Israel Displays First Temple-era Pottery Found on Temple Mount

State antiquities agency hopes disclosures will quell competing claims about work carried out at the holy site.

The structure that was uncovered on the northern part of the Temple Mount. A man kneels next to a stone wall protruding from the ground.
The structure that was uncovered on the northern part of the Temple Mount. Israel Antiquities Authority

Discoveries found in situ on Temple Mount dating to the late First Temple period, excavated and collected by the Israel Antiquities Authority over the last 10 years, were displayed by the agency in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Other finds on display include the remains of a previously unknown monumental Muslim edifice that had been on the northern part of Temple Mount.

With these finds, the IAA hopes to refute that claims on the political right that archaeology on Temple Mount is in a state of anarchy, and also claims leveled by the Palestinians and UNESCO that Israeli archaeologists are party to damaging Muslim antiquities on the Temple Mount and are “Judaizing” Jerusalem.

The breaking point in respect to damaging antiquities on the Temple Mount was in 1999, when the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that administers the site, dug a giant hole, without permission, in the south part of the Mount in order to open an entrance to the underground Solomon’s Stables (the Marwani Mosque). Thousands of tons of dirt with countless archaeological items from all the periods of the Mount were taken from the site, triggering bitter accusations against the authorities for their failure to protect Temple Mount antiquities.

Come 2007, there was another incident in which the Waqf dug a channel to lay an electricity cable. Temple Mount activists and the Public Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount claimed that the Waqf had again destroyed archaeological finds on the Mount.

Following that incident, the state comptroller wrote a report on the cable project, but at the request of the government, the report remained sealed and confidential.

Bones and olive pits from 2,500 years ago

In a paper in publication, written with Dr. Ronny Reich and Deborah Sandhaus, Dr. Yuval Baruch, head of the Jerusalem District at the IAA, reveals that during the process of digging for the cable, a great number of archaeological finds were made and hastily excavated.

The excavations were carried out by IAA people on the site while the cable channel was being dug, with the acquiescence of the Waqf people, under spotlights (since the digging for the cable was being done at night).

The finds included pottery, broken bowls, cooking pots and pitchers dating to the late First Temple period (Kingdom of Judah). By them the excavators found animal bones and olive pits.

The pits were sent for carbon 14 dating, without revealing that their source was the Temple Mount, lest that fact influence the conclusions, Baruch told Haaretz.

The results complied with the dating of the pottery to around 2,500 to 2,600 years ago.

This is the first time in the history of Temple Mount excavation that discoveries from the First Temple era were found in situ, meaning they never left the site and there is no doubt as to their provenance.

Baruch stresses that because of the sensitivity, a full archaeological excavation could not be carried out, just a hasty job of documentation and collection.

At the same time, pottery from the era of Roman rule over Jerusalem was also found and dug up, and a previously unknown drainage canal — which has not been dated — was also found.

That same year, in another Waqf project to renovate a path on the north of Temple Mount, the remains of a large wall that had been part of a monumental edifice dating to the 11th or 12th century, hundreds of years after the Dome of the Rock was built. The structure, built differently from other buildings on the Mount (not on a north-south axis), had not been known, and its purpose remains unclear.

“Don’t get me wrong. Relations between us and the Waqf are not a bed of roses. I also cannot say that there weren’t cases of lack of supervision and that there were no problems,” Baruch says. “But the little we manage to do is still more than had been done until today.”

The Waqf has not conducted significantly works that would damage finds beneath the surface in recent years, Baruch says. Also, cooperation between the IAA and the Israel Police (which have a permanent presence on the Temple Mount) has improved. Recently the IAA and police cooperated to halt works by the Waqf to turn an ancient building outside the Mount into a toilet. The works were stopped and the structure has been sealed.

Baruch adds that as a matter of policy, archaeological works should not get in the way of routine worship at sacred sites like the Temple Mount.

UNESCO votes

On Wednesday the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization adopted another resolution on Jerusalem that ignores Judaism’s connection to the Temple Mount. Ten member states supported the motion, two opposed it, eight abstained and a representative of one member state was absent.

Earlier, Baruch told Haaretz that any UNESCO resolution regarding alleged Israeli damage to Muslim heritage on the Temple Mount, and denial of Jewish heritage, would be a political decision that has nothing to do with what is actually happening on the ground. “We are attacked for excavating in order to find Jewish remains and are accused of Judaizing the Temple Mount and Jerusalem,” he said. “Cartoons show archaeologists, not soldiers, destroying the mosques. The archaeological truth, in any case, categorically indicates that Jerusalem is first and foremost a Jewish creation. If King David hadn’t put his capital here, it would have become just another Canaanite town.”

Also previous to the UNESCO vote, PLO Secretary General Dr. Saeb Erekat issued a statement in which he claimed, “Illegal attempts to change the identity of Occupied East Jerusalem, including its Christian and Muslim traditions, have been ongoing since its occupation of the city in 1967.” Working with the Jordanians, the Palestinians have been endeavoring “to preserve the status quo of the historical Holy Sites in the city in line with the internationally recognized status quo arrangement and all international resolutions and treaties,” Erekat stated, and charged Israel with “using archeological claims and distortion of facts as a way to legitimize the annexation of Occupied East Jerusalem. Contrary to what the Israeli government claims, the resolution that was voted by UNESCO aims at reaffirming the importance of Jerusalem for the three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It calls for respecting the status quo of its religious sites, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound that continues to be threatened by the systematic incitement and provocative actions of the Israeli government and extremist Jewish groups,” Erekat’s statement said.