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In November 1999, the Islamic Wakf carried out an illegal construction project on the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. The unsupervised digging caused irreparable damage to the important site, as well as to untold priceless artifacts contained in rubble removed during the construction and dumped clandestinely in the Kidron Valley.
Though the archaeological remains were no longer in their original contexts, they held enormous potential to shed light on the undocumented human history of the Temple Mount, as systematic archaeological excavation or scientific study have never taken place there. The mounds of dirt in the Kidron Valley therefore contained the only available data from the Temple Mount to which modern archaeologists have ever had access.
During the illegal excavations and dumping on and from the Temple Mount, the police and the government Antiquities Authority refused to interfere, citing concerns of violence by Muslims who deny that Temples ever stood on the Temple Mount. Tzachi Zweig, then an archaeology student, called a press conference to publicize the extent of the archaeological havoc being perpetrated. Zweig caused a stir in the media by displaying an assortment of artifacts that he had easily scooped out of the piles.
The story elicited outrage across the political spectrum in Israel, and this was followed by temporary restrictions on the free access of heavy construction equipment on the Temple Mount. The dirt itself into which the Waqf had mixed garbage was meanwhile ignored, and the Antiquities Authority refused to fund an examination of the tons of rubble.
Prominent archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkai decided to undertake the task of sifting through the 70 truckloads of Temple Mount dirt in order to rescue as much archaeological information from the destruction as possible.
“What they did was an archaeological disaster," Barkai told Israel National Radio's Eli Stutz and Yishai Fleisher. "That material is the only material available from the Temple Mount."
Private donations were gathered, and Zweig and Barkai proceeded to bring truckloads of earth to the Tzurim Valley National Park, located on the western slope of Mount Scopus, just below Hebrew University and the Maaleh Adumim tunnel.
Piles of Temple Mount rubble, below Mount Scopus, with the Temple Mount in the distance Photo: Natan Gesher
The work was done quietly. "Anything in Jerusalem is politically charged," Barkai said. "Anything connected with the Temple Mount is even more sensitive. If our activity would have been known at the beginning, our work might have been jeopardized by unfriendly elements."
Using a mechanical sifter, the rubble was first separated into heaps consisting of material of differing sizes. The piles were then sifted by hand.
The work at the site was at first conducted primarily by volunteers who heard of the project by word of mouth and through Jerusalem-based email lists. Soon, groups from schools or other programs began pitching in for a few hours at a time. Eventually, Zweig began paying some of the more dedicated volunteers to work full-time, and since then, progress has increased significantly.
Dedicated volunteers sifting and washing as they look for artifacts Photo: Natan Gesher
“The very act of spending time and making the effort to examine debris just because it originates from the Temple Mount transmits a very powerful message to the general public and to the world as a whole about the importance of the place,” Dr. Barkai said, likening the painstaking examination of the Temple Mount rubble to the respect given to a dead corpse by burying it.
He said the project is of particular importance due to the Islamic Waqf efforts to perpetrate something that he says is worse than Holocaust denial. "There is a phenomenon of Temple denial," Barkai said. "I just heard [Arab] MK Dahamshe this week in the Knesset denying that there were ever temples on the Temple Mount. It is a part of the cultural Intifada. I think it is just as serious as Holocaust denial. This intifada started in Joseph’s tomb and is trying to deny Jewish rights to the country."
The sifting and examinations have already yielded important artifacts from various periods, starting from the First Temple period until today. Among the discoveries so far:
* During the first days of the project, a coin was recovered from the time of the Great Revolt against the Romans, preceding the destruction of the Second Temple. It bore the Hebrew phrase L’Herut Tzion, “For the Freedom of Zion.” The find was particularly meaningful, as the Temple Mount itself was one of the focal points of the Revolt.
Coin from the period of the First Revolt against the Romans that preceded the destruction of the Second Temple bearing the phrase “For the Redemption of Zion”
* A few days later, on the eve of Chanukah, workers discovered the “pinched style” spout of a Hasmonaean lamp.
