Temple Mount sifting project at a crossroads

The roots of the project track back to 2009, when the Wakf began unlawfully excavating the Solomon’s Stables area to construct the underground Marwani Mosque.

Archeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay (center) inspects Second Temple-era ‘opus sectile’ floor tiles from the Temple Mount, in the presence of Moshe Ya’alon (right) (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Archeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay (center) inspects Second Temple-era ‘opus sectile’ floor tiles from the Temple Mount, in the presence of Moshe Ya’alon (right)
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Have you ever seen the movie Rashomon? This classic 1950 Japanese film by director Akira Kurosawa explores the extent to which a single event can be remembered and described in several almost completely different ways by different people.
As the film begins, a woodcutter and a Shinto priest find themselves thrown together one dark day, huddling by the gates of a city, trying to stay dry during a heavy afternoon rainstorm. They are soon joined by a common wayfarer, to whom each man describes a lurid event they both saw earlier.
The woodcutter says he found the body of a murdered samurai while he was out in a forest cutting wood. The priest says he remembers seeing the samurai journeying with his wife through the forest on the day he was later murdered.
Both of these men are then summoned by the authorities to testify in court as witnesses. There they are joined by a third man, a notorious bandit, who has been captured and accused of the murder.
The audience then watches as several versions of the murder are recounted in court. We hear the stories related by the bandit, the woodcutter, the samurai’s widow, and even the ghostly testimony of the murdered samurai himself, chillingly told through a medium.
The result of this fascinating screenplay, superb acting and masterful direction was twofold. It first of all brought Japanese filmmaking to the world’s attention, and established in both artistic and psychological parlance the concept of “the Rashomon effect.”
This is the idea that there is no objective reality, no single “truth,” and that there are often several alternative, subjective, sometimes self-serving, and often totally contradictory ways of seeing the same situation or event.
Why talk about Rashomon in an article about Jerusalem archeology? Because the proverbial Rashomon effect is unfolding before our eyes in a dispute between the world-renowned Temple Mount Sifting Project and the City of David, the important foundation that has been funding it.
After supporting the operation of the Sifting Project for the past 12 years,the City of David announced last March that it was withdrawing all of its funding. Why is the City of David pulling its financial support from a project that has involved more than 200,000 volunteer workers from all over the world and discovered almost 500,000 archeological finds? Well, as in Rashomon, the answer depends on whom you ask.
The roots of the project track back to 2009, when the Wakf – the Islamic religious authority that controls the Temple Mount – began unlawfully excavating the Solomon’s Stables area to construct the underground Marwani Mosque. Some 400 truckloads of excavated Temple Mount earth were taken from the site and unceremoniously dumped in the Kidron Valley.
Those convinced that the Wakf was trying to remove and discard traces of the Temple Mount’s Jewish past, along with archeologists and historians fearful of the destruction of significant Second Temple artifacts, raged at the wholesale destruction, but could do nothing.
Enter Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira, two Israeli archeologists who in 2004 began to sift the dumped soil in an effort to recover ancient remains and artifacts.
Frankie Snyder, a member of the Sifting Project (introduced to In Jerusalem readers last September as “The lady who looks for tiles”), recalls how it began.
“When they started in 2004, Gaby and Zachi were raising the money to have people help them sift material, and then they would do the analysis of what they got really fast. The problem was they couldn’t raise very much money at a time. So they would raise some money and work, stop working because they’d run out of money, start working when they got money, and stop working. The City of David Foundation saw the project and thought, ‘This is an amazing project. This needs backing, this needs funding.’” The City of David Foundation was established in 1986 by David Be’eri, a former deputy commander of the IDF’s Duvdevan commando unit and oft-described right-wing activist. The foundation has worked to promote Jerusalem as Israel’s united, eternal capital by sponsoring excavations that reaffirm Jerusalem’s ancient Jewish past.
It has also aroused controversy by supporting efforts by Jewish families to move back into the City of David, whose original Jewish population was displaced by Arab rioting during the British Mandate. For an organization devoted to what Palestinians call efforts to “Judaize” Jerusalem, and two earnest archeologists eager to rescue Jewish artifacts from the Wakf’s dumping ground, the piles of soil discarded at the Kidron Valley were a perfect reason to cooperate.
