Are These Beams From the First Temple?

Reused for millennia, discarded, forgotten, left in a padlocked storage space: these rough chunks of wood hewn from cedar, cypress, and oak up to 3000 years ago may once have been part of the First Temple.

Building materials routinely were recycled throughout ancient times, but these are important because they were removed from the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount during renovations. They were never really subjected to tests until 1984, when a dendochronologist interested in their age and type analyzed the tree rings and used carbon-14 dating:

Some of the wood was from the early Muslim period. One of the cedars, for example, was about 1,340 years old, or roughly the same age as Al-Aqsa. (The margin of error for the rather inexact dating process was 250 years.)

But others were older, dating to Byzantine times, and still others dated to Roman times, around the era of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Even more striking were her findings regarding one of the cypress beams. The age of the beam “was found to be 2,600 years,” she wrote, with a margin of error of 180 years. That placed it near 630 B.C.E. — around 50 years before the destruction of the First Temple.

This month, an article in Biblical Archaeology Review revisits the artifacts, raising concerns that improper storage places them in danger. Archaeologist Peretz Reuven looked at the beams, and writes in BAS that “indentations on the underside of a beam with Herodian/Roman-period decorations suggest that it rested on column capitals in an earlier structure. The indentations are spaced at a similar interval to columns at Herod’s Royal Stoa.”

That’s pretty huge.

But wait, it gets better. The dendochronologist who did the original tests believes that the beams also may have been used in the Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos: Byzantine Emperor Justinian I’s long-lost masterpiece built to emulate … the First Temple.

I’m still geeking out about that one.

The more they’re studied, the more these beams keep giving up little gems like this:

One beam at the Rockefeller Museum, for example, bears the Greek words, “In the time of the most holy archbishop and patriarch Peter and the most God-beloved this whole house of St. Thomas was erected.” The Peter in question was patriarch of Jerusalem in the mid-500s C.E., and the beam must have been used in a Byzantine church of the time.

All of them need to be collected, preserved, and analyzed. Like so many building materials in the ancient world, they can tell us not just one story of one structure, but dozens of stories spread over thousands of years.