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A Glimpse into the Difficulties of Conducting Archaeology in Jerusalem

Three weeks ago, we transferred more of the Temple Mount debris piles to our sifting site, which were buried in the upper terraces of Emek Tzurim. Unfortunately, we had to leave a lot of the soil behind to preserve the terraces and the trees.

Here’s the story up to now:Most of the soil removed from the Temple Mount in 1999 was illegally dumped on the western side of the Kidron Valley, midway between the Temple Mount and the Rockefeller Museum. Dumping debris in this area, which is part of the Jerusalem Walls Surrounding National Park, made the act even more unlawful. Surprisingly, none of the participants, including the Waqf, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, and the truck drivers, were fined for this infringement.

When we launched the sifting project in 2004, the National Park Authority allocated an area inside the Emek Tzurim National Park for our use. However, this area wasn’t large enough to accommodate all the debris from the Kidron Valley, so we periodically brought 10–20 truckloads to the sifting site.

In 2007, the National Parks Authority (NPA), along with the East Jerusalem Development Corporation, was developing the area of the Temple Mount debris dumps at the Kidron Valley. As holders of the excavation permit for this debris and area, we were called upon to assist with the controlled removal of the remaining debris from the original dump site. The area near the sifting project still wasn’t big enough, so the park manager directed us to several locations within the park where the soil could be stored until sifting.

The relocation project involved moving 175 truckloads of soil over several days. However, the very next day, municipal inspectors arrived and issued us a fine of 6,000 NIS for illegal debris dumping. Despite presenting them our archaeological excavation permit and letters from the NPA, the inspectors remained unimpressed. We had to go to court for this, and just 15 minutes before the trial, the municipality prosecution agreed to cancel the fine.

One year later, despite our warning that every movement of the debris piles further damaged the artifacts within, the new manager of Emek Tzurim Park decided that the scattered debris throughout the park should be consolidated and hidden within terraces. An agreement was reached that when the time came, the soil would be removed for sifting.

Fifteen more years passed, and we were finally ready. In December, we conducted a preliminary dig of the terraces, and we were pleased to discover that the maps of the soil locations were accurate, and the plastic sheeting placed at the bottom of the terraces had survived, allowing us to properly delineate the Temple Mount soil (see previous post about this).

Two weeks ago, we attempted to remove the rest of the soil from the terraces but encountered several constraints: one of the terraces turned out to be too narrow to excavate and had to be abandoned entirely. Within the rest of the terraces, in order to preserve structural integrity, we had to leave 40 cm of soil on each edge, and we had to work around trees planted within the terraces. All this work was funded solely by the TMSP’s budget.

In 2018, we were also asked to move some of the piles in the lower area of Emek Tzurim into approximately 200 large landscaping sacks and transfer them to a nearby vacant lot owned by the Israel Land Authority. Once again, we objected but were overruled. In 2019, we sifted through about a third of the material and then moved on to different piles. The lot was supposed to be sealed off and inaccessible without heavy machinery. However, when we returned three weeks ago to remove some sacks from it to the sifting site, we were shocked to discover that about two-thirds were missing, and some of the remains were mixed in with local garbage.

Additionally, another problem is that the park encompasses a portion of land owned by the Awaqf (Muslim endowments), and many of our reserve soil piles were mistakenly deposited there in 2007. For the first decade, we had no problem accessing these piles and removing soil from them. However, in recent years, the Awaqf has opposed any and all work done within its property. This matter is currently being deliberated in court between the Awaqf and the National Parks Authority. In the meantime, the piles are slowly eroding due to winter rains, summer fires, and the addition of modern garbage from the residents of the nearby neighbourhood.

Once the court gives its ruling, we will need to immediately move these piles to the current sifting site at Mitzpe Masu’ot, in what promises to be a large and expensive project. A grant request made two years ago to the Heritage Ministry for various projects was recently partly approved, but this particular budgetary item was denied, and we’re currently exploring other avenues.

It’s no simple task to conduct archaeological work in Jerusalem, especially near the Old City. However, eventually, the satisfaction of overcoming the challenges and obstacles is rewarding.

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