There were millions of years which existed before our time, and many which will exist after. Experts have found artifacts and fossils which prove the same. They devote their lives to interpret our history by unraveling the depths of the earth. Archaeology is a continually shifting landscape, and every once in a while, a truly astonishing discovery surfaces prompting us to rethink our most stubborn ideas about the past and the people who lived in it.
One such discovery dates back to the late 1960s, during the excavation of Herodium, an ancient fortress located south of Bethlehem. At that time, they put it aside assuming it to be just a trinket. It wasn’t until years later when a new team of researchers studied the artifact, they discovered how extraordinary it is.
This incident occurred when Gideon Foerster, a professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University, along with his team was on an excavation project at the Herodium in West Bank. The team ended up finding an amazing collection of artifacts and trinkets. However, what they didn’t know was that amongst these trinkets they have obtained something that will not be recognized until 50 years.
Herodium is located about 12km south of Jerusalem, and 5km south-east to Bethlehem in West Bank. It is home to a grand castle dating back to the time of King Herod. This site is also where King Herod was buried, which explains the tumulus appearance of the mountain. It was reshaped to provide a haven for the ruler. Herodium is also recognized as the Mountain of Paradise.
To understand where this ring came from and why it was excavated at the Herodium, we need to go back in time thousands of years ago where history was being created. A series of events was about to unfold, which will shape the course of this world forever.
It all began when Herod was appointed as King of Judea by the Romans in 37 BC. It is believed that he, mostly, had a hugely prosperous reign. King Herod was ethnically an Arab, but he was a Jew by practice. The Romans gave him the title of “King of The Jews” because of the massive Jewish population he used to rule over.
King Herod was not popular for mercy. He was very protective of his throne. So, when the talk of a new “King of Jews” came to his ears, Herod was furious. This new King of Jews was none other than a newborn of Mary and Joseph. It is believed that Herod saw Jesus as a threat and wanted him gone even before he was born.
The Gospel of Matthew unveils that the three wise men who visited Jesus to present him with gifts were unknowingly tricked by the King. He asked them to tell him the location of the child because he too wanted to pay his respects. The wise men agreed to return to the castle with the infant’s location.
While the wise men were following the star to Bethlehem, an angel appeared to warn them about the king’s intention to murder the infant. They understood the truth and decided to keep the infant’s location a secret. After paying their respects to the newborn, they refused to return to the King’s castle.
Herod came to know his intention was revealed and as a result, his plan had failed. Out of blinding rage, he took a ruthless decision. He ordered his men to seek out all the infants below the age of two and slaughter every last one of them.
The massacre was terrifying but ultimately proved to be unsuccessful because Mary and Joseph had already escaped. Turns out they were warned about King Herod’s intentions and as a result fled to Egypt to protect their infant. They remained gone for years and returned to Judea much later in time.
King Herod’s downfall began with the death of his wife Mariamme. Herod was convinced that she was plotting against him and as a result, he had her executed. Even though he was responsible for her death, Herod’s misery knew no bounds.
In an attempt to replace Marriamme after her death, the king started seeking other partners and practiced polygamy. But his story became even more tragic when his deep fear of losing his title and his throne convinced him to attempt the execution of his sons.
Ultimately, Herod came down with a chronic illness that could neither be diagnosed nor treated by anyone. They called it “Herod’s Evil”. He lived in such excruciating pain that he attempted suicide to end it. Some historians believe his suicide was stopped by his cousin while some believe he was successful in committing suicide. In either case, this was the end of Herod’s reign.
Herod’s attempt at killing Jesus failed terribly. Jesus grew up to be a distinguished teacher and had a huge following of disciples who admired him and his preaching. They called him the Son of God. Unfortunately, he had a growing list of enemies too. The Jewish elders called him a “false prophet” while the Roman authority figures saw him as a threat to their empire.
Soon Jesus was marked as an “enemy” by these people and was targetted for crimes he didn’t commit. He was eventually arrested for these alleged crimes and presented in front of the fifth prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. He sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. This ended the prophet’s journey as he sacrificed himself for the greater good.
It is believed by the historians that Pontius Pilate had a strong hatred for the Jewish community. He commanded a substantial number of executions during his time as the prefect of Judea. He was hated by the people and had many enemies. Nevertheless, he performed his job unapologetically.
Based on some historical documents, it is believed that Pilate mellowed a bit during Jesus’ trial. He even went so far as considering letting him go at one point. But Jesus said nothing in his defense, so Pilate chose to go ahead with the execution. This act marked him forever in history as the man who killed the Son of God.
It is also believed that Pilate regretted his decision to sentence Jesus to crucifixion. After the deed was done, he washed his hands as a symbol of detaching himself from the event. He didn’t want any responsibility for Jesus’ death. Of course, that didn’t work out because, to date, he is known for that act.
Gideon Foerster was obsessed with biblical times and spent the majority of his time working with a team from his university on archaeological excavations at the West Bank. It was during one of these excavations that he found something strange.
