Ancient construction techniques evident in the Herodian Temple
Building and furnishing the Herodian Temple involved more than stone quarrying and laying, but the stones and foundations of Herod’s Temple can give us clues to Temple Mount history.
What ancient construction techniques can be seen on the site of Herod’s Temple? What does this tell us about Temple Mount history? In the following article, “Quarrying and Transporting Stones for Herod’s Temple Mount,” Leen Ritmeyer, a specialist in Temple Mount history, looks at the quarrying effort and expertise evident in the building of the Herodian Temple.
Horizontally layered local limestone was used to build Herod’s Temple. Stonecutters cut down through blocks of stone; then wood pilings placed in the crevices were saturated with water to such an extent that the pressure broke off the block from the bedrock. Some of this limestone can still be seen uphill from the Herodian Temple in modern Jerusalem. The force of gravity was itself a helpful tool in ancient construction techniques, as well as wooden rollers and oxen. But once on the site of Herod’s Temple, the huge stones had to be set in place; some ashlars of the Herodian Temple weighing 160,000 pounds still stand at a height of 100 feet above the foundations of Herod’s Temple. The physical work of angels? Some have wondered, but ancient construction techniques at Herod’s Temple were more sophisticated than we might imagine. Temple Mount history indicates this was the site of the First Temple, and that the previous platform and additional fill dirt was used to the best advantage.
Ancient construction techniques are evident in the wall of the Herodian Temple. Not all of the stones used in the Herodian Temple weighed 160,000 pounds. Some, weighing merely a few tons, were thrown down from above when the Romans destroyed the city in 70 A.D.
For illustrations by Ritmeyer further explaining ancient construction techniques, see the following article about the Herodian Temple.
Herod’s construction in the Temple Mount area, like the construction of most of Jerusalem’s buildings, used local limestone.
The mountains around Jerusalem are composed of Turonian and Cenomanian limestone that has a characteristic horizontal layering. These horizontal layers vary between about 18 inches and 5 feet thick. In exceptional cases, the layers are even thicker.
To quarry this limestone the stonecutter first straightened the face of the stone. This consisted of chiseling the rock in such a way as to produce a flat vertical surface—the side of the incipient stone—and a flat surface on top. Next, with a pickax he dug narrow channels 4 to 6 inches wide on all sides except the bottom of the incipient stone. In two of these grooves, at right angles, the quarryman would insert dry wooden beams, hammer them tightly into place and pour water over them. This caused the wood to swell, and the consequent pressure caused the stone to separate from the lower rock layer.
The next stage required squaring-off the stones and preparing them for transportation. The smaller stones were simply placed on wagons, according to Josephus. Some of the corner stones in the Temple Mount, however, weighed 50 tons and sometimes more. Special techniques were developed to transport these stones on large wooden rollers. While shaping the stones, the masons left 12-inch-long projections on opposite sides of each stone. These projections were later removed. In the meantime, however, ropes were placed around these projections, and two short, but strong, cranes outfitted with winches lifted the stones on one side and lowered them onto rollers. Oxen could then pull the stones with ropes placed around the projections. According to Josephus, 1,000 oxen were used in this work.
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The quarries were probably located near what we know today as the Russian Compound, in the heart of modern Jerusalem. There a 50-foot-long column, still attached to the bedrock, can be seen. In the process of quarrying the column, a natural fissure was observed in the rock, so the workmen simply stopped work and left the damaged column in place. The quarries in this area are 125 feet higher than the Temple Mount, so the journey of over a mile to the Temple Mount was downhill. Using the force of gravity obviously made transportation easier.
Once the stones arrived at the building site, they had to be put in place. At both the southwest and southeast corners of the Temple Mount, stones weighing over 80 tons are still in place at a height of at least 100 feet above the foundations. How did they get there? At our excavation site, some of the more pious local laborers who worked with these stones were so awed by their size that they attributed their placement to angels. It would have been impossible, they said, for mere man to lift them into place. In a sense, they were right; no man could have lifted these stones to such a height, notwithstanding all the sophisticated Roman engineering equipment available at the time.
In Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Hershel Shanks takes you from the Golden Dome backward through time in an exploration of the temples that once stood in this spot. Read more >>
In fact, the stones did not have to be lifted from below. They were actually lowered into place from above. The 16-foot-thick walls of the Temple Mount are basically retaining walls, built to retain the high pressure of the fill that was dumped between the previous platform and the new Temple Mount wall. This was Herod’s way of enlarging the previous platform to twice its original size. Herod’s engineers solved the construction problem by pouring the internal fill simultaneously with the construction of the walls. Thus, the first course of stones was laid in the valley surrounding the previous Temple Mount. Then the area between the new and old walls was filled up to the level of the top of this course. This created a new work-level on top of which, from the inside, a second course of stones could be laid. Again fill would be added on the inside, so that a third course of stones could be laid. And so on, course after course, until the whole of Herod’s extension was raised up to the level of the previous Temple platform.
The buildings on the Temple Mount were built of smaller stones. Stones from these structures were thrown down into the street below when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Most of them were later scavenged for other construction. But a few were found in the excavations. These weighed between two and three tons. Stones of this size would have posed no problem for the skilled builders of Herod’s Temple Mount.
Originally from Holland, Leen Ritmeyer trained as a teacher of physical education in Arnhem before coming to Israel. His work on the Temple Mount excavations, initially as surveyor and then as architect, served as a springboard to a career as an archaeological architect at numerous digs in Israel. Ritmeyer has worked at three other major Jerusalem excavations—the Jewish Quarter, the City of David and the Citadel—producing important reconstruction drawings for all.
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Ezekiel 47:1-2 speaks of water flowing from under the threshold and under the right side of the temple. Joel 3 and Psalm 87 also mentions this spring. Aristeas, a visitor from Egypt who recorded a description of the temple about fifty years after Alexander the Great, said ”There is an inexhaustible reservoir of water, as would be expected from an abundant spring gushing up naturally from within the [temple]”. This water that was seen by Aristeas was witnessed long before the two aqueducts were built to channel water to Jerusalem from the south of Bethlehem. Tacitus, the Roman historian, recorded that the temple had a natural spring of water that welled from its interior. The only spring in Jerusalem is the Gihon Spring. That spring is located in the City of David. 2 Chronicles 3:1 conclusively says that Solomons temple was built in the City of David at the place of the threshing floor bought from the Jebusite, Araunah who was mentioned in 2 Samuel 24. That threshing floor is right next to the Gihon Spring. The 2nd Temple was built on the same location as the 1st. The current structure you all refer to as, “The Temple Mount”, stands hundreds of feet to the north of the Gihon Spring and the City of David. It is not the true Temple Mount. That structure is the remains of the Roman garrison of Fort Antonia that housed the Tenth Legion.
The Bible says it was King Solomon that had the cut stones put where the Temple was to be built.
“7The temple was constructed using finished stones cut at the quarry, so that no hammer or chisel or any other iron tool was heard in the temple while it was being built.” Kings 6:7
The huge problem with Leen Ritmeyer’s article is that he completely ignores the facts that The Romans after AD70 and AD130 made alterations to what is now called the Temple Mount and much later the Muslim Arabs made even greater improvements, including extending the area of the platform before building the Dome of the Rock. So what we see now is definitely not what Herod left behind.
Moreover, the Temple was not on the Mount. Jesus Christ prophesied that “Not one stone will be left upon another” and Josephus was an eye witness to the fulfilment of the prophecy. He explained that when the Romans in AD70 accidentally set fire to the Temple all the gold stored in the roof melted and ran down to the lowest levels. To get possession of that gold the soldiers did indeed remove all the stones down to the very foundations leaving an empty space south of the “Temple Mount” fitting the Old Testament narratives.
