'Temple Mount artifact sifting project in danger'

Archaeologists studying Temple Mount antiquities destruction forced to raise money from public: 'PM promised budget, we are still waiting.'

Mordechai Sones ,

Sifting Temple Mount soil
Sifting Temple Mount soil
Sifting Project

Archaeologist Zachi Dvira, co-director of the Temple Mount debris sifting project with archaeologist Gabi Barkai, warns in an interview on Arutz Sheva that the project, which began 12 years ago to disclose findings from the destruction of the Temple Mount by the Waqf, is in danger.

According to him, the research work that has been conducted over the years and only recently revealed a magnificent crown of a pillar standing on the Temple Mount during the Second Temple period may be stopped and lost. "This project, because of its complexity, requires much in the way of resources as a result of the destruction and because of the need for extensive research work on each type of finding," he says.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project was established in response to the illegal removal of 9,000 tons of antiquities-rich earth from the Temple Mount by the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement under the supervision of the Waqf in 1999. The sifting of this material has been operating in the Tzurim Valley National Park since 2004 under the direction of archaeologists Barkay and Dvira, with the purpose of recovering the archaeological artifacts permeating the soil and conducting in-depth research of the finds. These are the first archaeological finds from within the Temple Mount itself that are being studied and scientifically published. The project is under the auspices of Bar Ilan University with funding through the Israel Archaeology Foundation.

"Back when the project was established in 2004, I was still a third-year archaeology student and some of our activities were then resisted and silenced. I even stopped several times.

“In order to continue the sifting of the soil from the Temple Mount and recover additional artifacts, we first need to fund the research and publication of finds that have already been recovered. If I would have been asked at the beginning of the project about the finds we might discover, I couldn’t have imagined the work that we are doing now. I couldn’t have imagined that we would be able to reconstruct the patterns of the lavish floors of Herod’s Temple Courts that we recently published. I couldn’t have imagined the current research on pottery, inscriptions, weaponry, coins, or any of the hundreds of thousands of finds and the fields of research that we are conducting.

"If we can complete even our current research, we are sure to discover much new and important data about the history of the Temple Mount. We are currently at a critical junction: the project will either close down or continue toward the research and publication of the artifacts we have already recovered. I sincerely hope that we will be able to continue the research that will inevitably yield many more discoveries important to our understanding of the heritage of each and every one of us.”

Dvira says that in 2005, the Ir David Foundation Elad organization began funding the sifting project, and "we also raised funds to finance the research. But now everything is on the verge of closure, because it is always difficult to deal with fundraising from abroad, and in archaeology, most of the work is done in research. The rate of discovery is greater in laboratory research than in field screening."

The research that has been conducted so far on the artifacts has already yielded significant discoveries and innovations. Among them are: identifying many finds from the early days of the First Temple Period (debated in recent scholarly circles), deciphering a seal impression of a Priest from the Late First Temple Period that sealed a fabric parcel of precious metals, reconstruction of floor patterns of the lavish courts of the Second Temple, the discovery of many architectural finds from the Byzantine Period which are evidence of structures on the Temple Mount contradicting the notion that described the Mount as a garbage dump in this time period, researching a large collection of Early Islamic coins and the most richly varied collection of common and extremely rare coins from the Crusader Period. From the Crusader Period we also identified much evidence of the presence of the Knights Templar.

Dr. Barkay added, “the Sifting Project is an extraordinary educational tool. To date, more than 200 thousand people from Israel and all over the world have participated in the sifting. This is an unprecedented phenomenon in archaeological practice, and makes this project the most exposed archaeological research in the world. The tangible contact of the participants with the soil, stones, and archaeological finds is an irreplaceable educational tool connecting people to their heritage. We hope we will be able to continue this important activity…”

Dvira notes that the Prime Minister promised to fund them but they are still waiting. "Before Sukkot, the Prime Minister met with us and asked us how much money we need and that for him there is no problem. We have not heard anything since. Months have passed. There was all kinds of talk about establishing a Temple Mount heritage foundation but nothing came of this, either. In the end, we went out with a crowdfunding campaign through Headstart, which will allow us to hold out until the end of the year in the hope that by then the budget will come from the government.

"This is a project of national importance and that is important for the public to participate in. Four years ago, former government secretary Zvika Hauser told us that the state was responsible for this archaeological catastrophe, and that it is also the one that needs to rectify it ... Unfortunately, he is no longer in office and we expect the Prime Minister's promises to be fulfilled. The time has come for the Israeli government to make an official decision to act on behalf of the Temple Mount."