This chisel has seen better days.

This chisel has seen better days.

Archaeologists working at the base of the southern and western walls of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount recently discovered a metal chisel that they believe was dropped from a high course of the wall during its construction some 2,000 years ago.

That chisel could have fallen a long way. The Western Wall, part of which is celebrated as the holiest place in Judaism, where the faithful come to pray and study and celebrate bar mitzvah’s was built as a retaining wall to support a larger platform for a huge expansion and renovation of the temple. The work was begun by Herod the Great and finished some time later.

The wall is a wonder in itself, consisting of gargantuan blocks of limestone that were rough cut in a quarry, dragged to the site, and somehow lifted into place on a wall that was more than 100 feet high when measured from the foundation. Today it’s more like 62 feet: over time, as the city grew up and built things around it, the ground level was raised, and now 17 of the wall’s 45 stone courses are underground.


At the corner of the western and southern walls of the temple mount, near where the chisel was found.

Dressed Herodian stone from the southwestern corner of the temple mount. Picture by TC.

Herodian stone from the southwestern corner of the temple mount. Picture by TC.

A trademark characteristic of Herodian stonework is that the outside face of the stones are framed by a carefully chiseled edge.

Try to imagine a hard-working stonemason doing his thing near the top of the wall when his worn chisel, mushroom-headed from many blows, falls from his hand and clatters to the ground below.

Did it hit some poor soul on the way down, leaving him embarrassed to go and get it? Or, more likely, was he just unable to find it amid the big pile of chips that had fallen from the edge?

In either case, the chisel lay undisturbed for two millennia before being discovered last year, almost 20 feet below the surface of the street in the Second Temple period.

The finding was quite exciting, as such tools tend to rust away and are rarely found. It offers a rare view into the life of an ancient stonemason, and an opportunity to be grateful that’s not our job.

[The find was reported in Ha’aretz, but the full version is available by subscription only. A briefer account is available here. ]


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