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Response to Article in Times of Israel

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Last Friday, an article was published in the Times of Israel, a news site popular among American Jews. We were saddened to see that even though we spent a great deal of effort informing the reporter, Ilan Ben Zion, about the significance of finds and the new understandings we have following their discovery, he chose to focus on the issue of the project’s scientific value and even interviewed three individuals who claimed that our research has no archaeological value. In addition, the report contains many factual errors and misunderstandings.

An uninformed reader might come away with the impression that there is a wide ranging scholarly dispute over the archaeological validity of the project, despite the fact that since our first publication in 2006, not a single article has been published in any archaeological journal that called into question our methodology or questioned the scientific validity of the project.

Ben Zion interviewed Prof. Israel Finkelstein, who has a personal issue with Dr. Gabriel Barkay, and has never set foot in the Sifting Project site or bothered to investigate our research methods. In our third preliminary report,  we’ve addressed extensively the issue of the provenance of the finds, and explained in detail how we know the earth came from the Temple Mount, where on the Temple Mount it came from, and just what exactly can and can’t be learned from artifacts removed from their original context. It is quite clear that none of the responders interviewed in the article has bothered reading the report, much less visited the site or attempted a scholarly discussion over the project’s methodology.

The article contains many factual errors, so we might give Prof. Finkelstein the benefit of the doubt and assume he was misquoted. However, if the quotes are true, then the ridiculous notion that the finds might not originate in Jerusalem merits no response. As for the claims based on artifacts which supposedly weren’t discovered are quite premature, since only a small fraction of the finds have been published so far, and we are still hard at work preparing the discoveries for proper scientific publication.

It should be noted that Yonathan (Yoni) Mizrachi, another individual interviewed by Ben Zion,was an IAA archaeologist until he was fired nine years ago. Following that, he applied for a job with Eilat Mazar’s excavations in the City of David, and later he applied for a position in our project. Following the interview, we rejected him due to his inadequate knowledge of archaeological material from Jerusalem. About one year later, he responded to an initiative by the Norwegian-supported Ir-Amim foundation to establish the Emek Shaveh, a political organization aimed at attacking the any Israeli archaeological excavations conducted beyond the 1967 borderline. It is to be lamented that the article gives the impression that Mizrachi (who does not hold the title of Dr.) is an influential archaeologist, when, if fact, he is an individual that represents a political organization.

The only interviewee that spoke to-the-point and  is worthy of a response is Professor Marwan Abu-Khalaf, who claimed that the area from which the earth was removed was an Ottoman dump, and questioned our ability to glean information from soil without clear stratification. In our published articles we’ve already addressed these issues, including the well-known fact that the Ottoman finds come from a local dump – this being a good thing, since dumps provide the richest archaeological data from periods with no destruction phases.

Dr. Barkay, in the article, appears to respond to the claims made against the project by the three interviewees. In reality he was unaware that the reporter would contact these individuals. Dr. Barkay’s comments that seem to be answers to the interviewee’s claims, were, in fact, quotes from general information that were given to Ben Zion regarding different issues.

In addition, Ben Zion gives an account of the contents of the introductory presentation given to visitors at the Sifting Project, and reports that there was no mention of the “Islam or Arabs, and solely emphasized the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount”. This is completely false. The reporter listened only to the beginning of the presentation, and then left due to a phone call. The lecturer was not an archaeological student, but an archaeologist with a PhD, who always emphasizes equally all the historical periods of the Temple Mount. Incidentally, he holds a political view that is totally opposite from what the reporter tried to associate with him.

If the journalist had any qualms over the scientific or archaeological merit of the project, the correct course of action would have been to approach archaeologists that have neither a personal nor a political agenda, and ask for their thoughts.

