The last part of the sifting activity is the summary, where the archaeologist on duty picks out a selection of the most interesting artifacts the group has found and arranges them on a tray, gathers the member of the group together and gives them an explanation of the items on the tray. The chosen artifacts always throw light on different historical periods and describe diverse aspects of the history of the Temple Mount.
Yesterday, a large group of school students took part in the sifting. When the time arrived for the archaeologist to present the summary, he discovered that four of the artifacts that he had selected had disappeared from the tray. After several entreaties, three of the artifacts returned to the tray, but a jug handle from the First Temple period was still missing, and the culprit chose not to betray himself. Some of the children were French speakers and whispered amongst themselves about the lad who they thought held the artifact. Little did they know that the manager of the sifting site, Yossi Lellouche, himself speaks French… Yossi approached the lad and succeeded in retrieving the handle.
To our surprise, we didn’t see evidence of remorse or shame on the faces of the pupils. Perhaps some of them were indeed embarrassed, apparently including their counselors/group-leaders, but it looked like those who took the artifacts just saw the episode as an entertaining prank.
We decided to turn the event into an educational lesson. The project’s manager, Zachi Dvira, related to the children that every few weeks he receives a phone call offering to form a business venture partnership to market Temple Mount soil left over from the sifting, and he always refuses, for the simple reason that we do not see ourselves as the owners of the soil. This is an asset that belongs to the people of Israel and even to the whole world. That is the reason why we are happy to hand over for free Temple Mount soil to anyone who asks. The soil contains ashes from the destruction of the Temple, and many wedding grooms approach us before their wedding asking for a little of the soil for using it in a custom of placing some ashes on the foreheads under the chuppah when the destruction of the Temple is mentioned.
Similarly, concerning the half-a-million artifacts held by the project, some more interesting than others. Due to the heavy responsibility, we feel towards relics of the most important site in Jewish history and of great meaning to the world’s heritage, we take care to keep and to research the whole gamut of the spectrum of artifacts – from all periods and cultures. Each artifact that we decide to retain for research in the project helps make up the giant puzzle that we are trying to assemble, and each artifact that each group finds forms part of that puzzle. Therefore, the very participation itself in the sifting is a contribution to the salvage, disclosure, preservation, research and publication of that puzzle which holds so much importance to the world’s heritage. He who chooses to keep for himself artifacts found in the sifting essentially misses an opportunity to be part of this great venture, and the good deed that stood at his disposal turned into a transgression.
We explained to them that up to this day, more than 210,000 volunteers have taken part in the project, an unprecedented phenomenon in the annals of archaeological research. It may not be coincidence that the only way to extract substantial information from sifting these soil deposits and to discover meaningful artifacts is by way of the participation of such a large community.
We finished up with a quote from the eloquent words of Rabbi Judah HaLevi in his famous work, The Kuzari:
“The Rabbi: This is true when action is impossible. Man is free in his endeavours and work. But he deserves blame who does not look for visible reward for visible work… This sacred place serves to remind men and to stimulate them to love God, being a reward and promise, as it is written: ‘Thou shalt arise and have mercy upon Zion, for the time to favour her, yea, the set time is come. For thy servants take pleasure in her stones and embrace the dust thereof’ (Psalms 102:14 sq.). This means that Jerusalem can only be rebuilt when Israel yearns for it to such an extent that they embrace her stones and dust.” (Kuzari 5.27).
After these words there was silence. Maybe the message had managed to penetrate their hearts. When Dr. Barkay is asked what is the most important find we’ve discovered in the sifting, he always answers that it is the people who participate in it. They not only uncover archaeological finds but also discover something new about themselves. Something that has been hidden within them and revealed through the sifting of earth from the Temple Mount.
* For those who are concerned about the safety of the finds we recover, we can assure you that more special finds (such as coins, seal impressions, inscriptions, etc.) are not kept on the same plate but in a more secure place.