Overlooking Jerusalem at Tzurim Valley National Park, archaeologists and volunteers work on one of Jerusalem's most unusual excavations. They are sifting tons of dirt removed in 1999 by Islamic work crews who were remodeling an underground area of the Temple Mount—known as Solomon's Stables—to create the Marwani Mosque (CT, March 6, 2000, p. 27).

Some of the dirt went to Jerusalem's municipal dump, where it was mixed with the city's garbage. Some of it was discarded in the Kidron Valley. The remodeling was done without archaeological supervision. Bar Ilan University archaeology professor Gabriel Barkay called these events "an archaeological tragedy." The Temple Mount is the third holiest site in Islam and is known as Al Haram al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. It is also the holiest site in Judaism.

Last November, Barkay trucked 70 loads of dirt up to the park on the slopes of Mount Scopus, where volunteers began sifting the rubble.

Bar Ilan is sponsoring the project, but funding has come from private donations, which have been barely enough to keep it going.

The sifting is done in the shadow of the Hebrew University. But aside from a few archaeology students employed as supervisors, the university is not involved. And aside from the provision of land by the National Parks Authority, the Israeli government has ignored the project.

"The [Israeli] Antiquities Authority would prefer the Temple Mount [to] evaporate entirely," Barkay told ct, "because they cannot fulfill their legal obligations to safeguard the archaeological remains there."

Excavating dirt totally removed from its context is anathema to archaeologists. Barkay compares it to an autopsy.

"Although we cannot resuscitate this material to tell us more about the Temple Mount, still it testifies about the living conditions of that material before it got 'killed,'" he says.

Every period, from pre-history to the modern era, is represented in the dirt, from flint implements to beautiful figurines. Some discoveries, like thousands of pottery shards and several hundred coins, are easily dateable. Other items, like jewelry, are nearly impossible to date out of context.

Arrowheads found include one dating to the siege of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. "It was probably shot at the armies of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, who guarded the temple just before it was burned by the Babylonians," Barkay said.

A seal impression in hardened clay, mentioning the name of Jerusalem, dates to the Hellenistic period.

"Nothing is really sensational or unique," Barkay said. "But it has a cumulative value. It adds up to new information about the Temple Mount."

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The biggest surprise has been large amounts of remains from the early Christian or Byzantine period.

Barkay said part of Jerusalem's history will have to be rewritten. Most historians thought the Temple Mount was largely deserted then.

Although they are only about halfway through the 70 truckloads of dirt, Barkay planned to stop the process at the end of June in order to analyze the finds. He said he doesn't know when they'll start up again. Funding remains a critical issue.

Related Elsewhere:

A website called The Temple Mount Archaeological Destruction has articles about the destruction of Temple Mount Antiquities, the dig in "Solomon's Stables," and what can still be done. It also has pictures.

Earlier coverage of archeology in Israel includes:

The Mystery of Antiquities | Ossuary owner charged with forgery. (Feb. 16, 2005)
Rush to Judgment? | Israel Antiquities Authority's 'findings' bother many archaeologists. (April 29, 2004)
Biblical Archaeology's Dusty Little Secret | The James bone box controversy reveals the politics beneath the science. (Sept. 19, 2003)
Bones of Contention | Why I still think the James bone box is likely to be authentic. By Ben Witherington (Sept. 22, 2003)
Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived | Scholars link first-century bone box to James, brother of Jesus (Oct. 21, 2002)
Why We Dig the Holy Land | If biblical archaeology is not reinvigorated, Scripture-illuminating evidence will remain buried in the Middle East. (Sept. 26, 2003)
Listening to the Fifth Gospel | The sun-baked ruins of the Holy Land have a story to tell. By David Neff (Sept. 25, 2003)
What Do the Stones Cry Out? | Beware of claims that archaeology disproves—or proves—the Bible is true. By Christian M.M. Brady (Sept. 24, 2003)
Biblical Archaeology's Dusty Little Secret | The James bone box controversy reveals the politics beneath the science. By Gordon Govier (Sept. 21, 2003)
Ossuary Questions Remain | Israel Antiquities Authority says "brother of Jesus" inscription is a forgery, but supporters say its report may be flawed (June 20, 2003)
The Unluckiest Church | Archaeologist predicts the future is grim for the ancient church's site (Feb. 6, 2003)
Temple Mount Artifacts Removed | Archaeologists upset over unsupervised excavations (March 6, 2000)

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