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The ancient two-shekel weight, recently found near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, next to a modern Israeli two-shekel coin.  Source: Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities Authority

Two-Shekel Weight Found In Jerusalem Tells Us About Ancient Economy

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Small objects from the distant past can tell us so much about ancient societies and daily life in those cultures. A two-shekel weight from the Biblical period recently found in Jerusalem is one of these small objects and its significance is considerable. It was used to measure the weight of produce and other foods in the ancient marketplaces of Biblical Jerusalem.

The two-shekel weight is helping researchers to understand life in the city during the First Temple period . The find was made by archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) near the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It was found at an excavation site adjacent to Wilson’s Arch, which is the modern name of a very ancient stone archway. The IAA has been excavating in this particular area for several years, in partnership with the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. It’s amazing what you can learn from a tiny thing used in daily life in ancient times!

The Two-Shekel Weight Found At The Western Wall

The weight was found in an earthen landfill area very close to Jerusalem’s historic Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), which was the heart of the city in Biblical times. Archaeologists found the limestone weight as they were sifting through the earth of the landfill. Israel National News quotes Dr Barak Monnickendam-Givon and Tehillah Lieberman of the IAA: “The weight is dome-shaped with a flat base.” There are some tiny incisions on the weight.

A closeup of the ancient two-shekel weight showing the Egyptian symbol that is translated to mean “shekel.” (Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities Authority)

A closeup of the ancient two-shekel weight showing the Egyptian symbol that is translated to mean “shekel.” (Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities Authority )

The IAA experts told Israel National News that “On the top of the weight is an incised Egyptian symbol resembling a Greek gamma (γ), representing the abbreviated unit, shekel.” There are two of these incised symbols and this means that the weight represented a double shekel, an ancient unit of weight measurement.

It is believed that the ancient two-shekel weight dates to the First Temple period (1000-586 BC). In a press statement, the director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Modechi Suli, said “How exciting, in the month of Tishrei, whose symbol is the scales of justice, to find a souvenir from the First Temple period,” according to the Jerusalem Post .

The Common Use of the Two-Shekel Weight

The two-shekel weight was used extensively in the First Temple period to weigh agricultural produce and other things. This was very important at the time as the economy mainly relied on barter, especially at the many food markets in the city. Monnickendam-Givon and Tehillah Lieberman, directors of the dig, told Israel National News that “Coins were not yet in use during this period, therefore the accuracy of the weights played a significant role in business.” The shekel weight eventually became the shekel coin, a very common Near Eastern coin. Today, Israel’s shekel currency is named after the shekel unit of weight measurement.

An early half-shekel coin from ancient Jerusalem, which was based on the much older limestone shekel weight system. (CNG coins / CC BY-SA 3.0)

An early half-shekel coin from ancient Jerusalem, which was based on the much older limestone shekel weight system. (CNG coins / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The IAA experts told the Jerusalem Post that “One of the uses of the shekel weight system during the First Temple period was to collect an annual tax of half a shekel dedicated to the sacrifices and upkeep of the Temple.” Hebrews in the First Temple period had to pay a tithe or tax for the upkeep of the most important holy places. Throughout the year, pilgrims and locals would have bartered their produce so that they could pay for sacrifices and offerings at the temple, this was a religious duty. The weights may also have been used when pilgrims were buying religious souvenirs.

Gaining A Better Understanding Of Ancient Jerusalem

This ancient two-shekel weight discovery is helping experts to better understand the crucial Western Wall (or Wailing Wall) area of Jerusalem. This area was once the heart of ancient Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Post quotes the IAA experts as saying that the discovery shows that “the Western Wall area holds remains from a wide range of periods reflecting the centrality of the area for many centuries.”

Even today, the Western Wall holds a special place in Judaism, and it is probably the top pilgrimage site in Israel. Every year throngs of pilgrims visit the Western Wall to commemorate the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians (586 BC), and the destruction of the Second Temple (70 AD) by the Romans.

At present, because of coronavirus restrictions, the Western Wall is closed to visitors. The director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation is quoted by CBN News as saying that “this finding strengthens the eternal connection between the Jewish nation, Jerusalem, and the Western Wall while offering us all encouragement.” The ancient two-shekel weight was the latest discovery made in the landfills near the Western Wall. The project is almost finished but hopefully more tiny finds will give us a greater understanding of this ancient period and daily life in the Biblical era.

Top image: The ancient two-shekel weight, recently found near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, next to a modern Israeli two-shekel coin.  Source: Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities Authority

By Ed Whelan

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