Thus, the Temple Mount Sifting Project was born, operating since 2005. According to the project’s website, the soil has yielded finds beyond the two archeologists’ initial expectations. “Every bucket of earth that is sifted contains fragments of pottery, glass vessels, metal objects, bones, worked stones and mosaic tesserae stones.
“These are the most frequent finds from the Temple Mount. The finds are dated mainly from the First Temple period and onward (10th century BCE to today). There are some finds from earlier periods, but they are scarce.
“In addition to these general categories, there are numerous finds of many kinds: fragments of stone vessels, approximately 5,000 ancient coins, various pieces of jewelry, a rich assortment of beads, terracotta figurines, arrowheads and other weaponry, weights, items of clothing, game pieces and dice, bone and shell inlays, furniture decorations, ornaments, bone tools, etc.
“These also include fragments of elaborate architectural items from buildings, among them pillars, architraves, mosaic floors, opus sectile tiles, colored wall frescoes and glazed wall tiles.”
The Sifting Project was fully funded by the City of David until just a few months ago. Says Snyder, “There was some kind of disagreement between the City of David and Gaby and Zachi near the beginning of the year. I knew things were going on, that things were kind of strange, but I had no idea what happened. And then in the middle of March the City of David said, ‘We will no longer fund the sifting of the material.’” Who does know? Says City of David Foundation director for international affairs Zeev Orenstein, “It wasn’t waking up one morning and saying, ‘We’re not funding anymore.’ The people who are running the project made the decision that they wanted to take the project in another direction.
“My understanding is that, from their perspective, we’ve already done a lot of sifting and now we have to shift away from that in order to properly analyze andreport on what’s been found up until now. That’s okay, but before we start pumping more and more money into this, we need to all be on the same page.
“We funded this project for around 12 years. We hope to continue funding, and have hundreds and hundreds of people come and connect with the history of the Temple Mount and ancient Jerusa - lem – and that’s still very much at the heart of what we believe in and want to support...
“So now the issue is how to work out the desire to keep going through the earth and the desire to have the research component.
That’s now what’s trying to be worked out with the Antiquities Authority and the people involved with the Sifting Project.”
The authority is now involved with the issue as a result of an attempt at intervention by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the beginning of April. He pledged that the City of David Founda - tion would resume its funding, after proposed meetings among the representatives of the Antiquities Authority, the City of David Foun - dation and the Sifting Project.
Says the City of David’s Orenstein, “Again, It’s not like all of a sudden the City of David woke up and said, ‘Hey, you know what? We don’t like this project anymore.’ On the contrary, we love this project and we hope it continues. And we want to be involved in it continuing. There are a lot of different players. The Prime Minister’s Office has been involved somewhat. Everyone sees the value of the project. It’s at this point just trying to have the right balance of things.”
So what do the Sifting Project archeologists want to do that the City of David is refusing to fund? Says Barkay, “We are concentrating on research now. We’re processing the material. We have around half a million finds. And that needs a very thorough study in order to have a scientific publication of the material. In the lab there are about 20 people working, processing the material.”
A bit more expansively, Dvira explains, “We cannot continue the sifting of the Temple Mount material without publishing the finds we have got so far. At the very least we need a stable track for research and publication. It’s not right to retrieve more finds when we don’t have the funding to publish them. We don’t want them to be neglected in some storage house and forgotten. As it is, the rate of discovery of finds that we have in the lab is higher than that in the field.”
As for publication, the project team is hoping to report its findings in an eight-volume compendium of artifacts and analysis. “It will be a very big publication,” Dvira declares. “Its uniqueness will be the richness and variety of finds from all periods. It is research in depth, useful for other scholars in many fields, and it will be in English.”
A recent project crowdfunding appeal on its website raised NIS 300,782 from 1,117 backers – with more money expected from additional pledges – enough to keep the research lab going at a minimal level for perhaps another year. Says Dvira, “The crowdfunding was really to help us hold on until we receive government funding.
“This is the main focus now – to receive government funding for the whole project. The Antiquities Authority is now doing an assessment of what exactly we need. They will then give their recommendation to the prime minister about how to fund this project. We assume that everything will cost about NIS 6 million. This is for the work for the next four years. A million and a half per year, and that includes the sifting and the research.”
The next few months will hopefully see a solution in which every - one gets, if not what they want, then at least what they need.