Temple Mount project: Salvaging heritage from archaeological crime debris

The project, which re-opened in June with a new center at Masuot Lookout, has been hopeful to finally manifest a long-term dream of comprehensively publishing its findings.

Sifting through temple mount debris at the new Masuot Lookout site. (photo credit: TMSP)
Sifting through temple mount debris at the new Masuot Lookout site.
(photo credit: TMSP)
While the ambitious Temple Mount Sifting Project has already seen a history of varying setbacks, it is managing to forge ahead with fresh motivation to uncover and preserve the finds at the ancient site.
The project, which re-opened in June with a new center at Masuot Lookout, has been hopeful to finally manifest a long-term dream of comprehensively publishing its findings, as well as find the sources needed to continue its multi-pronged work.
The Temple Mount, a site critical to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, had also become the source of archaeological controversy, despite never having been properly excavated. Debris and earth had been illegally excavated by Muslim authorities, and was precisely the type of material the sifting project has attempted to rectify this to some degree by sorting through it more meticulously.
The project itself was born nearly 20 years ago after thousands of tons of dirt from renovations at the Temple Mount site were dumped, despite an Israeli antiquities law requiring salvage archaeological excavations at ancient sites before construction can begin. The soil and ancient artifacts contained within it were dumped as garbage in the Kidron Valley. Archaeologists Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira took the initiative to retrieve the dumped material and to start sifting through it, simply for the sake of recovering ancient finds.
The ensuing Temple Mount Sifting Project is conducted under the patronage of Bar-Ilan University, and is funded by private donors through the Israel Archaeology Foundation. The project’s work is two-fold: the sifting work itself, and the subsequent research and publication of the sifting’s findings.
While the sifting work was housed at a facility funded by the City of David from 2005 until 2017, the sifting operation has been on hold for the past two years. The project has since focused solely on research and publication, which takes place at the project’s archaeological lab in southern Jerusalem.
Last year, a decision was made to resume sifting. A new home and more funding were needed to facilitate sifting through remaining soil and findings. In June, the project reopened in a new center, opening opportunities to make headway in research.
The re-opening coincided with a public exhibition premiering a rare clay seal inscription that contained the name of a priestly family of First Temple treasury administrators. The inscription was touted to Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who were reportedly impressed by the evidence of priests at the Temple Mount and saw the project’s true value.
SINCE THE June reopening of Temple Mount Sifting Project, located at a site near the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus campus, the project has picked up steam and attention, and its founders say they hope that even with the small steps they see now, it can lead to a new path forward.
“We are surprised with the momentum we are gaining; even with minimal publication, we are managing to see many people joining the sifting,” says Dvira, co-director of the project. “With this new opening – unlike the previous period, generation, or phase of the project – we’ve been getting a lot of visitors from countries that we didn’t used to get in the past: China, Finland, Mexico, [some in] South America. Maybe it’s just a phenomenon that is happening for all Israeli tourism (because we have more visitors from those countries) – from non-English speaking countries participating in the sifting.”
The new location for the project has also provided a welcome boost to local volunteerism and connections.
“Also, many Israelis are happy we moved… they feel more secure in coming to visit,” Dvira says. “And now we have an auditorium to give introductions, videos and presentations, which is an enriching experience of the visit.”
The current team has been working with a section of the Temple Mount debris that has been mixed with modern debris, to help train new staff members in sifting and to continue the search for significant archaeological finds, even among the mixed debris. So while the frequency of special archaeological finds has been lower recently, in a short time the newly trained staff will be able to work with a section of soil that will have less modern debris mixed with it, and they will be capable of handling soil with richer ancient material, Dvira says.
Likewise, with the next phase of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, he hopes it will be a phase of stabilization, including better infrastructure to the project’s new home, as well as a permanent exhibition the staff is trying to build. The project’s new home was made possible by the American Friends of Beit Orot, who administer the Masuot Lookout compound.
But the project’s pace has been stymied by what is often an old foe of progress: politics.
“Right now we are working with very small funds,” Dvira says. “The research activity of the lab is limited, but we hope to raise more funds. Maybe the new government after the election [will help]. The former government has repeated its promise [to ensure funding for the project], and also, senior members of the Blue and White Party visited our archaeological lab and declared that the project has a national value and should be funded by the state.”
BEFORE THE April elections, the project was promised to receive NIS 4 million from the government for improving its center and contributing to research work. But the funding was not approved in time before the election. It remains unclear what the fate of the funding will be now that voters went to the booths in September.
“[Culture Minister Miri] Regev didn’t push it forward,” Dvira says. “We don’t know who will be in the next government, or whether they will implement this. We don’t know how serious they are, and what their positions will be after the new government is formed.”
Since all of its funding resources have shifted to the sifting operation, and the project has yet to secure its funding for the next year, the project has halted the process of research and publication of its findings. Funding from private sources will be one of the biggest challenges ahead for the project, Dvira admits.
“So far, we’ve raised about 10% of what we need; we’re very bad at that, and hiring a fundraiser is very expensive,” he says. “I’m doing the graphic design, the editing, directing the research, and many other things; doing five jobs, working 16 hours a day. I’m hardly taking a salary. Israel is lucky they have me on this project.”
As for the project’s ultimate goal, it is to publish a six-volume collection of its findings and research thus far. Dvira says 186 categories have been established for the variety of archaeological findings, including coins, pottery, metal and architecture. The first two are of utmost importance for the team, so while the entire publication may take several years more to complete, the sections devoted to coins and pottery are likely to be released first.
Despite it all – the shrunken staff, the uncertain future of funding, the long hours – the Temple Mount Sifting Project’s Immer inscription bears fruit for its future. The clay seal impression includes the text: “[Belonging to] Ilyahu [son of] Immer,” referring to a family mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah, who lived from the seventh to sixth centuries BCE. That inscription will likely be published in an archaeological journal in the coming year, Dvira says, in addition to an extensive publication about flooring tiles from the Roman period that the team is working on now.
“This project is a lot more complex than other archaeological projects,” he says. “The debris, the finds and the research are much more complicated. To extract significant information, you have to invest more. We don’t know how to do it any other way.”