More Details about the New Course of Ashlar Stones at the Bottom of the Raised Platform Northern Wall

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Leen Ritmeyer, archaeologist and architect expert of the Temple Mount, published a post in his blog referring to the new discovered course of ashlar stones at the bottom of the raised platform northern wall that we published here in a report two weeks ago. Ritmeyer discusses this wall in his post and eliminates the Byzantine and Umayyad dating, which leaves the Pre-Herodian dating to be highly probable.
We examined this find again, especially its chisel marks. We concluded that this course of stones could not be dated prior to the Umayyad period. Similar stones could be found in other sections of the raised platform wall and in other Umayyad sections of the Temple Mount walls. In addition, the Umayyad builders commonly made secondary use of stones from previous structures, so judging just by the type of stones and chisel marks we cannot disqualify dating these stones to the Early Islamic period.

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Last Tuesday, there was a discussion in the Knesset Interior Committee regarding antiquities destruction on the Temple Mount. The constructions and paving at new generator room was also discussed. The Antiquities Authority claimed that all of the construction works at the site were authorized by the special ministry council, and the works were supervised and completed a year and a half ago. In a discussion two weeks earlier in the same Knesset Committee, the Antiquities Authority claimed that since 2009 all the earth works are done manually and no heavy machinery is used.
Now, the facts that we know about this dig contradict these claims. In a video published on the internet two months ago, a bobcat tractor is seen working around the new generator and removing earth. No antiquities inspector or policeman is seen supervising this work. In addition, the work took place in October 2013 and is still not finished. The fact that the paving worked has stopped and has not been completed yet may imply that the IAA inspectors noticed this work in a late phase and then stopped it, due to the new archaeological information that was revealed during this dig. Could it be that the IAA was not aware of this earthwork, in spite all their claims that everything today is being supervised and controlled?

Report on Latest Waqf Works on the Temple Mount

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The final report of State Comptroller concerning illegal activities on the Temple Mount that was written in 2010 states that all the lessons from the draft (written in 2008) were learned, and now oversight of the Temple Mount has greatly improved.  Although there has been major improvement in police and IAA supervision at the site, unfortunately, things are not still satisfying. Last year we published a long report about antiquities desecration at the site since 2009, and even today, a few days after the comptroller report was brought to the public and a week after the IAA and police declared in a discussion in the interior committee in the Knesset that all construction work at the site is being reviewed, authorized and supervised by the police and IAA inspectors, we still encounter evidence that shows a different reality.

Yesterday we received reports about more dirt being removed from Solomon’s Stables with a small Bobcat tractor. We went today to check this out and found fresh dirt on top of the debris heaps in the eastern area of the Temple Mount.

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Just to remind our readers, the Supreme Court in 2004 ruled that these heaps must not be removed before being examined by archaeologists. This means that they should not even be mixed with other debris before being inspected. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening, and these heaps are being maneuvered, and more debris is poured upon it, making the future task of archaeologist to differentiate the between the various contexts of the finds more difficult.

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In addition, more graffiti has been noted in various locations, such as on the eastern wall of the raised platform.

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Recently, the ground level near the new generator room north of the raised platform was lowered by one foot. This work exposed an unknown course of stones from an earlier phase of this wall. This course could be dated to the Early Umayyad period or even the Second Temple Period. L. Ritmeyer suggested that the foundation of this course was the original northern wall of the Temple Mount, and there is evidence for this thesis in various spots along this line.

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It appears that somewhere on the Mount more construction is currently taking place. This can be deduced from new construction material that has been brought inside the compound.

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On the floor of the Dome of the Spirits there are some rare remnants of an opus sectile floor. These remnants are probably in secondary use and include Byzantine and Herodian tiles. In the picture below is a nice rectangular bituminous limestone tile that was recently severely damaged. Older pictures show some cracks, but for some reason the cracks have become much wider. On and around it remains of a blue spray paint can be seen. It appears like someone laid a very heavy object upon this floor and painted it. This work damaged the ancient floor and left stains on it.

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In addition, the Israeli police have tightened their security checking of the visitors to the Temple Mount  which results in a very long line of visitors that now extends out of Dung Gate towards the City of David. Because it takes so long to pass through security before entering the site and because the visiting time is so limited, many tourists are being denied entry to the Temple Mount.

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