Temple Mount Sifting Project
In Jerusalem, there’s a place called the Temple Mount. On this site, Solomon’s Temple, and later, Herod’s Temple, were built as a location to worship God. During the 1967 Six-Day War, the small, nascent State of Israel was attacked by three Arab armies, yet still won East Jerusalem, reuniting the Temple Mount with the rest of the city. However, Israel gave de facto control of the Temple Mount, now site to the El Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock Memorial, to the Waqf or Muslim authorities.
To this day, it is a delicate balance whereby no Jew nor Christian may pray any closer than the Western Wall, an ancient retaining wall used to hold in the dirt platform supporting what was once the Temple. The Muslims continue to build, shift, and rearrange structures on top of the Mount, while Israeli archaeologists are refused any access to see that antiquities are not being destroyed.
In this manner, a new mosque was built in 1996 to accommodate tens of thousands of worshipers. It is underground in an area known as Solomon’s Stables, and which has nothing to do with King Solomon, but most likely was a stable for horses during the Crusader period. By 1999, Muslims built new entrances, removing massive amounts of earth with bulldozers in an archaeologically-sensitive area, where probably small pickaxes needed to be used with care. Approximately 400 truckloads of dirt were unceremoniously whisked away to a nearby valley, where they were dumped with disdain.
Long story short, it involves an archaeological student accused of antiquities theft when he started picking through the rubble and finding dumped columns, coins, and other ancient remains, and petitioning Israel’s Supreme Court to allow the rubble to be collected and examined archaeologically. Once again, 400 truckloads made their way to the nearby Mount of Olives and a national park, Emek Tsurim, where sifting of the remains goes on six days a week.
I was privileged to be part of this project which has welcomed 150,000 volunteers over the last eight years, sifting through 170 of the 400 truckloads of rubble. Workers come to spend anywhere from two hours, to a day, or a week at the wet sifting stations. A bucket of rubble covered with water is given to each person, who then dumps the bucket on a mesh screen, rinsing out the mud to ensure that no artifact is inadvertently left behind in the container. Then the rubble is spread out on the screen, and picked through, bit by bit, hosing off the mud whenever necessary.
Next to me an older couple from Arizona worked.
“Today’s your day!” I told them.
They had never done archaeological sifting before and recognizing whether the tiny pieces were important was not that easy. An archaeologist worked alongside them. Within two seconds, he found two mosaic pieces. Within two minutes, he identified an ancient coin, Ottoman pottery pieces, and a tooth.
A tooth? Don’t forget that there were many animal sacrifices at the Temple every day.
This was an activity that would be good for the entire family. Generally, the sifting stations are packed with volunteers. On my day, I headed there late on a warm Jerusalem afternoon, hiking in through an olive grove, being dropped by a taxi driver nervous about driving on the gravel road.
A pickup truck roared up the hill with two archaeologist-types, dusty, and hauling equipment.
“Can’t you smell it, the fragrance of archaeology in the air?” one called back.
I noticed no fragrance other than the quiet of a hillside when time stands still and one enters the hallowed halls of history. The birds sang, the wind rustled leaves, and we collected artifact after artifact pointing to earlier civilizations residing just a stone’s throw away.
————–Tags: antiquity-hunting, archaeology for the whole family in Israel, Israel travel blog, Temple Mount excavations, Temple Mount sifting project, treasure-hunting in Jerusalem, volunteer opportunities in Jerusalem, what to do in Jerusalem