The Temple Mount Sifting Project Inaugurates New Sifting Siteby Sybil Kaplan & Alex Wehrung July 29, 2019
Photo by Barry A. Kaplan
The Temple Mount is one of the holiest sites in the world, and it holds just as much historical importance as it does religious. Contained within the Mount are priceless artifacts whose origins can be traced back thousands of years. These artifacts have found themselves under threat, necessitating the Temple Mount Sifting Project and its small army of volunteers to preserve them.
“The Temple Mount Sifting Project’s finds constitute the first-ever archaeological data originating from below the Temple Mount’s surface,” said archaeologist Gaby Barkay. “The Temple Mount was never excavated because of politics … now, the finds are carefully sorted and studied in the project’s archaeological laboratory. Once the processing and analysis are finished, this data will help to provide fresh insights into the archaeological and historical research of the Temple Mount.”
The Temple is a religious site that holds special significance to followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. According to the Talmud and Chronicles, it is from where G-d took dust to create Adam and Abraham almost sacrificed his son, Isaac; in Christianity, Jesus criticized the money-changers at the Second Temple constructed on the Mount; in Islam–wherein the Mount is known as Haram al-Sharif, or ‘Noble Sanctuary’–the Mount was the site of Muhammad’s ascension upon the completion of his journey from Mecca.
In the first century, the mount was desecrated by the Romans and was not repaired until 638 CE, when Jerusalem was conquered by Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab in the early days of the Islamic Empire. In 691 CE, a replacement for the Second Temple (which itself was a replacement for Solomon’s Temple) was built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik and called ‘Dome of the Rock’. In 1099, the First Crusaders converted the Dome into the Christian Templum Domini, only for Saladin to reconquer the site in 1187 and re-convert it back to a Muslim place of worship. It became known to Muslims as the third most important site, after Mecca and Medina.
When Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, supervision of the Temple Mount was given to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, an organization that manages the Islamic buildings that are within proximity of the Mount. The Israeli government upholds the body’s decisions and provides it with security. Once it gained custody of the Mount, the Waqf forbade archaeological excavation of the site, deeming such activity to be desecration.
In 1996, the Waqf and the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement converted the underground vaults–known as Solomon’s Stables–into the El-Marwani Mosque in order to accommodate more worshippers on Ramadan. Three years later, the Israeli government approved the Waqf’s plan to add an emergency exit, but the Waqf instead excavated two archways and dumped several tons of dirt into the Kidron Valley.
When archaeologists Barkay and Zachi Dvira of Bar-Ilan University became aware of the construction, they decided to offer a hands-on archaeological experience to those interested, sifting debris from the Temple Mount in which over 200,000 volunteers would eventually participate. In 2004, the debris was transferred to the Emek Tzurim National Park, where the wet-sifting technique was developed in the same year (a technique that is now standard at most excavation sites) and used to find artifacts. The initiative has rescued over 500,000 ancient artifacts.
In 2014–when the Project added permanent bathrooms for its volunteers, a greenhouse and a new office for its staff–the Project announced that half of the dumped debris had been sifted through, estimating that it would take another decade to get through the rest of it.
But in 2017, the project–which had been at Emek Tzurim for 15 years–was temporarily shut down due to a lack of funds and administrative problems. At that time, about 70% of the debris removed from the Mount had been sifted. However, the project needed NIS 8 million (approximately $2,225,000 dollars) over the next two years to resume sifting the remaining 30% of the debris and to continue scientific research and publication efforts. Despite several promises for help, the Project never received funding from the Israeli government.
The Project then moved to its current location, which is sandwiched between Augusta Victoria Hospital and the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, at the HaMasu’ot Lookout. It is administered by the Keren L’Pituach Kehilati Yehudi B’Reches Har Hazeitim (Mount of Olives Ridge Jewish Communal Development Foundation), a project of the American Friends of Beit Orot. The site has a large building, the main floor of which is arranged for the sifting.
