The project of sifting layers of Temple Mount dirt has yielded thousands of new artifacts dating from the First Temple period to today. The dirt was removed in 1999 by the Islamic Religious Trust (Waqf) from the Solomon's Stables area to the Kidron Stream Valley. The sifting itself is taking place at Tzurim Valley National Park, at the foot of Mount Scopus, and being funded by the Ir David Foundation. Dr. Gabriel Barkai and Tzachi Zweig, the archaeologists directing the sifting project with the help of hundreds of volunteers, are publishing photographs and information about the new discoveries in the upcoming issue of Ariel, which comes out in a few days.
The bulk of the artifacts are small finds - the term used for artifacts that can be lifted and transported, rather than fixed features. The dirt was removed in the course of excavating the mammoth entrance to the underground mosque built seven years ago in the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount. The Waqf and Islamic Movement in Israel separated dirt from stones, then used the ancient building blocks for rebuilding, in case the police barred construction materials from being brought in.
Most of the finds predate the Middle Ages. The finds include 10,000-year-old flint tools; numerous potsherds; some 1,000 ancient coins; lots of jewelry (pendants, rings, bracelets, earrings and beads in a variety of colors and materials); clothing accessories and decorative pieces; talismans; dice and game pieces made of bone and ivory; ivory and mother of pearl inlay for furniture; figurines and statuettes; stone and metal weights; arrowheads and rifle bullets; stone and glass shards; remains of stone mosaic and glass wall mosaics; decorated tiles and parts of structures; stamps, seals and a host of other items.
The sifting project is precedent-setting: This is the first time dirt from any antiquities site is being sifted in full. Among the many volunteers are soldiers, tourists, high-school students and yeshiva boys. Visitors over the past few months have included ultra-Orthodox MKs and rabbis, who usually steer clear of archaeological digs.
When the dirt was originally trucked out, the late director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Amir Drori, termed it "an archaeological crime," and the attorney general at the time, Elyakim Rubinstein, said it was "a kick to the history of the Jewish people. Now it turns out that the dirt removed from the Temple Mount harbors thousands of small finds from diverse periods.
The oldest artifacts found are remnants of tools like a blade and scraper dating back 10,000 years. Some potsherds and shards of alabaster tools date from the Bronze Age - the 3rd and 2nd millennia B.C.E. (the Canaanite and Jebusite eras). Only a handful of potsherds were found from the 10th century B.C.E. (the reigns of King David and King Solomon), but numerous artifacts date from the reigns of the later Judean kings (the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.), such as stone weights for weighing silver.
The most striking find from this period is a First Temple period bulla, or seal impression, containing ancient Hebrew writing, which may have belonged to a well-known family of priests mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.
Many other findings date from the Persian period (Return to Zion), Hasmonean, Ptolemaic and Herodian periods, as well as from Second Temple times. Second Temple finds include remains of buildings: plaster shards decorated a rust-red, which Barkai says was fashionable at the time; a stone measuring 10 centimeters and on it a sophisticated carving reminiscent of Herodian decorations; and a broken stone from a decorated part of the Temple Mount - still bearing signs of fire, which Barkai says are from the Temple's destruction in 70 C.E.
The project has also yielded artifacts from the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Early Arab periods. According to Barkai, the Byzantine finds radically alter the assessment that the Temple Mount was empty at that time.
Barkai and Zweig reject doubts cast by other archaeologists on the source of the dirt. They state that eyewitnesses monitored the trucks that removed the rubble, and that they have internal evidence that further confirms the dirt came from the Temple Mount.