From Mathematician to King Herod's Mason



The intriguing title of the lecture given by Frankie Snyder to our group of English-speaking women brought out a large number of members to hear her despite the pouring rain (which usually keeps Israelis in their homes).

Originally from the USA, where she graduated in mathematics, Ms. Snyder now lives in Israel and has been working for the last few years on the Israel Antiquities Authority endeavour known as the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Within this framework, for the last few years several archaeologists have been analysing the debris dumped by the Waqf authorities when they removed hundreds of tons of earth from the Temple Mount in order to construct a subterranean mosque.

Among the many priceless items that have come to light during the sifting process (coins, seals, tools, etc.) are stone fragments, many of which have been identified as part of the tiled floor of the Second Temple built by Herod in the first century B.C.E. Ms. Snyder’s mathematical background has enabled her to piece together what is essentially a giant puzzle, with geometric patterns based on triangles and rectangular forms that combine to form squares. In addition, the guiding principle of the artists who built the floors appears to have been to place stones of contrasting colours alongside one another, thereby constructing flooring that is aesthetically pleasing. The floors in the various palaces that Herod built in Israel (e.g., Herodium, Massada, Jericho) displayed similar flooring.

This technique, known as opus sectile (cut work), employed the Roman foot of 11.6 inches as its basic measurement, and each tile was cut with great precision to fit within the square that surrounded it and sit snugly alongside the adjacent tiles. A wide variety of stones were used. The dark stones were of bituminous chalk, quarried to the north west of the Dead Sea, while some of the light-coloured stones were of local limestone or even alabaster imported from Greece, Asia Minor, Tunisia and Egypt. These kinds of floors were popular throughout the Roman world, and were considered superior to mosaic floors.

In his historical record, Jewish Antiquities, Josephus wrote that the courtyard of Herod’s Temple “was paved from end to end with variegated paving of all manner of stones.” The patterns on the tiles that Ms. Snyder and her associates have managed to piece together produce an effect that is as beautiful as it is impressive, undoubtedly adding to the majestic effect created by the Temple’s ornate architecture. These kinds of floors were usually installed in areas that were covered to prevent their being damaged by the elements, while tiles of a less ornate kind were used for open areas.

Equally fascinating is the lecturer’s own life story. Ms. Snyder was brought up as a Catholic, and only at a relatively late age did she realise that her mother and grandmother had Jewish roots. The Catholic religion emphasises prayer and attendance at services, while actual reading of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is discouraged. Ms. Snyder’s curiosity led her to delve into those texts, however, and she eventually decided that she wanted to know more about the history of the Jewish people. Her objective was to make contact with a Jewish community but she was unable to do so as her husband’s work took her to locations such as Guam, Alaska and South Dakota, where there was virtually no Jewish community. It was only after moving to Boston in the USA that she was able to connect with a synagogue, whereupon she discovered that she was in fact defined as a Jew and did not even need to undergo conversion.

Her unique background, innate intelligence and sense of mission has provided Ms. Snyder with the tools and ability to solve another mystery surrounding the Second Temple, providing additional insight into the past of the Jewish people and the connection to yet another of its ancient sites.