques Authority excavation, sitting atop the stepped structure from the Second Temple period in Jerusalem. (Shai Halevy/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

A newly exposed stepped structure of large stone blocks on an ancient street in Jerusalem may have been a platform for public announcements, the Israel Antiques Authority said on Monday.

The pyramid-shaped, finely hewn piece of masonry was uncovered on a 2,000-year-old street that led from the Siloam Pool up to the Temple Mount, where the Second Temple stood at the time.

Archaeologists Nahshon Szanton and Joe Uziel, who are leading the dig, said in a statement that the exact purpose of the raised podium was unclear as no similar dais has been found in previous excavations.

“The structure exposed is unique,” the statement said. “Its exact use remains enigmatic. The structure is built along the street in a place that is clearly visible from afar by passersby making their way to the Temple. We believe the structure was a kind of monumental podium that attracted the public’s attention when walking on the city’s main street.”

Ancient rabbinical sources say stone assemblies were used for public announcements in biblical times, and the Talmud intriguingly mentions a “Claims Stone” in Jerusalem where lost and found-related transactions took place.

A passage in the Talmudic tractate of Bava Metzia records that “our Rabbis taught: There was a Stone of Claims in Jerusalem: whoever lost an article repaired thither, and whoever found an article did likewise. The latter stood and proclaimed, and the former submitted his identification marks and received it back. And in reference to this we learnt: Go forth and see whether the Stone of Claims is covered.”

The archaeologists warned, however, that the passage from the Talmud — compiled during the 2nd-4th centuries CE, hundreds of years after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE — wasn’t a strong enough basis on which to build conclusions as to the structure’s purpose.

Israel Antiquity Authority archaeologists sit on a stair structure found on a street ascending the Siloam Pool to Jerusalem’s Old City, on August 31, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Given the lack of a clear archaeological parallel to the stepped structure, the purpose of the staircase remains a mystery,” they said in the statement. “It is certainly possible the rabbinical sources provide valuable information about structures such as this, although for the time being there is no definitive proof.”

Although British explorers first uncovered part of the edifice over a hundred years ago, they believed the stones were just steps leading into a house.

Around the base of the structure, excavators found dozens of complete pottery vessels, stone vessels, and glassware.

Archaeologists estimate the street was built around 30 CE, about 40 years before the the temple was destroyed by Rome, and ran through the lower city. Experts believe pilgrims, having ritually purified themselves by immersing in the Siloam Pool, which today lies outside the Old City’s Ottoman-era walls, would then walk up the steep street to the Temple.

Excavation of the well-preserved thoroughfare, which is lined with large stone slabs, was carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the City of David Foundation.

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