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Roman Era Stone Container Factory Uncovered

Roman Era Stone Container Factory Uncovered

Inside the stone container factory at Reina, Israel. (credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 

– Psalm 51:7 (ESV)

A stone container factory dated 2,000 years ago has been excavated by archaeologists in northern Israel. Says the Israel Antiquities Authority: “This discovery provides fascinating evidence of ritual purity in the daily lives of Galilean Jews during the time of Jesus.”

According to the Jerusalem Post newspaper, construction workers building a sports center in the northern Israeli city of Reina uncovered a cave whose purpose was to provide raw material for and to fashion chalkstone vessels used in ancient Jewish households.

Archeologists directed by the Israel Antiquities Authority then discovered thousands of stone cores extricated from vessels formed by lathe in this cave. Besides that, chisel marks on the walls of the cave indicated the stone used to produce these vessels was quarried at this very site.

The majority populations around the Mediterranean used mainly pottery. However, purification laws spoken of in the Talmud and referred to in the New Testament dictated the use of stone containers by observant Jews during this Roman period.

“According to ancient Jewish ritual law, vessels made of pottery are easily made impure and must be broken,” explains Professor Yonatan Adler of Ariel University and director of the excavations conducted on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Stone, on the other hand, was thought to be a material which can never become ritually impure, and as a result ancient Jews begin to produce some of their everyday tableware from stone.”

The significance of this find, according to Doctor Adler, is that until recently the few stone factories uncovered where located near Jerusalem. Now, the site at Reina and another at a distance of just 1 kilometer have been discovered in Lower Galilee.

The Post reports that ancient Jews used stone vessels for religious purposes as well as for common household use. An interesting sidelight to this archaeological find is that the modern-day city of Reina is just south of the village of Kafr Kana, which many scholars identify as the site of first century Cana.

In the New Testament Book of John, Jesus is said to have attended a wedding in Cana, at which he turned water into wine. The water he transformed was stored in stone vessels for purification. Below is the reference.

The Wedding at Cana, circa 1672 Bartolomé Esteban Murillo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

“Now there were six stone water jars there from the Jewish rites of purification, each holding 20 or 30 gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believe in him. 

– John 2: 1-11 (ESV)
Vessel cores and ruined mugs discovered in the stone factory. (credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)

Although the stone vessels produced in the Reina factory just uncovered were mainly mugs and bowls, archaeologist Alexandre suggests that other factories in the region may have produced containers for other purposes. She states, “It is possible that large stone containers of the type mentioned in the wedding at Cana of Galilee story may have been produced locally in Galilee.”

The importance of this find to the thinker is twofold:

  1. It proves the dedication of the ancient Jews to purification rituals.
  2. It explains something that might seem strange to the modern reader—why serving food and drink in stone containers (which cost less) might have shown a guest greater respect (since these containers conformed to Jewish purity laws) than if more expensive pottery was used.

This find also places the production and use of stoneware in proximity to events in which it was said to have been used in ancient scriptures. As archaeologists continue to unearth new clues about life in ancient times, stories recorded in the Bible can take on new meaning to the discerning.

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