Israeli archeologists strike gold at Temple Mount

"Ophel Treasure" includes 36 coins, large gold medallion believed to date back to 614 CE.

ARCHEOLOGIST DR. Eilat Mazar 370 (photo credit: DANIEL K. EISENBUD)
ARCHEOLOGIST DR. Eilat Mazar 370
(photo credit: DANIEL K. EISENBUD)
A Hebrew University archeologist unveiled the “Ophel Treasure,” a collection of 36 gold coins and a large gold medallion believed to date back to 614 CE, at Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus campus Monday morning.
The gold artifacts were unearthed earlier this year approximately 50 meters from the Temple Mount’s southern wall, where Dr. Eilat Mazar has directed the Ophel excavation since 2009.
Hanging from a gold chain, the remarkably well kept and glittering 10-cm. medallion is engraved with a sevenbranched menorah, a shofar and a Torah.
Mazar, a third-generation archeologist at HU’s Institute of Archeology, said the medallion was likely used to adorn a Torah scroll.
“This is the biggest gift we could get for the new year and for Eretz Israel,” said Mazar, who deemed the discovery “one of the most important excavations” in the institute’s 45-year history.
“I’ve never found so much gold in my life!” she exclaimed.
According to Mazar, the coins and medallion were buried in a small depression in the floor – along with a smaller gold medallion, two pendants, a gold coil and a silver clasp – all of which are believed to be Torah-scroll ornaments.
If the medallion was indeed an ornament for a Torah scroll, it is the earliest such archeological find in history, said Mazar.
Indeed, Mazar, who has also lead excavations at the nearby City of David’s summit, described the findings as “a breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“We have been making significant finds from the First Temple period in this area – a much earlier time in Jerusalem’s history – so discovering a golden seven-branched menorah from the 7th century CE at the foot of the Temple Mount was a complete surprise,” she said.
Given the date of the coins and medallion, and the manner in which they were found, Mazar estimates they were abandoned during the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE.
“The position of the items as they were discovered indicates that one bundle was carefully hidden underground, while the second bundle was apparently abandoned in haste and scattered across the floor,” Mazar said.
After the Persians conquered Jerusalem, many Jews returned to the city and formed a majority of its population with hopes of finding political and religious freedom. However, as Persia’s power waned, instead of forming an alliance with the Jews the Persians sought the support of Christians, who ultimately expelled Jews from the capital.
“It would appear that the most likely explanation is that the findings were earmarked as a contribution toward the building of a new synagogue at a location that is near the Temple Mount,” said Mazar.
“What is certain is that their mission, whatever it was, was unsuccessful, and its owners couldn’t return to collect it,” she added.
According to Lior Sandberg, a numismatics specialist at the Institute of Archeology, the Ophel Treasure is only the third collection of gold coins to be found in archeological excavations in Jerusalem.
“The 36 gold coins can be dated to the reigns of different Byzantine emperors, ranging from the middle of the 4th century CE to the early 7th century CE,” said Sandberg on Monday.
Also found with the coins were a pair of large gold earrings, a gold-plated silver hexagonal prism and a silver ingot. Sandberg said remnants of fabric indicated that the items were once packaged in a cloth purse.
Asked how much all the gold was worth, Mazar demurred, calling it “priceless.”
“How can you estimate the value in light of the time it’s from?” she asked. “It is, of course, worth a lot.”
Mazar’s Ophel excavation made international headlines when she announced the 2012 discovery of a Hebrew Canaanite inscription believed to be the earliest alphabetically written text ever found.
The Ophel excavation has been funded by Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman, both of New York, since 2009. The project includes archeological excavations, the processing of the finds for publication, as well as the preservation and preparation of the site for its eventual public opening.
The Antiquities Authority is carrying out the preservation work and preparing the site for the public for an unspecified date.
Mazar said that after being showcased internationally, the Ophel Treasure will go on permanent display at the Israel Museum.