A group of archeologists and volunteers have discovered 600 tiles in the midst of tons of sediment removed from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—100 of which, they assert, formed part of the opulent flooring that adorned the courtyard of the Second Temple, the main sanctuary of the people of Israel. The temple was reconstructed and expanded during King Herod’s reign between 37 and 4 B.C.E.

The effort was essentially a massive jigsaw puzzle. Following geometric principles and design patterns from other important structures of that period—Italian villas, the palaces of Herod the Great in Jericho, Herodium in Masada—Frankie Snyder of the Temple Mount Sifting Project restored seven designs from the majestic flooring that adorned the temple 2,000 years ago. The restoration was announced on September 8 at the 17th Annual Archeological Conference of the City of David. “It took them a long time to put all those pieces together in order to get the patterns,” says Rami Arav, a biblical archeologist who heads excavations around Bethsaida and who is a professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “It’s a very important discovery. Imagine, the design was a puzzle that they figured out without knowing what the picture was. For the first time, we have the floor design of segments of the Temple Mount.”

The floors, made from red, blue and white marble, follow the opus sectile style, a Roman mosaic technique in which stones or other materials of various colors were cut into thin pieces and combined to fill the entire space. 

Examples of the stone tiles discovered and arranged according to size. Credit: Temple Mount Sifting Project (Zachi Dvira)

Besides coming from sediments taken from the Temple Mount, these floor tiles all display three characteristics that suggest they were part of the Second Temple complex, says Gabriel Barkay, cofounder and director of the Temple Mount Sifting Project. “First of all, all the measurements of the flooring tiles are following the fractions of the Roman foot (about 29.6 cm) and follow precisely that widely-used dimension that was in fashion at that time. Second, we have parallels, exact parallels, to these floors—and even to the individual stones and the stone formations—in Herod’s palaces in Masada, Herodium, in Jericho and elsewhere. That is quite firm. Third, the material of the stone tiles was imported from Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Asia Minor. These are colorful marbles with colored veins and patches, and this material was not imported to this land neither before nor after Herod the Great. The dating is secure.”  

Also, the descriptions of the Second Temple architecture from written sources describe flooring similar to what was found. “In written sources, Flavius Josephus described the surroundings of the Temple as being paved with all kinds of colored stones, making reference to this type of flooring. Also, in the Talmudic literature, the sages described the site and spoke of the use of blue, red and white marble in the Temple,” Barkay explains.

It is not clear where the flooring came from, however. “Perhaps from inside the Temple or from the courtyards, but we do know that (in the Temple) there was this very lavish floor,” says the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Arav. Also, it was known that this type of opulent flooring was reserved for the most special rooms and could only have come from covered spaces, “so these floor tiles could have come from the porches around the Temple, from the royal porch on the southernmost part of the Temple Mount, or they could have also come from auxiliary structures,” Barkay adds.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project began in 2004, five years after the Islamic Waqf (the administrator of the Temple Mount, which had deterred archeological excavations in the area) illegally dug a pit for the construction of a mosque entrance. Some 9,000 tons of antiquities-rich earth were deposited in Kidron Valley. With the help of 200,000 volunteers, the earth is being sifted. More than 500,000 objects have been discovered so far, among them ancient arms and jewels, more than 6,000 ancient coins, textiles, stamps and stamped impressions. The project is under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University and the sifting is funded and operated by the Ir-David Foundation with the cooperation of the Israel National Parks Authority. The research and publication of the finds is funded by private donors through the Israel Archaeology Foundation. To date, about 70 percent of the debris removed from the Mount have been sifted.

Barkay is the first to admit that this flooring is not the most important object recovered from the Temple Mount excavation—but it is still impressive. “This is the first time that we are able to reconstruct something of the glory of the buildings from Herod’s time,” he asserts.

“If you are interested in the Temple Mount, if you are interested in Judaism from that period or even in Christianity, this finding is important,” Arav concludes. “Jesus entered the Temple and probably walked over these tiles and it was probably on these tiles that he turned over the tables [of the money changers].”