Byzantine-era potsherd from Temple Mount may contain engraving of holy site’s menorah

Relic discovered by archaeologists from Jerusalem’s Temple Mount Sifting Project

An image of the unearthed potsherd (photo credit: COURTESY OF TEMPLE MOUNT SIFTING PROJECT)
An image of the unearthed potsherd
A 1,000-year-old potsherd from the Temple Mount bearing a symbol resembling a menorah may shed invaluable light on a centuries-old debate regarding the menorah’s original design, a noted archeologist said Thursday.
The relic was recently discovered at the Temple Mount Sifting Project in Jerusalem, which sifts through the thousands of tons of ancient debris illegally discarded from the contested holy site by the Wakf Islamic trust in 1999.
Although archeologist Zachi Dvira, co-founder and director of the project, could not see the entire design of the broken sherd, he said it likely represented an attempt to draw the Temple’s menorah.
“Based on its clay type and texture, the potsherd dates to the period of Byzantine rule over Jerusalem, from 324 to 640 CE,” said Dvira.
“What makes this discovery significant is that it originated upon the Temple Mount itself. The design of the menorah inscribed on the potsherd may shed light on an age-old debate regarding the appearance of the menorah that stood in the Heikal [hall] of the First and Second Temples.”
According to Dvira, the origins for the design of the menorah can be found in the Book of Exodus (25:32-40), which states: “And you shall make a menorah of pure gold. The menorah shall be made of hammered work; its base and its stem, its goblets, its knobs, and its flowers shall all be one piece with it. And six branches coming out of its sides: three menorah branches from its one side and three menorah branches from its second side... so for the six branches that come out of the menorah... And you shall make its lamps seven…” Still, the Biblical passage does not provide any indication as to whether the branches of the menorah were meant to be round or straight, leading to a protracted debate among leading rabbinic scholars, including Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki – Rashi (1040-1105), Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089- 1167) and Maimonides (1135- 1204).
“Upon the potsherd, the furthermost left branch of what appears to be a menorah cannot be fully seen due to the fracture at that side,” explained Dvira.
“The base of the menorah can be seen partly and was probably composed of three legs; two angular and one straight. At the top, one sees that the branches are polygonal depressions, which may represent the almond shaped cups that held the oil for the wicks.”
The branches on the engraving are straight, unlike other ancient representations of the menorah from antiquity, where they appear in a circular fashion, he said, which may be due to the fact that “it is very difficult to create circular lines when engraving a potsherd.”
“Since the potsherd dates to centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, and the incision was done after firing the clay, it is difficult to deduce from it anything concrete regarding the original shape of the menorah,” Dvira said.
“But, we can learn about how Jews living in Jerusalem during the Byzantine period, or later, understood the design of the menorah.”
The Temple Mount Sifting Project – under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University, and with the support of the City of David Foundation – was created by Dvira and internationally recognized archeologist Gabriel Barkay in an effort to reclaim, analyze and document the discarded debris.
“Even now, we have new information that may well change the written history of some of the periods of the Temple Mount,” Barkay said of the project.
“The sifting project has proven itself to be an inexhaustible source of knowledge for the research and study of the archeology and history of the Temple Mount,” he added.