Archaeologists Find Link to First Temple in Controversial Dig

Israeli archaeologists overseeing a controversial Islamic dig on the Temple Mount stumbled upon a sealed archaeological level dating back to the era of the First Temple, the Israel Antiquities Authority said yesterday.

But the Waqf (Islamic trust), which has de facto control over the mount, denied that any discovery was made, or that any Israeli archaeologists were supervising the work, which it said is being conducted to replace 40-year-old electrical cables.

The Antiquities Authority announced that it had discovered fragments of ceramic tableware and animal bones dating back to the First Temple, which stood between the tenth and sixth centuries BCE. The finds included fragments of bowl rims, bases and body shards, the base and handle of a small jug and the rim of a storage jar, the agency said in a statement.

Jon Seligman, Jerusalem regional archaeologist for the Antiquities Authority, said the find was significant because it could help scholars in reconstructing the dimensions and boundaries of the Temple Mount during the First Temple period.

"The layer is a closed, sealed archaeological layer that has been undisturbed since the eighth century BCE," he said.

But the Public Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, a group of Israeli archaeologists, downplayed the findings, saying the dig was conducted in an unprofessional manner without proper documentation. The group previously condemned the maintenance works, which included using a tractor to dig a trench, charging that digging at such a sensitive site could damage biblical relics and erase evidence of the presence of the biblical temples.

"I think it is a smoke screen for the ruining of antiquities," said Eilat Mazar, a member of the committee.

Seligman said the maintenance work was necessary to accommodate the thousands of Muslim worshipers who flock daily to the site. He said no damage was caused to the site, adding that the discovery was merely a pleasant surprise.

"That's what makes this [archaeology] so interesting," he said. "You never know what you are going to find. It is always a bit of an adventure."