Ancient Bronze Marvels at Magdala

Excavating in Mary Magdalene’s hometown

Excavations at Magdala, hometown of the New Testament’s Mary Magdalene on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, have uncovered a 2,000-year-old decorated bronze incense shovel and a bronze jug. The dig, conducted near the town of Migdal at the eastern foot of Mount Arbel, is overseen by Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar in partnership with Dr. Marcela Zapata-Meza of the Anahuac University of Mexico.

magdala-shovel

The bronze incense shovel found at Magdala after cleaning. Photo: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Incense shovels, which were used to carry hot coals in the burning of incense, are mentioned in the Bible in relation to the four-horned altar of the desert tabernacle:

You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide; the altar shall be square, and it shall be three cubits high. You shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and firepans; you shall make all its utensils of bronze.
Exodus 27:1–3

 


 
The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook The Galilee Jesus Knew focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.
 

 
magdala-jug

The bronze jug found at Magdala in situ. Photo: Eyad Bisharat Israel Antiquities Authority.

While it was once thought that incense shovels were used only in rituals, the discovery of these implements in burials and domestic contexts suggests that they were also used as funerary and utilitarian objects.

The bronze incense shovel and bronze jug discovered recently at Magdala were found in a storehouse in the ancient town’s port area, Dr. Marcela Zapata-Meza told Bible History Daily.

“These implements might have been saved in the storeroom as heirlooms by a Jewish family living at Magdala, or they may have been used for daily work as well,” said chief archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni in an IAA press release.

According to Avshalom-Gorni, the Magdala incense shovel is one of ten dating to the Second Temple period that have been found in Israel. Recently, a bronze incense shovel whose handle is shaped like a duck was discovered at the nearby Hellenistic-period site of Khirbet el-Eika.

In the first century C.E., during the time of Jesus, the large fishing village at Magdala had the trappings of a Jewish settlement, including mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths) and a synagogue decorated with colorful frescoes and a mosaic floor. The famous Magdala Stone, which bears one of the earliest images of the seven-branched menorah, was found in the synagogue’s central hall.

magdala-stone

The 3-foot-long Magdala Stone bears one of the earliest images of the seven-branched menorah. Photo: Yael Yulowich, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

One of Jesus’ most prominent followers was a woman from Magdala named Mary Magdalene, sometimes referred to as “the Magdalene” (Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1–19; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1–18).
 


 

Learn more about Magdala in Bible History Daily:

Discoveries in Mary Magdalene’s Hometown

Magdala 2016: Excavating the Hometown of Mary Magdalene by Marcela Zapata-Meza

The Fishy Secret to Ancient Magdala’s Economic Growth by Marcela Zapata-Meza

The Magdala Stone: The Jerusalem Temple Embodied

Understanding the Jewish Menorah
 


 

Learn more about Magdala in the BAS Library:

Joey Corbett, “New Synagogue Excavations In Israel and Beyond,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2011.

Hershel Shanks, BAR Exclusive! Major New Excavation Planned for Mary Magdalene’s Hometown,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2007.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

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  1. Tom says

    It seems that the wished-for Magdala “synagogue” has now become a given, a standard interpretation now rarely challenged by experts. Admittedly, the tag-team pronouncements of the Catholic Church and the IAA have been hard to resist! However, were it not for the tiny carved image of a menorah on one face of the so-called “Magdala Stone”, I’m sure the structure in which it was found would never have been labelled a synagogue, since its salient features–“colorful frescoes and a mosaic floor”–are completely anomalous to the realm of known, late Second Temple period synagogues.
    floorhttps://israelpalestineguide.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/the-latest-synagogue-at-magdala/

  2. Tom says

    Forgive the typo in my original comment. It should read:
    https://israelpalestineguide.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/the-latest-synagogue-at-magdala/

  3. Jacob says

    Tom, there is nothing whatsoever unusual about the mosaic floor design found at the Migdal synagogue, and it ties in perfectly well with the mosaic floor designs with zodiacs at the synagogues found at Sepphoris, Hammat Tiberias, and Beit Alpha. The building layout also fits the overall design of ancient Galilean synagogues.

  4. Tom says

    Jacob: Besides being three to four centuries earlier than all of the other sites you mention, the Magdala floor contains no religious motifs whatsoever– it is purely geometric. So, everything about it is unusual in terms of known Jewish synagogues of the 1st centuries BC/AD. The rectilinear design of the structure, with its internal columns, fits perfectly with the idea of a colonnaded courtyard of the Roman period.
    TOM POWERS / Waynesville, NC

  5. Jacob says

    Tom: the arrangement of colonnades and benches were already considered suggestive of the building serving as a synagogue, but the discovery of the large stone block in the central hall clinches it. The stone, whose façade faced Jerusalem, is decorated with an image of the Temple Menorah and other features associated with the Temple in Jerusalem. A similar stone with carved Temple images was found in a nearby synagogue from a later period. However the style of the Menorah depicted at Magdala is unique, differing in style from the later depictions, suggesting that it was carved based on a familiarity with the actual Menorah that existed while the Temple was still standing.

  6. Tom says

    Jacob: The stone block has been called everything from an “altar” to a “pulpit” to a “prayer table”– none of the so-called experts can seem to agree on it’s function in the context of a synagogue. The reason is simple: this object is completely unique, and for that very reason cannot be considered diagnostic of anything (except, obviously, a Jewish presence). The stone is definitely not an architectural element, which is what I think you’re referring to “from a later period” synagogue (Capernaum?). As for “benches”, people who want the structure to be a synagogue “see” them… I don’t.
    TOM POWERS

  7. Jacob says

    It is not as though some people had a look at the structures and just up and decided that they are benches. The identification was made after extensive and painstaking comparison with similar structures identified as benches arranged in a similar rectangular array around a central floor perimeter, in similar buildings known to have served as synagogues….including synagogues from the 2nd Temple era such as Gamla synagogue. The same goes for the design and arrangement of the columns.
    As for the stone object, you seem to be under the mistaken impression that it was minor detail like a pottery sherd or coin found somewhere in the building. It was a large object found in the center of the building whose presence and placement were clearly central to the function and purpose of the building. Whatever the exact function of the stone, the consensus is that it bears motifs from the Jerusalem Temple itself, and is designed to promote identification and association among those present with worship in the Temple…the synagogue itself being distant from the Jerusalem.

  8. Tom says

    Actually,I know of no other ancient structure identified as a synagogue which has benches in the central area of the hall, running between or in front of the columns. Do you (anybody)? It is much more suggestive to me (in its original configuration) of a colonnaded courtyard with a sunken garden or shallow pool in the center. The stone, again, is completely unique and therefore of little actual use in interpreting the structure.
    TOM POWERS
    https://israelpalestineguide.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/the-latest-synagogue-at-magdala/

  9. Jacob says

    I gave you an example.
    The Gamla Synagogue, which also dates to the Second Temple era, looks very similar. In the case of Gamla, there are tiers of columns both slightly in front of and behind the benches.

    https://www.thinglink.com/scene/572839384278106112

    There are enough similarities with the Migdal building, and when considering the fact that the Migdal stone depicts ritual objects associated with the Temple, the idea that this central space was submerged in water or served simply as a garden is improbable.


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