About the Project
The Temple Mount Sifting Project is under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University, and is funded by private donors through the Israel Archaeology Foundation. The sifting activity operated during the years 2005-2017 at the Emek Tzurim national park with the cooperation and funding of the Ir-David foundation. On June 2019 the sifting facility moved to the Masu’ot Lookout with generous support from American Friends of Beit Orot. We are currently working to try and raise the funds necessary to complete our research and operate the sifting. You can support our work toward this goal at www.half-shekel.org.
The story of the Temple Mount is the story of Jerusalem itself. A holy site to the three largest monotheistic religions, it is one of the most concentrated archaeological sites in the world. Yet, for political reasons, it has never been archaeologically excavated. Lack of access to the Temple Mount breeds ignorance and misinformation about its history and compounds the controversies surrounding it.
Our project began in 1999 when the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement conducted illegal renovations on the Temple Mount and disposed of over 9,000 tons of dirt mixed with invaluable archaeological artifacts. Though Israeli antiquities law requires a salvage excavation before construction at archaeological sites, this illegal bulldozing destroyed innumerable artifacts: veritable treasures that would have provided a rare glimpse of the region’s rich history. The earth and the artifacts within were dumped as garbage in the nearby Kidron Valley. In a bold move, archaeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira retrieved the matter from the dump, and in 2004, they started sifting it. Their initiative became the Temple Mount Sifting Project (TMSP) with the goal of rescuing ancient artifacts and conducting research to enhance our understanding of the archeology and history of the Temple Mount. Over the years, it has grown into a project of international significance. With the help of nearly 200,000
volunteers, thousands of valuable finds have been discovered. It is perhaps no coincidence that this kind of work could not be done by a small group of archaeologists and students, but rather, a large number of people are taking upon themselves the responsibility, duty and privilege of participating in this effort to unearth the discarded history of the Temple Mount.
This idea is movingly expressed in the Book of Psalms:
Thou wilt arise, and have compassion upon Zion; for it is time to be gracious unto her, for the appointed time is come: For your servants have cherished her stones, and have redeemed her dust (Psalms 102: 14-15).
The Temple Mount Sifting Project’s finds constitute the first-ever archaeological data originating from below the Temple Mount’s surface. Though the artifacts have been wrenched from their archaeological context, with innovative methodology and survey techniques our research has the ability to challenge theories, clarify understanding, and present the factual data about the Temple Mount.
Every bucket of earth that is sifted contains fragments of pottery, glass vessels, metal objects, bones, worked stones and mosaic tesserae stones. These are the most frequent finds from the Temple Mount. The finds are dated mainly to the First Temple Period and onwards (10th century BCE till today). There are some finds from earlier periods, but they are scarce. In addition to these general categories, there are numerous finds of many kinds: fragments of stone vessels, approximately 5,000 ancient coins, various pieces of jewelry, a rich assortment of beads, terracotta figurines, arrowheads and other weaponry, weights, items of clothing, game pieces and dice, bone and shell inlays, furniture decorations, ornaments, bone tools, etc. Fragments of elaborate architectural members from buildings, among them pillars, architraves, mosaic floors, opus sectile tiles (see below), colored wall plaster (fresco), and glazed wall tiles.
The finds are carefully sorted and studied in the project’s archaeological laboratory, and once the processing and analysis are finished, this data will help to provide fresh insights into the archaeological and historical research of the Temple Mount.
Occasionally very unique invaluable finds are also recovered, such as inscriptions on fragments of walls or on pottery, and inscribed seals or sealings (bullae). A noteworthy clay sealing that was found, has an impression bearing the letters …LYHW (…ליהו) and…’AMR (…אמר). It may be possible to complete the writing as “Belonging to [..]lyahu son of Immer”. The Immer family was a well-known priestly family at the end of the First Temple period, around the 7th – 6th Centuries BCE, and the Post Exillic Period. Pashur son of Imer is mentioned as “Chief officer in the house of God”(Jer. 20:1).
