Finally Solved: 2,000 Yr Old Clay Token Used by Temple Pilgrims

Finally Solved: 2,000 Yr Old Clay Token Used by Temple Pilgrims

The Temple Mount Sifting Project announced their conclusions concerning a small caly token found over a decade ago, used by pilgrims ascending to the Temple.

The clay seal was discovered in September 2011 by archaeologist Gal Zagdon, who was in charge of the sifting facility but nothing was ever published about it. The tiny clay token feature a Greek inscriptionΔΟΥ-ΛΟ[Υ] (DOULOU), the genitive of the personal name Doulês. This name was common in Thrace, Macedonia, and the northern regions of the Black Sea, areas where Jews had settled by the late Hellenistic-Early Roman periods.

It also edepicts an amphora (a type of wine jar) known from the second half of the first century CE (approximately a century before the Second Temple’s destruction).

It bore a striking resemblance to another token found in the drainage channel under Robinson’s Arch (below the southern part of the Western Wall) directed by Eli Shukrun and Prof. Ronny Reich of the Israel Antiquities Authority. That clay seal bears an Aramaic inscription reading דכא/ליה , initially interpreted as “pure to God” by the excavators. However, Hebrew University Talmudic scholar, Prof. Shlomo Naeh, later suggested that the token was used by pilgrims ascending to the Temple as a token to receive their offerings after payment, with the writing on the sealing intended to prevent forgeries by including the abbreviations of the sacrifice type, the day, the month, and the name of the priestly division of that week. This practice is attested in Tractate Shekalim (5:4) of the Mishna.

It is likely that pilgrims purchased ceramic tokens and then exchanged them for an offering during one of the three traditional pilgrimage festivals.

The amphora may be related to the wine libation offered in the Temple. Significantly, the Mishna confirms the presence of Greek writing in the Temple, noting in another chapter of Tractate Shekalim (3:2) that baskets in the treasury chamber were marked with Greek letters. It is plausible that this token was intended for Greek-speaking pilgrims, possibly including Jews from the diaspora. 

Last year, Dr. Yoav Farhi published a comprehensive paper on several clay tokens found in Jerusalem including the two mentioned above. All four tokens studied by Dr. Farhi were found in the proximity of the Temple Mount, and were likely associated in some way with the activities that took place in the Temple. Their style is completely different from that of other known tokens from the Roman world.

The Sifting Project began in 1999 when the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement conducted illegal renovations on the Temple Mount and disposed of over 9,000 tons of dirt mixed with invaluable archaeological artifacts. Though Israeli antiquities law requires a salvage excavation before construction at archaeological sites, this illegal bulldozing destroyed innumerable artifacts: veritable treasures that would have provided a rare glimpse of the region’s rich history. The earth and the artifacts within were dumped as garbage in the nearby Kidron Valley. In a bold move, archaeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira retrieved the matter from the dump, and in 2004, they started sifting it. Their initiative became the Temple Mount Sifting Project (TMSP) to rescue ancient artifacts and conduct research to enhance our understanding of the archeology and history of the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount Sifting Project’s finds constitute the first-ever archaeological data originating from below the Temple Mount’s surface.

In the past 15 years, through the help of some 200,000 paying volunteers, the project has recovered over 500,000 artifacts, including 5,000 coins, inscriptions, mountains of pottery, Egyptian-era cultic items, jewelry, and remnants of warfare.

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