The lady who looks for tiles

As an exciting new discovery by the Temple Mount Sifting Project makes its debut, ‘In Jerusalem’ sits down with the woman who had a big hand in the hard work behind it.

Frankie Snyder holds up an ‘opus sectile’ tile (photo credit: COURTESY OF TEMPLE MOUNT SIFTING PROJECT)
Frankie Snyder holds up an ‘opus sectile’ tile
By the time you read this article, an intriguing announcement will have been made in Jerusalem. A small team of experts will have alerted the world to the discovery of tiles that may very possibly have been part of the floor of the Temple Mount during the reign of King Herod – possibly part of a floor somewhere in the Second Temple itself.
And the research and hard work behind this discovery will be seen to have been the work of a smiling, lively American woman who found herself drawn inexorably to Israel and to the Temple Mount.
Frankie Snyder’s eyes seem to sparkle behind her rimless eyeglasses as she recounts her story and her extraordinary work. “I made aliya in the summer of 2007. I started working with the Temple Mount Sifting Project within a month of my arrival here in the country.”
The Temple Mount Sifting Project is an Israeli archeological venture that began in 2005 to recover archeological artifacts from 400 truckloads of soil removed from the Temple Mount by the Wakf Muslim religious trust during the construction of the underground el-Marwani Mosque from 1996 to 1999.
The Wakf is a sometimes controversial Islamic religious organization best known for controlling, managing and, it often says, “protecting” the Islamic sites on the Temple Mount – known to Muslims as the Haram esh-Sharif, or “Noble Sanctuary” – including al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
Hundreds of artifacts have been found, many with biblical links, dating back more than 3,000 years. The work, conducted under the auspices of the Ir David Foundation (Elad), involves a technique similar to panning for gold.
Snyder recalls, “About two weeks after I got here, I heard about the sifting project, and I thought, ‘OK, that will be fun to do for a day.’ So I went out there for their two-hour program, and I haven’t left yet. I started volunteering there immediately, and after about two weeks doing volunteer work, I was offered a paying job there.
So it was quite thrilling because I’d been in the country less than a month, and I was offered a job, which meant I was able to stay here.
“I began as just a regular worker, sifting through the material for whatever you can find. And one of the things I became quite interested in were the opus sectile tiles. That’s because I have a degree in math. My original degree from Virginia Tech was math, with a minor in statistics. Later on I did graduate work in statistics at Texas A&M University. Then I got my full master’s degree at Hebrew College in Boston in Jewish studies. So between the combination of math and statistics and knowing a lot about Jewish history, I was quite attracted to archeology. And that’s why I volunteered at the archeological site. But the thing that struck me the most at the site were the opus sectile tiles.”
Opus sectile is type of mosaic work in which design patterns are composed of pieces of stone, shell, mother-of-pearl or other materials, cut in shapes to fit the parts of the design, which may be either geometric or figurative.
Traceable to the ancient Near East, this type of work reached its true form later in Italy, first appearing in Rome before the second century BCE.
“This craft was brought to Israel by King Herod,” says Snyder. “And he used these floors in his palaces and evidently on the Temple Mount, because we seem to have tiles that go along with that craft. We also have opus sectile tiles from the Byzantine period, from the Crusader period and from the various Islamic periods. “And since the Temple Mount Sifting Project gets everything out of context – it comes to us in truckloads – we have to sort out what time periods these things come from.
“It’s become my specialty here to work with these opus sectile tiles and try to find ways of sorting them out into their time periods; and once you have them sorted into their various time periods, how to reconstruct those tiles into various patterns. And that’s what I got started with at the sifting project, only because at the time they were collecting the tiles and recording them, but no one was actually working on the reconstructions.
Some of the tiles they find are intact, Snyder says. Others are “totally broken.”
“We are able to reassemble broken pieces.
At times I will happen to find a broken piece, and then three years later find another piece and say, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I know where that other piece is!’ and then go back and put them together.