The “Temple Mount” was in fact in the first century the Roman garrison, known as the Antonine Fortress as described by Josephus and also by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. When the Apostle Paul was taken at a moment’s notice from Jerusalem to Caesarea where did the Roman Governor find 470 men and 70 horses? In the garrison of course which was like many others of similar size throughout the empire.
The stone blocks that we now see in the “Wailing Wall” all came from the same quarry whether they were cut and dragged under the direction of Solomon, Herod, Romans or Arabs so we cannot tell who placed what where. and when. Why Ritmeyer decided to write in contradiction of the eye-witness and as if there were no construction after AD70 I have no idea but it makes his story very helpful for understanding the construction and transport methods but not for much else.
There seems to be a lot of talk in these comments about people who question the ability of the people who built Herod’s temple to construct these massive walls. While there are people who have questions about the ancients building abilities, I don’t believe any of the serious ones refers to the Temple walls. After all, in this case we are referring to an Iron Age structure in a land with a good supply of lumber and nearby quarries. The real question comes with the Bronze Age Pyramids, where there were not nearby quarries or lumber supplies. Even worse, in the South American Andes, massive stone structures, cut exactly without metal tools, moved from far relative far away quarries over mountains without beasts of burden.
I think the fist poster on this thread needs to check what The Theory of Evolution is actually about. There’s nothing about humans becoming ‘smarter’ in the last 3000-2000 years. Its in fact got nothing to do with the intellectual ability of Homo Sapiens. We’ve had the same level of ‘smarts’ for at least 50,000 years. But somehow I don’t think this post will be taken the right way…..
Think about alchemyst, perhap they shapping the stone using rope and liquid chemical.
A couple of corrections. The text states that the limestone blocks were wrenched free from the underlying layer of limestone; this is correct, rather than the caption which states that they were attached to bedrock.
And in Naq’s comment, he states that Sumerians had a 60-second minute. Actually, the minute was divided into seconds only in modern times, after the invention of the chronograph.
The Stones of Herod’s Temple Reveal Temple Mount History – Biblical Archaeology Society
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Thanks for taking the time to put all this information together!
Thank you for every other excellent article.
The place else may just anybody get that type of info in
such a perfect manner of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I am at the look for such info.
All too true. Unfortunately the idea of ancient man being stupid is the fault of anthropologists who, even today, still cling to ideas like evolution. It’s the idea that man was an idiot and “evolved.”
This does not match what we know. Historically, when a culture discovered agriculture, development was rapid. Sumer, despite being the oldest civilization that we have good records for, created our 360 degree circle, 60 second minute, 60 minute hour, had schools (for the middle and upper classes, at any rate) that taught parts of speech, arithmetic, history and other subjects. Ur has the oldest university that we know of.
No, ancient man was definitely not stupid. Nor much different than today (except for technology), given their writings.
How many realize that Roman medicine was not surpassed until the 1800s? While the Romans didn’t have germ theory, they saw what worked and didn’t work with sanitation, and so they had both running water and sewers in their cities. Even the legions would practice field sanitation and it kept the disease rates down.
One thing the article doesn’t mention is concrete. The Roman Empire of the time had concrete, and Herod’s seawall was constructed using concrete. (Limestone and pozzolan-based). One wonders if concrete played any role in the construction of Herod’s Temple?
(Why is it called the “Second Temple”? Wouldn’t the complete rebuilding of the temple by Herod be the third? Solomon’s, Zerubbabel’s, and then Herod’s).
What always amazes me is the ignorance of people in our modern age. They simply cannot grasp the knowledge and technological skills of the people of the ancient world, thinking them to be so primitive and incapable of the building skills required to produce what they all so obviously did.
As stated in this article, people attributed the ability to place stones of a certain size to Angels, it couldn’t have been done by man. We also find the all to prevalent and erroneous theory today that various works of the Ancients had to be done by Aliens or with Alien technology.
I think that question should be not how highly advanced the Ancients were, but instead how much the people of today are lacking in the simplest of skills.
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