Uncovering Jerusalem's History in the Rubble of Temple Mount

How do you excavate a site where an archaeological dig could start a war? Enter the Sifting Project, which hunts for treasures in earth once dug up by the Mount’s Muslim authorities.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project

“We are not political here,” says archaeologist Gabriel Barkay while sitting down for a chat on a makeshift veranda with the Dome of the Rock in the distance amid the muezzin’s call, police sirens and a Roberta Flack song on the radio.

It feels peaceful at the site of Barkay’s Temple Mount Sifting Project, all the more so since the recent wave of violence has scared off volunteers and tourists, leaving the Emek Tzurim National Park and the unique archaeological dig there silent.

Mounds of earth are waiting for attention behind the prefab offices. The sifting stations under tarps in the large hothouse nearby are, by 2 P.M., empty but for a few staff members putting away the pails and wooden-framed screens.

A red-haired American exchange student is milling around — she explains that her parents, church leaders stationed in Mexico, are used to violence so they don’t get too fazed about her security in Israel. No one is buying soft drinks at the little kiosk.

But while it may feel peaceful there, the place is all but the eye of the storm.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project

Barkay, who won a 1996 Jerusalem Prize for his life’s work as an archaeologist of Jerusalem, started the Sifting Project a decade ago with a former student turned professional partner, Zachi Dvira.

Their intention, explains Dvira, was to salvage artifacts from Temple Mount soil removed by the Waqf, the Muslim trust that manages the site under Jordanian custodianship. The goal was also to paint a better picture of the place’s long and rich history.

Four hundred truckloads of this soil (some 9,000 tons) were unceremoniously dumped in the Kidron Valley near the Old City’s northeast corner in 1999 and 2000 as the Waqf converted an ancient substructure in the southeast corner — known as Solomon’s Stables — into a mosque. It also built a large emergency exit in front of the long buried northern archways.

“Every reasonable person would understand the need for an emergency exit,” notes Barkay. “But this was no small exit. They dug a gigantic pit, 43 meters in length, 36 meters in width and 12 meters in depth — all without any archaeological supervision.” The Waqf has its own archaeologist, he adds, “but as this work was going on he was sent with his family to Jordan for a long holiday — so he wouldn't see the atrocity.”

“It took several weeks for the general population to understand what was going on,” continues Barkay. “I was teaching a course on the archaeology of Jerusalem at Bar-Ilan University at the time when two of my best third-year students, Zachi and Aran [Yardeni], came to me with filthy bags filled with shards they had collected from the dump and asked me to look at them. That’s how this all began.”

The Temple Mount Sifting Project

The spate of stabbings, shootings and car-rammings against Israeli civilians is being linked to everything from young Palestinians’ desperation, to frustration with their leaders, to the general upheaval in the region.

But if a finger can be pointed somewhere more specific, it would be at the 3,000-year-old hilltop plaza known as the Temple Mount to Jews or the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. The 37-acre area is sacred to Jews as the site of two biblical temples, and to Muslims as the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the place from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

“Of course I’m always being pulled into the debate over who the Temple Mount should and does belong to, and how this all ties in to Israel’s right to Jerusalem,” says Barkay. “But the truth is, I’m not here to prove anything or score points. I’m an archaeologist looking for tangible remains of the past. This, for me, is a detective story.”

More mixed-up than usual

A detective story, perhaps, but a highly combustible one tricky to grasp, let alone solve. Barkay and Dvira are the first to acknowledge the chasm between looking through discarded rubble and properly excavating a site.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project

“Everything got messed up by the bulldozers. What was at the bottom came up to the top. What was on top was pushed down to the bottom. Everything was shattered and broken to pieces,” Barkay says.

“When an archaeological site is excavated brutally with heavy machinery, we are left with material out of context.  We cannot know from what depth the material came, and what was found next to what.”

But, he continues, because a systematic archaeological excavation has never been allowed at the Temple Mount, this project is the only chance to get a sense of the site's history.

“Material without context loses much of its value,” he says. “But still, if we assume we lost 90 percent of the value, the 10 percent left is much more than zero.”

Barkay dismisses the argument that the whole project is futile due to the lack of context and the possibility that earth from other parts of the Old City might have gotten mixed up with Temple Mount earth in the garbage dump. By matching finds to similar ones found in clear context elsewhere, it’s possible to verify and date many of the finds and help understand the history, he says.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project

For example, Barkay notes, most history books once claimed that during the early Christian period — between the fourth and seventh centuries — the Temple Mount was mostly empty. “But we have found evidence of intense activity — pieces of ecclesiastic structures, decorated floor tiles and crucifixes and pendants of people who prayed there,” he says.

