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Introduction to the Project

About the Project

In 2004, on the western slopes of Mt. Scopus at Emek Tzurim National Park, archaeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University established a project for sifting the earth debris that had been removed from the Temple Mount. The project is funded and operated by the Ir-David Foundation and private donors with the cooperation of the Israel National Parks Authority.

The Project Background

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the most sacred site for Judaism. It was the site of the First and Second Temples and other national institutions. The site is also sacred for Christianity and was used by the Crusaders in the medieval times. Since the Early Islamic period the Temple Mount has been the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest mosque in Islam, and also the site of the shrine of the Dome of the Rock.

Even though the Temple Mount has played a major role in the history of Jerusalem, no systematic archaeological excavation has ever taken place there, in spite of the fact that Jerusalem is one of the most excavated cities in the world. The Waqf, the Muslim trust which manages the site, has always objected archaeological research.

On various occasions during the last century the Waqf conducted construction and renovations without any archaeological supervision or control, causing severe damage to ancient remains. The peak of these construction projects occurred during the years 1999-2000, when large scale earthworks took place using heavy machinery; the purpose being to create an entrance to Solomon’s Stables (an ancient subterranean structure) which had been converted into a new mosque. In addition, in an open area on the eastern side of the Temple Mount, the ground level was lowered with bulldozers in order to lay new pavement slabs. About 400 truckloads of soil saturated with archaeological artifacts from all periods in the history of Jerusalem, were removed and dumped in various locations, mainly in the nearby Kidron Valley.

Digging in front of Solomon’s Stables (nov. 1999)

Digging in front of Solomon’s Stables (nov. 1999)

These works were illicit and disregarded Israeli antiquities laws which require a salvage excavation prior to any construction in an archaeological site. In a proper archaeological excavation the exact location and context of artifacts are documented, and the finds are removed with great care. When an archaeological site is excavated brutally with heavy machinery, ignoring the context and finds, major archaeological data are lost and can never be retrieved. However, out-of-context finds that are recovered from archaeological sites still preserve some valuable archaeological information. These finds, when studied thoroughly, can increase the information about the site, especially if it hasn’t previously been excavated, such is the case with the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project was established with the purpose of sifting all the debris removed from the Temple Mount and to try to retrieve as many artifacts as possible, using the wet-sifting technique. Most of the finds can be identified and dated by matching them to parallel finds found in a clear context elsewhere. This comparative methodology is widely used in archaeological surveys studying sites only by collecting artifacts from the topsoil.

Unique methodological techniques were developed in the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which is somewhere between a survey and an excavation, in order to study the finds.  After the identification and sorting, advanced quantitative analytical techniques are used to reveal the unique patterns of the material culture of the site.

The National Parks Authority allocated a special site in the Emek Tzurim National Park, and special installations were set up in order to allow large groups of volunteers and visitors to participate in the wet sifting.

The sifting  site at Emek Tzurim National Park and the Temple Mount in the background

The sifting site at Emek Tzurim National Park and the Temple Mount in the background

A Group of Volunteers Sifting the Temple Mount's Dirt

A Group of Volunteers Sifting the Temple Mount’s Dirt

From the beginning of the project it was evident that, in order to retrieve valuable information from such a vast amount of material, large number of volunteers would be needed, and indeed many groups have offered their help. Maybe it is no coincidence that this kind of work could not be done by a small group of archaeologists and students, but rather, it is a responsibility, duty and privilege of the large crown of people to participate in this effort. This undertaking would not be a brief operation, but a meaningful and sustained project continuing for many years.  Thus the project is functioning as an educational tourism site that receives daily groups of visitors from Israel and all over the world who participate in the sifting. To date (April 2013) more than 130,000 people have taken part in the sifting, which, in itself, is a unique phenomenon in archaeological projects around the world.

This idea is movingly expressed in the Book of Psalms:

Thou wilt arise, and have compassion upon Zion; for it is time to be gracious unto her, for the appointed time is come: For Thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and love her dust (Psalms 102: 14-15).

The Finds

Every bucket of earth that is sifted contains fragments of pottery, glass vessels, metal objects, bones, worked stones and mosaic tesserae stones. These are the most frequent finds from the Temple Mount. The finds are   dated mainly to the First Temple Period and onwards (10th century BCE till today). There are some finds from earlier periods, but they are scarce. In addition to these general categories, there are numerous finds of many kinds: fragments of stone vessels, approximately 5,000 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. Fragments of elaborate architectural members from buildings, among them are pillars, architraves, mosaic floors, opus sectile tiles (see below), colored wall plaster (fresco), and glazed wall tiles.

The finds are carefully sorted and studied in the project’s archaeological laboratory, and 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.

