Discovered in the ruins of a 1st-century synagogue in 2009, a large rock known as the Magdala stone is covered with elaborate carvings that seem to depict the Second Temple in great detail. In studying it, scholars are beginning to reconsider the formation and function of ancient synagogues. Isabel Kershner writes:
Experts have long believed that in the period before the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, synagogues were used as general places of assembly and learning. . . . The more formal conception of a synagogue as a sacred space reserved for religious ritual was thought to have developed later, . . . after the Temple had been destroyed.
But the Magdala stone was found in the center of [an] old synagogue, and [Rina] Talgam, [a scholar who has studied the stone extensively], said it might have been intended to give the space an aura of holiness “like a lesser temple” even while the Second Temple still existed. . . .
The Magdala stone is about the right size for laying down a Torah scroll, so it might [also] have been used as liturgical furniture.