Efforts to find artifacts buried in soil removed from Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in the 1990s have ground to a halt following financial cutbacks, the project’s directors announced Sunday.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project said it was “on the verge of closure” after the Ir David Foundation pulled its financial support after 12 years. “In the absence of funding we won’t be able to continue searching for archaeological fragments,” it said.
The organization headed by Gabriel Barkay sorts through soil removed from the site during construction between 1996 and 1999. The Temple Mount is considered the holiest in Judaism, the site of two Jewish temples, and is also the third holiest site to Muslims.
The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the institution overseeing the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, excavated a section of the Temple Mount for the building of a subterranean mosque in an area known as Solomon’s Stables. Tens of thousands of tons of dirt — roughly 400 truckloads — were excavated by heavy machinery, without the supervision of archaeologists, and were dumped outside the Old City.
The piles of earth sat in the Kidron Valley for over four years until the project commenced in 2004. Since commencing operations, the Temple Mount Sifting Project said, it’s gone through around 70 percent of the soil removed from the site.
Over a quarter of a million volunteers from around the world have taken part in hosing down bucketfuls of soil from the Temple Mount and picking out minute objects since the project began.
Most of the tens of thousands of items found in the pans by volunteers are small — an abundance of coins, innumerable fragments of clay, figurines, brightly colored mosaic tiles and beads, arrowheads, inscribed stones and bits of bone. Barkay has highlighted clay figurines smashed during the time of the just kings of Judah, seal impressions with the names of priests mentioned in the book of Jeremiah, and coins minted during the rein of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who fought the Maccabees.
Other finds include rare coins, like a half-shekel minted in the first year of the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66 CE; a seal impression left in clay, from the 6th century BCE bearing the name of a Judean official; and golden mosaic tiles from the early Islamic period which once decorated the Dome of the Rock’s exterior before it was renovated. Last year, it was announced that an ancient Egyptian amulet had been found in the soil.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project issued a statement on Sunday announcing the halt of operations, citing “lack of funding and differences between the directors of the Sifting Project and the Ir David Foundation.”
A year after sifting began, the Temple Mount Sifting Project was adopted by the Ir David Foundation. Ir David agreed to cover the expenses of operating the sifting project, while Barkay’s research lab remained financed by private donations.
Ir David, also known by its Hebrew acronym Elad, has been criticized for supposedly having an agenda of Judaizing areas of East Jerusalem with historic Jewish links and emphasizing Jewish historical narratives at the expense of over 1,300 years of Islamic history.
“The Ir David Foundation halted the sifting a fortnight ago, and we cannot continue our relationship with them,” the Temple Mount Sifting Project said. “We will not resume the sifting until the publication of research on the finds that we have already recovered has been fully funded and completed. We do plan to do so later on and we are aiming to have it under the auspices of the state.”
At the same time, the organization’s staff said that “Ir David will continue to sift archaeological material at Emek Tzurim through the Antiquities Authority, but it will not be related to our project in any way.”
A spokesman for Ir David confirmed that the organization was no longer funding the sifting project.
“About 12 years ago the Ir David organization helped save the earth that was excavated from the Temple Mount,” Ze’ev Orenstein said. “Since that time the group voluntarily funded the sifting, processing and research of the earth to the tune of millions of shekels. We hope that a way will be found for this national and international project to continue.”
He gave no reason for ending the funding.
Despite efforts to gain governmental funding, the project said it has only received “vague promises” from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For that reason, it launched a crowdfunding campaign to try to raise funds.
“We have recovered innumerable artifacts and have brought about huge discoveries through our research. Yet more research is needed on many objects,” the sifting project said.
“Completing the research on these objects may cause us to change our methodology or approaches to the material, and we want to ensure that there is unsifted material on which to use a new methodology if needed. Though unexpected, the stopping of our sifting could be a good thing for our project’s methodology in the long run,” it said.
While critics note that the artifacts found in the fill were not found in situ, and the mounds were left unattended for several years before being moved once again to the Sifting Project’s site at the base of Mount Scopus, Barkay insists the finds are unquestionably connected to the Temple Mount and are of scientific importance to answering questions about the site.
Although the Temple Mount Sifting Project styles itself as “the first archaeological material ever to be researched from within the Temple Mount itself,” British archaeologist R.W. Hamilton conducted work atop the site in the 1930s on behalf of the Mandate’s Department of Antiquities.