Ophel Medallion

Posted by dianamuir on September 09, 2013

Two hoards of gold coins and objects were recently uncovered in an archaeological dig at the Opel, the area just to the south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.   One bundle of gold and silver treasure was carefully buried, and the second apparently dropped by someone fleeing during the Persian attack/conquest of 614 CE (plus ça change).

The most interesting individual piece is a large medallion and the gold chain from which it was once apparently suspended.   The gold medallion with its image of the seven-branched menorah that once stood in the Temple, a Torah scroll, and a shofar is a remarkable piece of jewelery.  At 10:30 on this video, which includes excellent photos of the objects, archaeologist Peretz Reuben compares the newly discovered medallion with a similar medallion in the collection of the Jewish Museum of London.  The London medallion features  (12:16) very similar images of a menorah, shofar and Torah scroll.   Unlike the Ophel menorah, however, the London menorah is inscribed (12:39) in Greek: This is the donation of Jacob the head of the synagogue (or community) the setter of pearls.  A wealthy  and generous jeweler (remember the vastly higher rarity, and therefore, value, of pearls before the 19th century development of cultured pearls)  and community leader who apparently donated the London medallion to a synagogue for use as a Torah ornament.

Reuben and Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist who headed the dig,  propose that the Ophel medallion was intended for a Torah ornament, and that, because the image of a Torah in this period was rare in the land of Israel but common in the diaspora, that it may have been fashioned elsewhere and brought to Jerusalem by pilgrims.   Perhaps.  But the Ophel medallion does not have a donor inscription.  Instead, it is large and associated with a heavy gold chain and, in short, it looks remarkably like a chain of office.

Large gold medallions suspended from heavy gold necklaces are known in this period.   Here is a Byzantine pectoral now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   Popes and Byzantine bishops wore  pectoral medallions [Engolpion  (ἐγκόλπιον)]  and pectoral crosses at least from the time of Pope Hilarius (461-468).

Jews in the Levant, who had suffered under Byzantine rule, are known to have supported the Sassians against Emperor Heraclius in the hope that a Sassanian Persian conquest would be less oppressive than Byzantine rule. If  they had expectations of attaining some kind of official status as a community under Persian rule as a reward for this political  support, or if for a brief time early in the Sassanian period some sort of autonomous status was granted,  there may have been a moment when someone prepared –  or actually wore – a heavy, gold chain of office with a large gold medallion symbolic of his role as the leader of the Jewish community of Jerusalem or of the Land of Israel.



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