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When Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkai and his assistant Tzachi Zweig began the painstaking task of sifting through mounds of Temple Mount rubble, they hoped to find artifacts dating from the period of the First or Second Temple.

They never dreamed of finding a mysterious artifact that looks like something straight out of the world of controversial theories propounded by "The Da Vinci Code."

Dan Brown's blockbuster novel from 2003, which has sold more than 36 million copies, identifies the Temple Mount as the site holding the secret of the Holy Grail - the chalice which, according to Christian tradition, was used at the last supper and in which Jesus' blood was collected at the Crucifixion.

Brown's best-seller claimed the secret that lay buried among the ruins of Herod's temple was rediscovered by the Knights Templar several years after the conquest of Jerusalem in the First Crusade (1099 C.E.).

Accepted scientific research confirms that the Knights Templar built their base on the Temple Mount, around the underground compound known as Solomon's Stables. However, the whole story of a connection between the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail is pure fairy tale, according to archaeologists and experts on Temple Mount history.

Barkai, an expert on biblical archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, and Zweig, a master's student there, have spent 10 months examining rubble from the Solomon's Stables area of the Temple Mount. This dirt dates from the Crusades, when Muslim rulers apparently blocked up the spaces along the periphery of Solomon's Stables.

Barkai and Zweig discovered in the rubble a cross-shaped bronze pendant measuring a square centimeter. The pendant, which was originally gold-plated, bears mysterious symbols: on one side are a hammer, pincers and nails; the flip side has what looks like a sun, as well as an altar. But the main symbol, which immediately grabs the attention, is the Holy Grail lying on a crown of thorns.

According to Barkai, some of the people who saw the pendant suggested that this was an artifact that related to "The Da Vinci Code," but Barkai was dismissive. "I heard several interesting explanations along those lines," he said, "but in my opinion there is here nothing more than a coincidence that ignites the imagination."

Zweig decided to examine the pendant thoroughly. He supposed that it dated from the 19th century, since Christians had been barred from visiting the Temple Mount from the end of the Crusades until 1840. Based on the symbols, and particularly the work tools, he assumed the pendant was related to the Freemasons, a semi-secret fraternity that was founded in 18th-century England and established branches, or lodges, in nearly all Western countries.

Zweig could not locate an expert on Masonic symbols in Israel, so he contacted Prof. Andrew Prescott, director of the new Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield. Prescott studied the photographs of the pendant and replied to Zweig at the beginning of this week that the symbols do, indeed, appear to be connected to the Freemasons, but are not the symbols of Britain's Masonic Lodge.

Prescott noted, however, that members of the fraternity had visited the Temple Mount area during the 19th century. The mysterious pendant might have belonged to famed archaeologist Charles Warren, who made a documented visit to the Temple Mount in 1867, he said.

If the pendant is Masonic, then there is an indirect connection between it and "The Da Vinci Code" - Brown claims in his book that the Freemasons are the successors of the Knights Templar.

Barkai said that beyond the story itself, the pendant attested to the variety and multitude of artifacts buried over the years on the Temple Mount. "Dirt from the Temple Mount is not ordinary dirt, but rather dirt that portrays the history of this land."

Barkai and Zweig are studying truckloads of Crusader dirt mixed with modern

construction waste that were removed clandestinely in November 1999 and dumped in the Kidron riverbed, east of the Old City. There is controversy among archaeologists regarding the value of studying this rubble, because the admixture makes it hard to date, and it is unclear where the dirt used to plug the holes at Solomon's Stables originated.

Barkai is convinced this study is immensely valuable, despite the methodological flaws. "Sure, from a research standpoint you could say we're dealing with a corpse rather than a live body, but even from a corpse you can