One of the major tasks in our project is to develop ways of overcoming the absence of an archaeological context for the artifacts. A common method to address this obstacle is to date and study artifacts using typology. That is, using the knowledge of frequent finds from other archaeological sites – parallel finds that were recovered with a clear context – to assume that our finds should also be related to such a context. Typology means that certain traits (technological and stylistic) tend to appear together in a repetitive pattern, which, because of standardization rules, creates types. Types tend to appear in many parallel sites in a certain time span.
The prevalence of out-of-context artifacts in Archaeological Research
In most archaeological excavations, the majority of the artifacts are not found in a primary context. Often, most of the features excavated are not “sealed” loci or layers of destruction in which the artifacts were preserved in their primary form of deposition. Rather, in most cases, the excavated features are late fills. These late fills can contain out-of-context artifacts from various periods up to the time of the fill, or stratified accumulations of debris that came from either a natural wash or from human-earth maneuvers. Nevertheless, archaeologists still carefully excavate such features. These features can still include artifacts that can be identified and dated; thus shedding light on the features, the site, the culture, and the period themselves.
Archaeological researchers also make extensive use of archaeological surveys, which are based on artifacts collected from the topsoil of archaeological sites. The topsoil usually contains a good sample of artifacts from all periods that the site was occupied. The reason topsoil can be so highly indicative is likely due to repeated plowing that occurred at the sites during the various time periods. By sampling these artifacts, we can get a general idea about the times the site was occupied and the type of material culture that was in use during those periods.
The Need for Control Groups
In many ways, the artifacts recovered from the earth of the temple mount could be studied similarly to those from an archaeological survey. Temple Mount has never really been excavated before, and we do not currently have records of internal prevalent archaeological artifacts. As a result, our efforts with the Temple Mount debris could truly start to provide a substantial amount of original information from these artifacts. The issue here, however, is that in order to discover meaningful information from the distribution of the various types of finds it is not enough just to quantify them, but rather to compare them to other finds that were recovered from similar samples. For example, in the study of the fauna remains, we have found several foxes. In order to find out if the amount discovered is actually significant, we first need to know what would be considered an average amount of fox remains in the debris of other locations in Jerusalem.
Since we are recovering the artifacts using a unique methodology (wet sifting), the distribution of the various types identified cannot be compared to the distribution of artifacts that were published from other excavations. Instead, the proper way to achieve this task is to create control groups by sampling debris from various areas in Jerusalem. This debris should be as similar as possible to the debris from the Temple Mount by the site formation processes it went through. The earth from these samples should then be sifted and sorted in the exact same ways the earth from the Temple Mount is treated. This methodology of using statistical control groups is common in most scientific researches, but in archaeology, unfortunately, it is rarely used.
For this reason, we have begun sampling debris from various sites in Jerusalem. Our first step was to sample debris from excavations that were currently being conducted. We have already sampled debris from Eilat Mazar’s excavation in the City of David, Yechiel Selinger’s excavation in the slopes of the western hill, and from Shimon Gibson’s and James Tabor’s excavation near Zion’s gate, just outside the Ottoman Old City walls. The remains from these sites contain a mixture of artifacts from various periods. Most notably in fact, is the latter example. It is a medieval fill that contains artifacts of a period span from the Iron Age II (First Temple period) until the Fatimid era (Early Arab period). This is a very similar fill to the one that blocked the Solomon’s Stables northern archways, and is now being sifted by us.
In the near future, we also plan to transfer two more samples to the sifting site. The first is another fill from the Early Arab period, from Doron Ben-Ami excavation at the Givati parking lot, near the City of David. The second sample will be taken from the Pa’amon Garden, a location containing archaeological debris dumped in the 1970’s during extensive excavations outside the Old City Western Wall, conducted by Magen Broshi. We may decide in the future to sample even more locations, if necessary to increase the sampling level.
The next step will be sifting and sorting these samples and then doing comparative statistical tests on the Temple Mount material. Although much work lies ahead of us, we believe that this is the only way to attain meaningful innovative information from the prevalent finds of the Temple Mount debris.