Occasionally very unique invaluable finds are also recovered, such as inscriptions on fragments of walls or on pottery, and inscribed seals or sealings (bullae). A noteworthy clay sealing that was found, has an impression bearing the letters …LYHW (…ליהו) and…’AMR (…אמר). It may be possible to complete the writing as “Belonging to [..]lyahu son of Immer”. The Immer family  was a well-known priestly family at the end of the First Temple period, around the 7th – 6th Centuries BCE, and the Post Exillic Period. Pashur son of Imer is mentioned as “Chief officer in the house of God”(Jer. 20:1).

The impression on the back of the sealing indicated it was originally attached to a fabric parcel or a sack, and it may be assumed that it sealed some precious goods that were kept in the Temple treasury which was managed by the priests. This sealing is the first ever evidence of ancient Hebrew writing from the Temple Mount and to the administrative activity which took place in the First Temple.

Sealing with ancient Hebrew writing from the 7th centuries BCE, bears the name [to ..]YHW [son of] Immer

Sealing with ancient Hebrew writing from the 7th centuries BCE, bears the name [to ..]YHW [son of] Immer

  The finds from the First Temple Period range from the 10th century BCE until the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. They include an abundance of pottery (about 15% of the total), with a relatively high proportion of jugs, juglets, fragmented terracotta figurines (probably smashed on purpose, see: 2 Kings 13:2), pot handles with specific incised markings which may indicate a unique cultic designation for the contents of the pots, stone sling-shots, shekel stone weights, arrowheads, and other finds.

To date, the Sifting Project has uncovered more than five thousand coins, ranging from tiny silver Persian Period coins (4th century BCE) until modern times. The many coins that were found in the rubble testify to the rich past of the Temple Mount.   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” (חרת ציון).  The name “Zion” was the name of the Temple Mount in ancient time. 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.

Silver Half-Shekel coin. Obverse: A chalice from the Temple topped by the letter aleph, which means "First year". Around it is inscribed “Half a Shekel”. Reverse: A stem with three pomegranates surrounded by the words “Jerusalem the Holy”.]

Silver Half-Shekel coin. Obverse: A chalice from the Temple topped by the letter aleph, which means “First year”. Around it is inscribed “Half a Shekel”. Reverse: A stem with three pomegranates surrounded by the words “Jerusalem the Holy”.]

An extremely rare silver coin, which aroused great excitement when it was discovered, was also minted during the Great Revolt against the Romans (66/67 CE). The face of the coin features a branch of three pomegranates and an inscription in ancient Hebrew “holy Jerusalem” (“ירושלים הקדושה”). The reverse of the coin features an omer (ancient unit of measure) cup with the writing: “half shekel” (“חצי השקל”). Half-shekel coins were used to pay the Temple tax during the period of the Great Revolt and replaced the Tyrian shekel which was used for this purpose earlier. It appears that these coins were minted on the Temple Mount itself by the Temple authorities. The half-shekel tax for the Temple, mentioned in the Book of Exodus (30:13-15), required every male to pay half a shekel to the Temple every year. The coin was well preserved, although it bears scars from a fire which may have been the conflagration that caused the destruction of the SecondTemple in 70 AD. This is the first time that this type of coin that originates from the Temple Mount itself.

Opus Sectile floor tiles from the Temple Mount courts

Opus Sectile floor tiles from the Temple Mount courts

 Another discovery from the Second Temple period and consists of a large number of floor tiles in a variety of shapes and colors which were assembled together in various ways to form rich geometric patterns. This paving technique is known in the Roman world as opus sectile. Some of the tiles are dated according to parallels found in Herod palaces. Their sizes are based on the Roman foot (c. 29.6 cm) and are associated with the “Golden Ratio.”  The writings of Flavius Josephus testify that this technique was used as ornamentation for the Temple Mount open courts which surrounded the Temple: “Those entire courts that were exposed to the sky were laid with stones of all sorts” (The Jewish War 5.5.2). This description is now finally understood thanks to these finds. Other opus sectile tiles found in the sifting are dated to later periods. The variety of sizes, shapes, colors and materials of tiles and the wide range of comparative dates point to the enduring popularity of opus sectile tiles in structures on the Temple Mount.  The finds discovered in the Sifting Project include large quantities of fragments of architectural elements, possibly from public buildings from the Byzantine period. Many mosaic fragments and architectural pieces from this period, such as roof tiles, Corinthian capitals and chancel screens have been unearthed. The wealth of finds from this period, which also include numerous coins and other finds, contradict the generally accepted assumption that no activity took place on the Temple Mount during this period and that the area was deserted and devoid of structures. These Byzantine Period structures were probably destroyed and replaced by Muslim structures by Umayyad Caliphs in the seventh and eighth centuries CE. The many finds uncovered from the Early Islamic Period include gilded mosaics, pottery bearing inscriptions, jewelry, gold coins, etc.  The Sifting Project has proven itself to be an inexhaustible source of knowledge for the research and study of the archaeology and history of the Temple Mount. To date, less than half of the debris removed from the Mount have been sifted. The project is continuing full steam and many more finds are waiting to be discovered by visitors who come to work at the site.

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