I get very excited when I can put broken pieces back together again, especially if it’s been days, weeks or even years between the time we find one part of the tile and then find the other one. It’s a neat job.”
And it wasn’t long before Snyder’s job got a lot bigger and much more important.
“Because of the work I was doing at the sifting project, a couple of years ago when the Israel Museum was going to have their Herod exhibit, they had lots of these opus sectile tiles. Some were from Kypros [the classical Greek form of the name Cyprus], and some were from lower Herodion. They wanted to create a floor at the museum. They called over to the sifting project, because they knew we were finding tiles.
“So I was put in touch with the museum and was given the job of trying to figure out what this huge collection of tiles that they had from lower Herodion was, and then to reconstruct a floor for the museum.
“It turns out that the tiles from lower Herodion were quite similar to those found at Masada. So the floor that we reconstructed at the museum was based on the patterns that were found at Masada.
And then at the very center of that floor was a small group of tiles that came out of Kypros.
“Once that floor was on exhibit, other sites around the country realized that there was someone actually doing this, [and] then I began getting calls from lots of different sites.”
Snyder is currently working on tiles from 10 Herodian sites. “And this helps me at the sifting project, where everything we get is quite jumbled up, because now I know what kinds of sizes, shapes and materials to look for that are Herodian.
Because I’m now seeing Herodian tiles from Masada, Jericho, Kypros, Banyas, Tiberias and other places. I’ve also worked at different sites around Jerusalem where they are finding these tiles. So, without trying, I’ve become the go-to person for these tiles.”
Which has led her to what is perhaps the denouement of her work and expertise – this week’s announcement about Herodian opus sectile designs on the Temple Mount.
“Over the years we have published the fact that we have found tiles that we can trace back to the Herodian period. What we have not done prior to this is say, ‘Okay, we’ve actually figured out some patterns that were probably used on the Temple Mount.’ And this what we are going to announce.
“We have certain patterns – and we have seven different patterns – that we will exhibit at the conference. We’ve been able to figure out how to reconstruct these tiles and put them into common patterns used during the Roman period, in the Herodian period, and used over in Rome, Pompeii and Herculaneum. What I do is look at the materials, at the tile sizes and shapes, and try to figure out what they match up with in terms of local patterns here in Herodian floors and in Roman floors. And we’ve come up with seven different patterns that might have been used on the Temple Mount.
“We’ve been collecting these tiles for the full 12 years that the sifting project has been running, but it was only after I’d been working there for a year that I really started focusing on the tiles and saying let’s figure out how these were used. And so we’re looking at things now that we’re fairly certain came from the Second Temple period, which had a very colorful floor that Josephus wrote about, and we feel that we are looking at pieces of this – pieces of the actual Second Temple Mount floor, that was up there at the time of the Second Temple.”
One of the more interesting aspects of this discovery is the background of Snyder herself, perhaps not the most likely person to have dedicated herself to this work.
“I’m originally from Richmond, Virginia,” she says, “but I don’t drawl, and I don’t say ‘y’all.’ I was a Jew raised in the Catholic Church. My grandmother’s name was Stella Esther Schwartzberg, so that’s a giveaway right there. I returned to Judaism when I moved to Boston in 1997.
Before that, I knew I was Jewish, but the places we lived in had no Jewish communities.
My ex-husband had been in the air force, so we were living in places like Guam, Alaska and South Dakota – not known for their large Jewish populations.
There was no way to return to the Jewish community, because there was no Jewish community to return to. So when I moved to Boston to go to graduate school, that’s when I returned to Judaism.
“I figured out that I was Jewish when I was around 32. At that point I realized I had to move to Israel. There was something that led me to believe that my place was eventually to get to Israel.
“It was very strange that when I finally got here, I came with no particular plan. I was in my late 50s and planned to semi-retire. But two weeks after arriving here I was volunteering, within a month I had a job, and that developed into a career. That really confirmed what I felt in my early 30s — that I needed to come to Israel because there was something here I needed to do.”
We can only congratulate Snyder on her recent life decisions as we look forward to more fascinating and important discoveries.