* Several weeks later, on the Tenth of Teveth - one of the fast days commemorating events that lead to the destruction of the First Temple - a crusader arrowhead was discovered. Though this was from a later period than the Temple’s destruction, arrowheads were subsequently recovered from earlier periods.
* An unexpected find, due to the Waqf’s removal of almost all large artifacts, was a large segment of a marble pillar’s shaft - one meter tall and 60 cm in diameter, streaked with purple veins and white spots. There is another segment of a column shaft with a similar texture lying in a heap of various marble column shafts near the southern wall within the Temple Mount. Both fragments seem to be from the same pillar.
The marble pillar dumped in the Kidron Valley (left) and another segment with a similar texture lying in a heap of various marble column shafts near the southern wall on the Temple Mount (right)
* A large amount of pottery shards were discovered. Some 10-20 percent of it stems from the time of the First Temple period, and a small amount comes from the Second Temple period.
* Animal bones - remnants of sacrifices.
* A number of mosaic tiles and prehistoric flint implements.
* An inscription chiseled on a jar fragment of the First Temple period, with the ancient Hebrew letters “Heh,” “Ayin” and “Kof.”
* A seal impression from the Hellenistic period showing a five-pointed star with the ancient Hebrew letters spelling “Jerusalem” spaced between the points. About 30 such impressions have been found in Jerusalem on handles from the Hellenistic period (3rd century BCE). This was apparently a kind of official stamp from a period about which very little is known.
Seal with five-pointed star with ancient Hebrew letters spelling “Jerusalem” spaced between the points
* Numerous ceramic oil lamps were found. The most common among them are “Herodian lamps” from the time of the Second Temple. Another frequently found lamp is the “sandal” type, characteristic of the late Byzantine period (6-7th century CE). Many are decorated menorah patterns.
* About 100 ancient coins, including several from the period of the Hasmonaean dynasty. One of the Hasmonean coins bears an inscription “Yehonatan High Priest, friend of the Jews.” On the other side is a cornucopia with a pomegranate in the center. Another coin is of Alexander Jannaeus. One side has the design of an anchor and the other side a star.
Hasmonean coin bearing inscription “Yehonathan High Priest, friend of the Jews” one one side and a picture of a cornucopia with a pomegranate in the center on the other
* A fragment of a figurine from the First Temple period.
* A Scytho-Iranian arrowhead, of the type used by the Babylonian army of Nebuchadnezzar that destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. Very few such arrowheads have been found in Jerusalem.
* A bronze arrowhead from the Hellenistic period, possibly a remnant left by the Seleucid forces that were stationed in the Akra fortress, or by soldiers of Shimon the Maccabee, who liberated the Temple Mount.
* An ivory comb, apparently from the Second Temple period. Similar combs have been found at Qumran, and it is probable that they were used as preparation for ritual purification in a mikveh (ritual bath), prior to entering the Temple courts.
“Our prime intent is to collect all man-made relics so that later we will be able to conduct a more intensive study based on quantitative analyses,” Barkai said. “By these studies we may learn more about the level of activity on the Temple Mount during the different periods, and the characteristics of each period. Another plan is to sort the bones, identify the various animal species, and date some of them by Carbon-14 analysis.”
Because such a sensitive excavation of material had never before taken place, and because the material had been purposely mixed with garbage and other matter, Zweig and Barkai had a difficult time estimating how much time the excavation would take. Despite six months of work, to date only 15% of the rubble has been examined.
“We had to develop the work methods ourselves as we progressed,” Zweig said. They now estimate that it will take four more months to finish sifting all of the material, but their initial grant of $65,000 has nearly run out. $61,000 more is needed to finish the project, something the two say could be accomplished by the end of the summer using the methods they now use.
Buckets of earth from the Temple Mount soaking prior to washing and sifting Photo: Natan Gesher
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