A 160-gram brass weight found in the archaeological excavations of the University of Haifa in the city of Sussita (Hippos ) reveals unique evidence, the first of its kind, of the delicate relations between the Christian residents and the new Muslim rulers of the mid-seventh century CE.
“Almost randomly, we discovered a stain that covered the cross on the front of the weight, and we were sure at first that it was a smudge, was in fact a deliberate cover of a Christian silver-stamped crucifix, so that the weight could be used under the rule of the new Muslim authorities,” said Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, who heads the Sussita excavations, adding, “This is the first time we find a weight bearing such a mask.”
The Sussita National Park, under the management of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, was excavated starting in 2000 by a delegation from the Institute of Archeology of the University of Haifa. Sussita was founded in the second century BCE and later became a central city during the Roman and Byzantine periods. Sussita was devastated by the fierce earthquake of 749, when the land of Israel was ruled by the first Islamic caliphate of the Umayyad dynasty, which conquered the land in the middle of the seventh century.
Historical evidence suggests that at least at the beginning of Muslim rule, the new regime treated the local Christian population with great tolerance. Evidence to this can be found in Sussita itself, which had at least seven churches, most of which continued to operate during this period, with no signs of destruction.
The Muslim regime even tolerated the huge basalt crosses unearthed in the excavations, which adorned the heads of the church gables. But this small find, a weight of about 160 grams, provides a unique and first-of-its-kind testimony to the delicate fabric of relations between the new government and the veteran residents – and also provides a mysterious and unusual story.
The weight was handed to Prof. Sariel Shalev of the University of Haifa, an expert in the study of antique metals. After he carried out a chemical characterization of the weight and the stain, he discovered that while the weight was made of brass, the stain was made of a metal paste, a mix of lead and tin, and that it was deliberately placed over the cross.
“The melting temperature of the paste is about a third of the melting temperature of the other components of the weight, and since the people at the time had an excellent knowledge of metalwork, it was clear that the stain was intentionally placed there,” said Prof. Shalev. “In addition, small parts of the silver cross were removed to keep the weight of the weight unchanged – so there was no doubt that it was not accidental.”
In the last stage, radiographic and ultrasonographic imaging was carried out by Dr. Itzik Hershko, Dr. Dan Breitman and Dr. Tzvia Shmul at the laboratories of the Soreq Nuclear Research Center, in order to determine how it was produced and the nature of its unique decorations.
At the end of the laboratory tests, the relic underwent a complete preservation process, which restored it to the way it looked about 1,500 years ago. Its dimensions are 45 x 43 mm and it weighs 158.9 grams. On its front is a silver-stamped crucifix on a semi-circular base. Two Greek letters stamped on the weight indicate its value: 6 ounces. The decoration on the front of the weight symbolizes the cross on Golgotha Hill, the site of the crucifixion, while the arch and columns depict the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
Now researchers will ponder why someone covered the cross while not destroying the weight but continuing to use it for its original purpose. According to Dr. Eisenberg, the reason is apparently due to the Muslim conquest of the country in the middle of the seventh century CE.
On the one hand, the Muslims allowed Christian residents to continue their rituals, but their religious tolerance had its limits.
“The cross was intentionally covered by the church during the Early Islamic period so that this and other weights could be used in an official capacity in the city’s central church while working with the Muslim rulers in Tiberias.
This is precisely the line that can be drawn during this period of regime change, between considerable freedom of religion and culture – to the point at which a Muslim official would be forced to hold a distinctly Christian symbol,” Dr. Eisenberg concluded.