Foerster’s team of archaeologists worked for one year on that excavation and it turned out to be a success. They found a bunch of artifacts like pottery, jewelry, glass, etc. Amongst this collection, there was also a common-looking copper ring. But nobody paid much attention to it as there were far more interesting findings.
Over the years, there have been quite a few excavations in that area due to the historical significance it held. At the time of the discovery, Foerster’s team did not study the ring due to the assumption that it is nothing but a trinket. Decades later, in the year 2018, a new team of researchers at the university decided to study the ring.
The ring was cleaned and ready to be examined. It was made of copper alloy and was fairly average to look at. It had some sort of inscription in the middle of it. They put the ring through 3D imaging to see the writing more clearly. It seemed to be Greek lettering, but they were not certain of its meaning. They decided to call in the experts and have them translate it.
The researchers could not believe what the translated text revealed. The text on the ring read, “Of Pilatus”. Could it be possible that this ring belonged to him? The name inscribed on the ring could mean that it’s a sign of ownership. But there was no way to be completely sure as of now.
Even though this seems like one of the rarest finds, it is not the first artifact discovered with Pontius Pilate’s name on it. Back in 1961, a damaged block of carved limestone was excavated in the ancient port city of Caesarea.
The stone had partially intact engraving with a message that dedicated a building to Emperor Tiberius. The message read, “Pontius Pilate…Prefect of Judea…has dedicated this”. The stone is better known as Pilate stone and is showcased at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The ring acted as solid proof, beyond The Bible, that Pilate did exist at some point in history. However, it doesn’t prove anything about Jesus or the trial or his execution. But proving Jesus’ existence was not the point of this research, they wanted to know if the ring belonged to Pilate or not.
After the engraving on the ring was found, the Hebrew University authorized a full examination of the ring. It involved ring being photographed by a special camera that belonged to Israel Antiquities Authority. To further enhance the clarity of the ring for the study, a method called reflectance transformation imaging was used to magnify its details.
Reflective transformation allowed researchers to find wine vessels on the ring which was a common thing in Judea during the period of Pilate and Jesus. The Greek lettering on the ring was also used during that time as a means of communication between the Roman Empire and the eastern Mediterranean.
Another thing which acted as a major proof for this ring belonging to Pilate was that historians have searched numerous documents to see if there was any other Pilate during that period, but they found nobody else with the name Pilate or Pilatus. This gave them more hope that this was, in fact, the belonging of the Prefect.
While there were people collecting evidence that this ring belonged to Pilate, there were also people who had evidence against this. The Israel Exploration Society stated that the ring’s design is proof that it was not made by an expert craftsman since it was only cast in one piece and was also very thin. They believed Pilate would wear rings made from gold and gemstones whereas this was just a simple copper ring.
Archaeologists had another argument, claiming that there was a different explanation to it. Pilate owned extravagant bejeweled rings made of gold which he used to wear for official ceremonies. But for everyday purposes, he would wear basic and minimal jewelry like a copper ring.
There was an additional report about the ring which said that a ring made with a single metal was most likely a belonging of a soldier, an official or any middle-income folk. So, there was a possibility that this ring would not have belonged to Pilate but to one of his officials instead.
Another theory was that the ring might not belong to anyone in particular but used by members of Pilate’s staff to seal letters and stamp documents with melted wax. This would explain why Pilate was engraved in the ring. Instead of owning the ring, it might be the case of signing documents and letters.
The marking which translated to Pilate also leads to another point, which is the fact that Pilate minted several coins in Greek but never put his name on any. He always chose to honor the benefactor Tiberius instead. Those inscriptions translated to “Of Tiberius Ceasar”
Even though nobody could agree on who this ring belonged to, one thing they all agreed upon was that this ring was unmistakably from the period of Pontius Pilate. The ring can be linked to him but there was still no way to know if it was worn by him or one of his officials.
As per the specialists who have examined the ring closely, the engraving on the ring is the primary proof that the ring was related to Pilate in some way. Danny Schwartz, a professor at the Hebrew University, said “The name was rare even in that era. I don’t know of any other ‘Pilate’ from that era, and the ring shows he was a person of stature and wealth.”
Since the ring was found in the ruins of Herodium, it acts as another proof that it was related to Pilate because he used King Herod’s former palaces as his place of residence. Several areas of that place were also used by the Roman officials for business purposes so it’s quite possible that more often than not, Pilate was at that spot.
The ring is an important find even though there is conflicting evidence for it. It gives historians a better idea of the jewelry craftsmanship during that period. And more importantly, it proves that Pontius Pilate was a real person who existed and not just a made-up person in The Bible.
There is no way to dismiss any of these theories that several historians, archaeologists, and professors have come up with. There are pieces of evidence for each but none of it is enough to solidify any theory. Regardless, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and this is still one of the most interesting and rare cases in archaeological history.