He gives another example: “When Saladin came here at the end of 12th century and reconquered the Temple Mount from the Crusaders, it is believed he restored the Dome of the Rock, which until then was a Crusader church .... He removed the cross from the top and cleared the rock, where from allegedly Mohammed went up.”

The project’s findings back up this narrative, says Barkay: “We have the pieces of the floor in front of the altar which was in front of the rock, and have discovered the pattern of that floor, with the help of computer generation.”

While other excavations typically feature archaeologists combing through layers of history with trowels and brushes, at the Sifting Project, because there are no layers left to study, archaeologists and volunteers use “wet sifting.” This resembles panning for gold; rubble is emptied onto wire filters and then hosed down to examine the contents.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these finds have been small: coins, jewelry, arrowheads, pendants, ceramic shards, bones, glass, clothing, beads, floor-tile fragments dating to the First Temple Period on. Therefore most finds start in the 10th century B.C.E., though there are some rarer older finds. Some fragments of building pillars have been uncovered, but anything large would presumably have been broken up somewhere between the earth-moving equipment and the garbage heap.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project

Interest in the Arab world

According to Barkay, one of the most significant finds has been a First Temple period bulla, or clay seal impression affixed to a fabric sack, with a priestly inscription in Hebrew. It was the first evidence of ancient Hebrew writing from the Temple Mount and evidence of administrative activity before the First Temple, says Barkay.

A 10-year-old tourist from Russia uncovered another rare seal just last year — one dating to the 10th or 11th centuries B.C.E., corresponding to the period of the Jebusites and the conquest of Jerusalem by King David.

“Some scholars doubt that the Temple Mount was part of the city during the 10th century B.C.E., and suggest that Jerusalem was not a capital city but merely a small village,” says Dvira. “Our finds, which also include many pottery shards from this period, contradict this minimalist assertion and confirm the biblical account.”

The project has so far uncovered more than 5,000 coins — from tiny Persian-period ones (the fourth century B.C.E.) to others minted in modern times — attesting to the Temple Mount’s rich past, says Dvira. One gem was a rare silver half-shekel minted in the first year of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 C.E. The coin features a branch of three pomegranates and an inscription in ancient Hebrew reading “Holy Jerusalem.”

Over 170,000 people — from Orthodox and secular Jews to schoolchildren and foreigners from around the world — have passed through this simple workshop and done sifting anywhere from two hours to several months. Muslim individuals and groups are of course welcome like anyone else, says Barkay, but they’ve stayed away.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t great interest among Muslims in what is being unearthed there, adds Dvira. A new crowdfunding site launched by the project last month has attracted thousands of views from people in Arab countries.

“The biggest interest, after Israelis, has been from people in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Iraq,” notes Dvira. He says one-third of viewers of the web video in the past week have come from Arab countries.

But suspicion over the project’s political component remains a problem. It doesn’t help that the excavations are being funded by the Ir David Foundation (with the cooperation of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority). Ir David, or as it’s known by its Hebrew acronym Elad, is dedicated to proving Jewish links to and re-Judaizing East Jerusalem areas through archaeology, tourism, education and what it calls “residential revitalization” — buying homes in the now predominantly Arab neighborhood of Silwan near the Old City.

Barkay argues that the right-wing group has never interfered with his work or told him what to focus on. “I am ready to get the money from the Norwegians if they would give it to me. None of our conclusions will be influenced by any political agenda,” says Barkay.

“We're interested in the history of the Temple Mount, and whatever we discover is okay with me. We're interested in pagan pre-Israelite life, in the Latin and Roman Temple Mount, in the Christians and in the Islamic periods.”

And as Dvira points out, the off-site research lab for identifying and dating finds is funded by private donors through the Israel Archaeology Foundation. The whole project is being carried out under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University, where Barkay is a professor emeritus.

Of the 400 truckloads dug up at the Temple Mount and discarded at the end of the 1990s, the Sifting Project has salvaged about 300 (the rest has been spread around dumps outside the Kidron Valley). The sifting is about halfway done, and the archaeologists say they have a big-enough sample to soon produce a comprehensive publication on the finds, pending funding.

“We figured that eventually, as a result of systematic collecting, we would be able to graph the intensity and some characteristics of the activity at the Temple Mount through the periods,” concludes Barkay. “In Jerusalem, even sneezing is considered a political act. But I don’t care what politicians might use my findings for. What I care about is history.”