The excavation of a 2,000-yearold Jewish settlement and synagogue from the Second Temple period in Magdala, located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, recently revealed rare and well-preserved antiquities, including a bronze incense shovel and jug.
The dig, overseen by the Israel Antiquities Authority prior to the construction of a building there, took place in an area considered to be the crossroads of Jewish and Christian history for its historical and religious significance for both Jews and Christians.
Magdala was once a large Jewish settlement in the early Roman period. Its Greek name, “Taricheae,” means “place where fish are salted,” possibly alluding to the main source of income of the city’s inhabitants two millennia ago.
“It is mentioned in Jewish sources and, at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, it served as Josephus’s main military base in his war against the Romans in the Galilee,” the IAA said in a statement.
Moreover, evidence of Magdala’s existence is also found in historical Christian sources where Christian tradition states it was the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, the Apostle of the apostles of Jesus.
According to the Gospel of Luke, “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out... follows Jesus until his crucifixion and according to John’s Gospel became the first witness of his resurrection.”
The Hebrew word for incense shovel is “mahta,” which is derived from the action of raking or gathering embers. It is mentioned in the Bible in Exodus 27:1–3: “You shall make the altar… you shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and fire pans; all its utensils you shall make of bronze.”
The mahta is believed to have been a sacred implement, much like the rest of the items that were utilized in the Temple, where it was mainly used for transferring embers from place to place, the IAA said.
Indeed, incense shovels frequently appear in Jewish art as one of the religious articles associated with the Temple, and they have been depicted on mosaic floors of synagogues alongside the menora, lulav and etrog.
Dina Avshalom-Gorni, the chief archeologist on behalf of the IAA, said the incense shovel that was found is one of only 10 others that are known in the country from the Second Temple period.
“From early research in the world, it was thought that the incense shovel was only used for ritual purposes; care for the embers and incense that were burnt in ritual ceremonies,” she said. “Over the years, after incense shovels were also discovered in a non-cult context, [it was determined that] apparently they were also used as tools for daily tasks.”
Avshalom-Gorni said the bronze incense shovel and jug were exposed lying next to each other on the floor in one of the rooms of a storehouse located adjacent to the dock of the large Jewish settlement.
“These implements might have been saved in the storeroom as heirlooms by a Jewish family living at Magdala, or they may have been used for daily work, as well,” she deduced.
In recent years, the authority has been leading extensive excavations at the site, overseen by Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar, in partnership with the Anahuac University of Mexico, led by the Mexican archeologist, Dr. Marcela Zapata-Meza.
During the dig at Magdala, Jewish ritual baths (mikvaot), streets, a marketplace and industrial facilities – as well as a synagogue, whose walls were decorated with colored plaster, along with mosaic floors along the pavement – were also revealed.
In the middle of the synagogue’s main hall, a stone was uncovered, well-known as the Magdala Stone, depicting the Second Temple of Jerusalem, within a carved seven-branched menora on one of its sides.
The synagogue, the IAA said, dates back to the early first century CE, Second Temple Period, and Jesus’s Public Ministry around the Galilee. It is now one of the seven oldest synagogues from this period uncovered in the country.
Archeologist Eyad Bisharat, who supervised the work in the excavation area on behalf of the authority, said volunteers from Chile, Mexico, Italy and Spain who assisted in the dig “were absolutely thrilled” by the discoveries.
“They simply could not calm down knowing that these artifacts had been waiting just below the surface for 2,000 years,” said Bisharat. “Even we veteran excavators were extremely excited because it’s not every day that one uncovers such rare artifacts as these, and in such a fine state of preservation.”
Arfan Najar, the archeologist leading the excavations on behalf of the IAA, said a similar incense shovel and jug were discovered by Yigael Yadin in a cache dating to the time of the Bar Kokhba uprising, which was revealed in the Cave of the Letters in the Judean Desert.
“Incense shovels have also been found in the Galilee at Bethsaida, Taiyaba and in Wadi Hammam, and across the country, but all-in-all, this is a very rare find,” said Najar.
The IAA said Magdala is presently open daily to the public and visitors can tour the remains of a first century Jewish town and Duc In Altum, a new prayer center at the site.
Next summer, according to the IAA, a group of volunteers and students from Mexico will continue digging in the southern area of the site.