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ArchaeologyImported weight system predates coin use

Weight, weight: Western wall dig uncovers flubbed 2,700-year-old 2-shekel stone

23-gram limestone weight displays ‘very rare’ — and perhaps ignorant — craftsmanship by local who was likely unfamiliar with Egyptian style used at the time

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

  • The 2,700-year-old limestone two shekel weight next to a modern two shekel coin. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The 2,700-year-old limestone two shekel weight next to a modern two shekel coin. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • The 2,700-year-old limestone two shekel weight. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The 2,700-year-old limestone two shekel weight. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • The 2,700-year-old limestone two shekel weight. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    The 2,700-year-old limestone two shekel weight. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)

A uniquely inscribed 2,700-year-old limestone two shekel weight recently discovered in earth excavated near the Western Wall in Jerusalem is a “very rare” example — of poor craftsmanship. The weight’s inscription, said excavation co-director Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon, indicates the craftsman was “not familiar with the international symbol” for such stones, and so instead incised “something close enough.”

During the First Temple period, the coin-sized, 23-gram round stone was part of a precise set of internationally recognized weights and measures imported from Egypt that were used in the Land of Israel for both temple worship and the marketplace.

The Egyptian weight system was based on units of eight, as opposed to the more known decimal system, which is base-10, that appears often in the Bible, Monnickendam-Givon told The Times of Israel. During the Iron Age, the Egyptian weight system was used in international commerce, and its implementation in the Land of Israel is an indication that the fledgling monarchy saw itself as an international player.

The weight was found in dirt from Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists Monnickendam-Givon and Tehillah Lieberman’s ongoing excavations under the Western Wall Heritage Foundation’s headquarters at Beit Strauss, directly alongside subterranean portions of the Western Wall.

Much like the weight stones already discovered in excavations in Israel since the 1950s, the smooth round stone discovered during wet sifting of the excavated earth from the near Western Wall is incised with the Egyptian symbol resembling a Greek gamma (γ). The Egyptian symbol was used in the First Temple period to represent abbreviated unit “shekel,” according to an IAA press release, and next to the large shekel symbol, two parallel lines were incised to indicate the double mass value, or two shekels.

The 2,700-year-old limestone two shekel weight. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)

While hundreds of two-shekel weight stones have been uncovered in excavations in and near ancient Jerusalem, this example is “very rare,” Monnickendam-Givon told The Times of Israel. It is the first uncovered during this current excavation and points to a “very local manufacture,” he said: The craftsman was apparently ignorant of the proper Egyptian symbol generally used to mark these stones.

“In most of the weights, the [shekel] symbol is rounded. In ours, it is triangle,” said Monnickendam-Givon.

“Perhaps one of the reasons is that whoever incised it wasn’t familiar with the exact original form, so he made a ‘lookalike,'” said Monnickendam-Givon.

A set of four inscribed weights from the First Temple shekel weight system found in the 1963 Ophel excavations under Kathleen Kenyon, which are today displayed in the Louvre. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/ToI)

While the inscription of the Egyptian symbol is dubiously done, the weight of the stone was precise. Single shekel stones found in archaeological digs show they weigh an average of 11.5 grams. “Thus a double shekel should weigh 23 grams – exactly as this weight does,” said the archaeologists in the press release.

“The accuracy of the weight attests to advanced technological skills as well as to the weight given to precise trade and commerce in ancient Jerusalem. Coins were not yet in use during this period, therefore accuracy of the weights played a significant role in business,” said the archaeologists.

Dr. Barak Monnickendam-Givon at the excavations under Beit Straus in Jerusalem’s Old City, near the Western Wall, May 2020. (Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The First Temple period predated the use of coins. Instead, the shekel system of weights was used to indicate to marketplace vendors and their clients the relative worth of their items.

“A woman in the market used it to buy her spices and food,” said Monnickendam-Givon.

Another common use of the shekel weight system was for tax collection for Temple upkeep through a per capita half-shekel tax, which has biblical roots in Exodus 30:12: “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his soul to the Lord when you number them … half a shekel.”

The practice of the half-shekel tax continued through the Second Temple period — by which time dedicated coins were in use — and is recorded in the New Testament in the Book of Matthew. In 2008 a shekel of Tyre, which researchers believe Jesus and Peter used to pay the Temple head tax, was discovered in the City of David. Only a handful of others have been discovered, despite the yearly tax.

Illustrative: The shekel unit (around 11.3 g) is marked by the symbol ᴕ (Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority, photograph: Yael Yolovich)

During the First Temple period and later, say Monnickendam-Givon and Lieberman in the press release, the site adjacent to the Western Wall where the two-shekel weight was discovered was a bustling place. And just like coins are easily lost, so too with this round weight measure.

“Year-round and especially during the times of pilgrimage, the area at the foot of the Temple Mount was sure to be busy. Locals and pilgrims would have traded for sacrifices and offerings as well as for food, souvenirs and other commodities. A weight such as the one discovered would have been used to measure accurate amounts of products at the market,” they said.

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