Archaeologists from the Jerusalem-based Temple Mount Sifting Project are confident that they have successfully restored a unique architectural element of the Second Temple: a series of regally decorated floor tiles that adorned the porticos atop the Temple Mount, which were likely featured prominently in the courtyards of the Second Temple during the rule of King Herod in Jerusalem (37 to 4 BCE).
Frankie Snyder, a member of the Temple Mount Sifting Project’s team of researchers and an expert on ancient Herodian style flooring, said he succeeded in restoring the ornate tile patterns “using geometric principles, and through similarities found in tile design used by Herod at other sites.” Snyder, who has an academic background in both mathematics and Judaic Studies, explained that “this type of flooring, called ‘opus sectile,’ Latin for ‘cut work,’ is very expensive and was considered to be far more prestigious than mosaic tiled floors.”
Assortment of Herodian floor tiles / Courtesy City of David
“So far, we have succeeded in restoring seven potential designs of the majestic flooring that decorated the buildings of the Temple Mount,” said Snyder, who noted that there were no opus sectile floors in Israel prior to the time of King Herod. “The tile segments were perfectly inlaid such that one could not even insert a sharp blade between them.”
“It enables us to get an idea of the Temple’s incredible splendor,” said Dr. Gabriel Barkay, co-founder and director of the Temple Mount Sifting Project. The restored tiles will be presented to the general public on September 8, at the 17th Annual City of David Archaeological Conference.
Zigzag Module, Herodian floor tiles / Courtesy City of David
“This represents the first time archaeologists have been able to successfully restore an element from the Herodian Second Temple complex,” said co-founder and director of the Temple Mount Sifting Project Zachi Dvira.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project was established in response to the illegal removal of tons of antiquities-rich earth from the Temple Mount by the Islamic Waqf in 1999. It is located in the Tzurim Valley National Park, and is supported by the City of David Foundation and the Israel Archaeology Foundation. The initiative is run under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University and the Israel Parks & Nature Authority.
To date, approximately 600 colored stone floor tile segments have been uncovered, with more than 100 of them definitively dated to the Herodian Second Temple period. This style of flooring is consistent with those found in Herod’s palaces at Masada, Herodian, and Jericho, as well as in majestic palaces and villas in Italy, also attributed to the time of Herod. The tile segments, mostly imported from Rome, Asia Minor, Tunisia, and Egypt, were created from polished, multicolored stones cut in a variety of geometric shapes. A key characteristic of the Herodian tiles is their size, which corresponds to the Roman measurement of one foot, approximately 29.6 cm.
Herodian floor tiles Opus Collection / Courtesy City of David
The possibility that large expanses of the Temple Mount during the Second Temple were covered with opus sectile flooring was first raised by archaeologist and director of the Jerusalem Walls National Park with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority Assaf Avraham in 2007.
Avraham’s theory was based on a description given by the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus (1st Century CE) who wrote, “… the uncovered [Temple Mount courtyard] was completely paved with stones of various types and colors…” (The Jewish War 5:2). Additionally, Talmudic literature records the magnificent construction of the Temple Mount, describing rows of marble in different colors — green, blue and white.
“Now, as a result of Frankie Snyder’s mathematical skills, we have succeeded in recreating the actual tile patterns,” said Dr. Barkay, stressing that “this represents the first time that we can see with our own eyes the splendor of the flooring that decorated the Second Temple and its annexes 2,000 years ago.”
Barkay related that in describing the Temple that Herod built, “the Talmud says that ‘Whoever has not seen Herod’s building has not seen a beautiful building in his life,'” so that although our generation has not yet merited to see the Temple in its glory, “with the discovery and restoration of these unique floor tiles we are now able to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Second Temple, even through this one distinctive characteristic.”
Since the Temple Mount Sifting Project’s inception in 2004, more than 200,000 volunteers from around the world have taken part in the sifting, representing an unprecedented phenomenon in the realm of archaeological research.