Rare limestone box from Second Temple era uncovered in Jerusalem

The box is likely related to the unique economy of Jerusalem in the shadow of the Temple, which involved strict adherence to Jewish law, researchers say.

The box on display at the Israel Museum archaeology gallery. Credit: Zohar Shemesh/Israel Museum.
The box on display at the Israel Museum archaeology gallery. Credit: Zohar Shemesh/Israel Museum.

A rare multi-compartment stone container dating back around 2,000 years has been revealed to the public for the first time at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The box, carved from soft limestone, measures 30 x 30 cm (about 12 x 12 inches) and and is divided into nine equal-sized interior compartments. The box was discovered in a destruction layer inside an ancient store dated to the end of the Second Temple period that once stood alongside the Pilgrimage Road in the City of David. The sides of the box are blackened, indicating that it was burned, perhaps during events of the Great Jewish Revolt, which ultimately led to the destruction of Jerusalem. 

Researchers assume that the box was used for commercial purposes such as displaying premeasured goods.

The Pilgrimage Road excavations in the city of David. Photo: Emil Eladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority.

“During the excavations of the Pilgrimage Road, where the box was discovered, many objects have been found [giving] testament to the flourishing commercial activity that took place alongside the road during the Second Temple period,” explained Yuval Baruch and Ari Levy, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“During the excavations we have uncovered ceramic and glass vessels, production and cooking facilities, various measuring tools, stone weights and coins. Together, these objects suggest that the road was connected to commercial activities such as a lively urban market. The Pilgrimage Road connecting the Pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount was the main thoroughfare of the city 2,000 years ago. It seems that the newly discovered box was related to this commercial activity,” they added.

The economic and commercial systems of Second Temple Jerusalem were similar to those in other large cities in the Roman world and boasted large markets featuring local and imported goods, some even exotic. As a temple city and pilgrimage center, ancient Jerusalem’s markets likely had specialized items, uncommon in other areas. 

The Pilgrimage Road excavations in the city of David. Photo: Emil Eladjem/Israel Antiquities Authority.

Daily life and trade in Second Temple Jerusalem must have been conducted with strict adherence to Jewish purity laws. Evidence of this can be seen by a number of distinct archaeological finds such as thousands of limestone vessel fragments discovered in excavations throughout the ancient city and its surroundings. The widespread use of stone vessels can be explained by Jewish law, which designates that stone, unlike made clay or metal, cannot become impure. Therefore, it is possible that stone vessels were re-used for long periods.

“It seems that the multi-compartment stone box from the City of David was related to the unique Jerusalem economy conducted in the shadow of the Temple, maintaining strict observance and in accordance with purity laws. Therefore, we can consider this box a distinctly Jerusalem find,” said Levy and Baruch.

Pieces of a similar box were discovered about 50 years ago by the archaeologist Nachman Avigad during excavations in the Jewish Quarter. Avigad humorously called the object a “nuts and seeds bowl,” a name which has stuck. All similar boxes have been discovered in Jerusalem, mostly in the City of David; the newly discovered box is the only complete example.

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