“This was the site of a bitter battle during the Six-Day War, a part of Israeli pocket which included Mount Scopus,” Barkay explained. “This site is more accessible, more efficient, safer because it is not surrounded by any residential area, and there is lots of parking. The public buses, which serve the Hebrew University, are also nearby.”
On June 2, 2019, the project was officially rebooted. Upon the inauguration of the new site, the archaeologists also prepared a special one-day exhibition showcasing 300 artifacts including coins, weapons and architectural ruins. The exhibit was only available for one day due to improper facilities that couldn’t safeguard the finds in a museum-like fashion.
The archaeological process itself of uncov ering finds from the dumped Earth, when boiled down, is a two-step endeavour. The first stage of sifting is dry-sifting. The Project takes a heap of Earth with a label identifying which part of the Mount it came from. The soil is then dry-sifted and then separated into individual buckets.
The second stage is the wet-sifting, where the buckets are filled with water to wet the soil and dislodge clumps of dirt from stone and artifacts. After that, volunteers or staff sift through the contents with spray taps. Once they find something of interest, the find is then sorted into one of six categories–glass, pottery, bones, special stones, plaster and special finds. Special finds, like coins, are immediately labeled and set aside on the archaeologist’s table for later scrutiny.
Once the sifting is done, an archaeologist-on-staff checks in with the volunteers, examines their findings and tells them how the objects compare to those sitting in a glass display case at the archaeologists’ table. At the end of the day, all the finds are sorted, labeled and cleaned to be re-examined later, and relevant information regarding the finds is stored in the Project’s statistical database.
The artifacts that the Project has uncov ered have been mainly dated to the First Temple Period, the Second Temple period, late Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Islamic periods and the Middle Ages. There are some finds from earlier periods, but they are scarce.
Some examples of these finds include fragments of stone vessels, approximately 6,000 ancient coins, various pieces of jewelry, a rich assortment of beads, terracotta figurines, arrowheads and other weaponry, weights, items of clothing, game pieces and dice, bone and shell inlays, furniture decorations, ornaments, bone tools, etc. There are also fragments of elaborate architecture; among them are pillars, architraves, mosaic floors, opus sectile tiles, colored wall plaster (fresco), and glazed wall tiles.
“The many coins that were found in the rubble testify to the rich past of the Temple Mount,” Barkay said. “The first coin recovered in the sifting work was very exciting due to its symbolic nature. It was minted during the First Revolt against the Romans that preceded the destruction of the Second Temple. It bore the phrase ‘For the Freedom
of Zion.’ The name ‘Zion’ was the name of the Temple Mount in ancient times. The find was particularly meaningful, inasmuch as it was in rubble from the Temple Mount which was one of the focal points of the fighting.”
The historical significance of the finds doesn’t end there. According to the Smithsonian Museum’s account of the excavations, Barkay has postulated that the fragments of terra-cotta figurines from between the 8th to 6th centuries BCE might support the Biblical account of King Josiah’s reforms against idolatry.
“A very interesting Muslim artifact dating to the 18th century that was found is a seal of the prominent Muslim Qadi (Judge), who also served as the Jerusalem deputy Mufti,” Dvira wrote in a blog post for The Times of Israel. “His name was Sheick ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Tamimi. The current Waqf administrator, Sheick Mohammed Azzam al-khatib al-Tamimi, the current director of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, is from the same family, and may be one of his descendants.”
Other findings challenge enduring beliefs about the mount, such as ancient Christians using the mount as a dumping site. But the unearthed artifacts from Byzantine-era Israel support a different conclusion: that public buildings were constructed on the Mount.
The work the project has been doing is finally coming into the limelight. On Jerusalem Day, Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Zeev Elkin brought an uncovered, 2,700-year-old artifact to Benjamin Netanyahu’s office for the Israeli Prime Minister to inspect: the Immer Bulla. The inscription on the artifact read, “Belonging to Ga’alyahu son of Immer.” This is believed to be in reference to a priestly family identified in the Book of Jeremiah.