Newly discovered Byzantine-era cross sheds light on Muslim-Christian ties

The silver cross imprinted on a brass weight was deliberately concealed.

Byzantine brass weight bear a previously-concealed silver cross discovered at Hippos, an archaeological site overlooking the Sea of Galilee (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
Byzantine brass weight bear a previously-concealed silver cross discovered at Hippos, an archaeological site overlooking the Sea of Galilee
(photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
A deliberately-concealed silver cross inlaid on the obverse of a Byzantine weight was discovered at Hippos (Sussita) in northern Israel during University of Haifa excavations at the site, the university announced Wednesday.
The brass weight weighs approximately 160 grams and archaeologists consider the find to be “groundbreaking evidence of the delicate relations between the Christian residents of the city and its new Muslim rulers,” beginning in the mid-seventh century CE.
“More or less by chance, we discovered a stain covering the cross on the obverse of the weight,” said Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, who is the head of the Hippos-Sussita excavations. “At first we were convinced that it was just dirt, but in fact the stain was made deliberately to conceal a cross, a Christian religious symbol used by the Christian population, so that they could continue to use the weight in their contacts with the new Muslim rulers. This is the first time that we have found a weight featuring this type of concealed element.”
Sussita National Park, which is managed by the Nature and Parks Authority, has been excavated since 2000 by a delegation from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. Hippos was founded in the second century CE, and later became a major city during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The city was demolished in a strong earthquake in 749, during the period when the land was ruled by the first Islamic caliphate of the Umayyad administration, which occupied the country in the mid-seventh century.
Using a metal detector, Dr. Bradley Bowlin discovered the small brass weight dating back to the Byzantine period in the northwest church compound at the site. Similar weights have been found in the past, and the object was passed on to Dr. Alexander Iermolin, director of the Conservation Laboratory at Haifa University’s Archaeological Institute.
A few weeks later, Iermolin contacted Eisenberg with the news that a strange dark stain on the obverse of the weight had been concealing a cross inlaid in silver; the other decorative elements on the weight were not concealed in this manner. “At first we thought this was random pollution. We intended to simply remove the dark stain and then continue the preservation process. But something smelled strange to us, so we decided to take time out,” Eisenberg recalled.
Instead of simply removing the stain, they forwarded the weight to Prof. Sariel Shalev at the University of Haifa, who is an expert in ancient metallurgy.
After preparing a chemical profile of the weight and the stain, Shalev discovered that while the weight is made of brass, the stain was made from a metallic paste containing lead and tin.
“The melting temperature of the paste was around one-third the melting temperature of the other components of the weight. Since people during this period had a strong mastery of craftsmanship, it was clear that the stain had been made deliberately. Moreover, small sections of the silver cross had been chiseled out in order to ensure that the weight of the object remained unchanged. In short, there was no chance that the stain was coincidental,” Shalev concluded.
The researchers then considered why someone went to the trouble of concealing the cross, given that numerous historical testimonies indicate that at least during the early stages of Muslim rule, the new authorities showed a tolerant attitude toward the Christian population.
At Hippos, for instance, at least seven churches have been discovered, most of which continued to operate during this period, without any signs of destruction.
Eisenberg says that while the Muslim rulers allowed the Christian residents to continue their religious worship, their tolerance had its limits.
“The cross was deliberately covered by church officials during the early Islamic period so that they could continue to use the weight, together with other weights in the official city weights set kept at the central church in Hippos, as well as in their contacts with the Muslim administration in Tiberias. This situation offers a precise illustration of the dividing line during this period of regime change between considerable religious and cultural freedom and the point when a Muslim official might be forced to hold an object displaying an overtly Christian emblem,” Eisenberg said.
The weight is on display at the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa, as part of an exhibition titled “Before the Earth Shook: The Ancient City of Hippos-Sussita Emerges.”