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ArchaeologyOnly gold bead ever found in earth sifted from Temple Mount

Gold bead, apparently lost on Temple Mount 3,000 years ago, found by 9-year-old

When Binyamin Milt uncovered the bead as he sifted earth for Temple Mount Sifting Project, it was so well-preserved that archaeologists initially didn’t realize its unique nature

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A First Temple-era gold bead discovered in earth from the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (courtesy)
A First Temple-era gold bead discovered in earth from the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (courtesy)

A first ever First Temple-era gold granule bead was discovered during wet sifting of earth from the Temple Mount by a nine-year-old. Jerusalemite Binyamin Milt uncovered the perfectly preserved minute cylinder, created by four layers of tiny gold balls.

The bead was in such outstanding condition that it was initially dismissed as a modern “invader” into the jumbled earth and artifact bucket that the Milt family was sifting.

The family was sifting through dirt for the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which salvaged tons of dirt that were discarded in the Kidron Valley between 1996 and 1999 by the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement during a large-scale building project on the Temple Mount, a site holy to all three monotheistic religions. Volunteers have for the past 16 years been sorting through the jumble of debris and earth that was illegally excavated from the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism and site of the third holiest shrine in Islam.

Nine-year-old Milt found the bead in August, but its unique nature was only recognized recently, the Temple Mount Sifting Project said on Thursday, after project co-director Prof. Gabriel Barkay took a closer look. The dating of the bead has now been drastically adjusted back to the First Temple period, based on examples Barkay had excavated at Ketef Hinnom, located next to the Menachem Begin Center in Jerusalem.

In the late 1970s, Barkay recovered several almost-identical silver beads that were manufactured using the same “granulation” technique as the newly found gold bead at the site where the silver priestly blessing scrolls — considered the oldest written example from the Hebrew Bible — were uncovered, along with troves of jewelry and other artifacts. According to Barkay, granulation is a decorative technique also known from Phoenician and Etruscan jewelry.

9-year-old Binyamin Milt at the Jerusalem-based Temple Mount Sifting Project, August 2020. (courtesy)

Similar beads were also found at other Holy Land sites in contexts ranging from the 13th century BCE up to the 4th century BCE, with the overwhelming majority dating to the Iron Age (12th century BCE up to the 6th century BCE), according to the Sifting Project.

Tel Aviv University Prof. Benjamin Sass said that such granule beads are known from the Late Bronze Age and even potentially from the Middle Bronze Age. They are found in all stages of the Iron Age, in the Helenistic era, through possibly the Roman era.

Project co-director Zachi Dvira said that what makes this unique find even more curious is that it is extremely rare to find gold jewelry outside of graves or treasure troves.

Dvira acknowledges that when looking at the tiny, 6 mm diameter and 4 mm high bead, “It’s difficult to explain why a bead is so interesting and important. But it’s very curious whose bead it was,” he explained to The Times of Israel. “It’s not like today when everyone can have gold jewelry, back then it was very rare, and not for the common people.”

Gold jewelry was usually recycled from generation to generation, said Dvira, such that the discovery of even a small gold bead is rare in archaeological contexts.

Archaeologist Zachi Dvira on the Temple Mount, June 18, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Though the bead is itsy bitsy, he described it as “heavy” due to the purity of the metal and the highly specialized granulation methodology used to form it. This handmade bead is fashioned from four layers, each made of tiny gold balls that adhere to each other, but more simple examples were made of a single circular layer.

According to Dvira, the process of granule formation used by artisans of the time was complex, involving several stages and a number of components. It requires the ability to melt the metal at high temperatures, and a high level of skill from the artisan. He told The Times of Israel it is still unclear whether this level of skill was found in the Land of Israel during the First Temple period, but that research is ongoing.

To create the bead, Dvira said, “The granules are shaped from tiny metal pieces which are melted on a bed of charcoal or charcoal powder, which adsorbs air, preventing oxidation. Once the metal melts, [the] surface tension of the liquid creates ball-shaped drops. An alternative method involves dripping the liquid metal from a height into a bowl and constantly stirring the drops.”

A First Temple-era gold bead discovered in earth from the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (courtesy)

The technique of wet sifting used by the project may be the key to the small bead’s discovery.

“Because we are sifting, we find relatively a lot of jewelry,” said Dvira, but not a lot of gold, especially not from such an early period. In the past 15 years, through the help of some 200,000 paying volunteers, the project has recovered over 500,000 artifacts, including 5,000 coins, inscriptions, mountains of pottery, Egyptian-era cultic items, jewelry, and remnants of warfare.

Dvira emphasized that the project is continuing its work at its new home at the Masu’ot Lookout in spite of the the coronavirus crisis, under the government social distancing guidelines (“Tav Sagol”) and through the help of American Friends of Beit Orot and the Israel Archaeology Foundation. The project works under the scientific auspices of Bar-Ilan University and a revolving staff of a dozen archaeologists supervise the volunteers working from the 20 tables set up for the wet sifting.

Dvira is hopeful that the bead was part of a bracelet or necklace that may have left behind other beads.

“If there’s a bead from gold, the person didn’t have just one bead, he or she had a whole piece of jewelry from gold,” Dvira said.

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