The impression on the back of the sealing indicated it was originally attached to a fabric parcel or a sack, and it may be assumed that it sealed some precious goods that were kept in the Temple treasury which was managed by the priests. This sealing is the first ever evidence of ancient Hebrew writing from the Temple Mount and to the administrative activity which took place in the First Temple.
The finds from the First Temple Period range from the 10th century BCE until the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. They include an abundance of pottery (about 15% of the total), with a relatively high proportion of jugs, juglets, fragmented terracotta figurines (probably smashed on purpose, see: 2 Kings 13:2), pot handles with specific incised markings which may indicate a unique cultic designation for the contents of the pots, stone sling-shots, shekel stone weights, arrowheads, and other finds.
To date, the Sifting Project has uncovered more than five thousand coins, ranging from tiny silver Persian Period coins (4th century BCE) until modern times. The many coins that were found in the rubble testify to the rich past of the Temple Mount. The first coin recovered in the sifting work was very exciting due to its symbolic nature. It was minted during the First Revolt against the Romans that preceded the destruction of the Second Temple. It bore the phrase “For the Freedom of Zion” (חרת ציון). The name “Zion” was the name of the Temple Mount in ancient time. The find was particularly meaningful, inasmuch as it was in rubble from the Temple Mount which was one of the focal points of the fighting.
An extremely rare silver coin, which aroused great excitement when it was discovered, was also minted during the Great Revolt against the Romans (66/67 CE). The face of the coin features a branch of three pomegranates and an inscription in ancient Hebrew “holy Jerusalem” (“ירושלם קדשה”). The reverse of the coin features an omer (ancient unit of measure) cup with the writing: “half shekel” (“חצי השקל”). Half-shekel coins were used to pay the Temple tax during the period of the Great Revolt and replaced the Tyrian shekel which was used for this purpose earlier. It appears that these coins were minted on the Temple Mount itself by the Temple authorities. The half-shekel tax for the Temple, mentioned in the Book of Exodus (30:13-15), required every male to pay half a shekel to the Temple every year. The coin was well preserved, although it bears scars from a fire which may have been the conflagration that caused the destruction of the SecondTemple in 70 AD. This is the first time that this type of coin that originates from the Temple Mount itself.
Another discovery from the Second Temple period and consists of a large number of floor tiles in a variety of shapes and colors which were assembled together in various ways to form rich geometric patterns. This paving technique is known in the Roman world as opus sectile. Some of the tiles are dated according to parallels found in Herod palaces. Their sizes are based on the Roman foot (c. 29.6 cm) and are associated with the “Golden Ratio.” The writings of Flavius Josephus testify that this technique was used as ornamentation for the Temple Mount open courts which surrounded the Temple: “Those entire courts that were exposed to the sky were laid with stones of all sorts” (The Jewish War 5.5.2). This description is now finally understood thanks to these finds. Other opus sectile tiles found in the sifting are dated to later periods. The variety of sizes, shapes, colors and materials of tiles and the wide range of comparative dates point to the enduring popularity of opus sectile tiles in structures on the Temple Mount.
The finds discovered in the Sifting Project include large quantities of fragments of architectural elements, possibly from public buildings from the Byzantine period. Many mosaic fragments and architectural pieces from this period, such as roof tiles, Corinthian capitals and chancel screens have been unearthed. The wealth of finds from this period, which also include numerous coins and other finds, contradict the generally accepted assumption that no activity took place on the Temple Mount during this period and that the area was deserted and devoid of structures. These Byzantine Period structures were probably destroyed and replaced by Muslim structures by Umayyad Caliphs in the seventh and eighth centuries CE. The many finds uncovered from the Early Islamic Period include gilded mosaics, pottery bearing inscriptions, jewelry, gold coins, etc.
The Sifting Project has proven itself to be an inexhaustible source of knowledge for the research and study of the archaeology and history of the Temple mount. To date, about 70% of the debris removed from the Mount have been sifted. We hope to resume the sifting of the remaining 30% as soon as we can raise the funding necessary to complete the research on the artifacts already discovered. To help us reach that goal, consider supporting our project at www.half-shekel.org.