For three of the world’s faiths, the Temple Mount bears special sanctity and significance. For archaeologists, the 3,000-year-old holy site is both an El Dorado and a Holy Grail, for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict precludes a scientist’s pick and shovel ever breaking its ground. But an improbable turn of events has allowed historians a glimpse into the monument’s mighty bowels.

On the slopes below the Hebrew University’s campus on Mount Scopus, archaeologists and volunteers sieve through heaps of earth that were removed from the Temple Mount in the 1990s, and seek to extract bits and pieces of Jerusalem’s long history. The soil they sift through is fill from the Temple Mount — truckloads of earth and detritus that, until the late 1990s, was packed into the gigantic 35-acre box on which the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque stand and Herod’s Temple once stood.

At the far end of a fabric-roofed Quonset hut, home of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, Professor Gabriel Barkay rummaged through a small heap of tiny potsherds set on a low table. He removed his glasses and stared at a tiny piece of brown clay — one of thousands plucked from the soil — and wiped some dirt from its surface. He’s a grandfatherly sort, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a gravelly voice tinged with an Old World accent in English. Barkay, currently with Bar-Ilan University, got his start in archaeology on a salvage dig on Mount Zion when a road was paved for Pope Paul VI in 1964.

“What we do here is the result of certain political developments,” Barkay explained as we sat in the shade.

The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the institution overseeing the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, carried out excavations on the Temple Mount between 1996 and 1999 as part of the construction 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.

Barkay called the act a “barbaric thing” and “a crime against human civilization” and compared the Waqf’s actions to those of the Taliban in destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Volunteers and employees pick through finds at the Temple Mount Sifting Project in Emek Tzurim, located on Mt Olives, near Jerusalem's Old City on March 10, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Volunteers and employees pick through finds at the Temple Mount Sifting Project in Emek Tzurim, located on Mt Olives, near Jerusalem’s Old City on March 10, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The piles of earth sat in the Kidron Valley for over four years, until Barkay decided to launch the project in 2004. Its aim: to extract artifacts from the removed soil of the Temple Mount. He explained that since the layering of soil — its stratigraphy, a key element to dating artifacts — is no longer intact, they assume a reverse stratigraphy: The trucks dumped the uppermost layers of soil first, then heaped deeper layers atop it.

Shortly after their sifting work began, the project was “adopted” (as Barkay put it) by the Ir David Foundation in 2005. Ir David, also known by its Hebrew acronym Elad, has been criticized for its stated agenda of Judaizing areas of East Jerusalem with historic Jewish links (an aim euphemistically referred to on its website as “residential revitalization”), and emphasizing Jewish historical narratives at the expense of over 1,300 years of Islamic history

Elad agreed to cover the expenses of operating the sifting project, but Barkay’s research lab remains financed by private donations.

Employees of the sifting project bring the earth to the site in Emek Tzurim and run it through an initial dry sift, then volunteers hose buckets of earth through a sieve in a method developed by Barkay called wet sifting. 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 in 2004.

Temple Mount Sifting Project employees run unexamined soil through a preliminary dry sifting. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Temple Mount Sifting Project employees run unexamined soil through a preliminary dry sifting. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

What remains is typically just pebbles, rocks and bits of modern refuse, but the dirt is also peppered with bits of antiquity. The objects are cleaned, photographed, digitized, cataloged, and sent to a Jerusalem lab where the senior staff, headed by Barkay and Professor Zachi Dvira.

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. In explaining the trove of tiny artifacts found, Barkay made regular reference to biblical and post-biblical characters in corresponding the items to time periods: 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. The relics catalog the history of Jerusalem from antiquity through the modern era, he explained.

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.

“Our main method of dating is via typology,” Barkay said. “We try to find parallel, similar objects found elsewhere in context” and use them to date objects found in the Temple Mount fill.

“That is one of the axiomatic assumptions of archaeology,” he explained, “that there is a fashion in human life, and objects of the same time looked similar here in the Temple Mount and elsewhere.” Unfortunately, the project presently lacks the necessary funds to perform radiocarbon dating on organic matter such as fox, cow, sheep, and pig bones to better date some of the finds.

“It is true that we are dealing with material that has no context. We do not know from what depth the material came. We do not know what was found next to what, with what structures are they associated,” Barkay said. He noted, however, that there had previously been no archaeological survey of the Temple Mount, calling it “an archaeological black hole” comprising one-sixth of the Old City.

Since King Herod built the platform surmounting the Temple Mount in the first century BCE, it has been “a closed box,” which “didn’t have large-scale earthen works carried out, so no earth was brought in and no large quantities were taken out. The soil is indigenous,” Barkay said.

Contrary to Barkay’s assertion that the Temple Mount is a “closed box,” Professor Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University noted that there is no guarantee that the earth, and the items found therein, ultimately derive from Jerusalem.

“Though it is reasonable to assume that the fills come from the Temple Mount, the debris could have also been brought from other locations,” Finkelstein pointed out in an email. He nonetheless said that an “extraordinary find, such as an inscription” would be of significance, but that nothing of that magnitude has surfaced yet.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project in Emek Tzurim, located on Mt Olives, near Jerusalem's Old City on March 10, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The Temple Mount Sifting Project in Emek Tzurim, located on Mt Olives, near Jerusalem’s Old City on March 10, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Professor Marwan Abu-Khalaf, a Palestinian archaeologist at Al-Quds University, said that the area of the al-Aqsa compound on which the Marwani Mosque was built was “a dump” that Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent used to support the platform and seal off the Golden Gate. Abu-Khalaf has written extensively on the Islamic history of the Haram al-Sharif, as the Temple Mount is known in Arabic. He said that the fill that was removed by the Waqf had no stratigraphy, and that the earth used to close up the Golden Gate, and whatever was in that soil, may have come from the surrounding Kidron Valley.

Parrying critics, Barkay said that even if the information gleaned from sifting through rubble excavated unscientifically from the Temple Mount is incomplete, it’s better than zero. “We can have something, after all.”

Without naming names, he scathingly rebuked his detractors, scorning them for scouring the ground at ancient sites and collecting objects without excavating — a method known as surface or field surveying.

“They are those that carry out archaeological surface surveys. They collect material on the surface without any context and publish them, and publish articles on them,” Barkay said.

Hebrew University’s Professor Eilat Mazar said that even field surveys of archaeological sites contribute to our understanding of ancient sites. All the more so the investigation of fill from the Temple Mount, even if the items are not found in situ.

“It’s there. It’s from there. It belongs [to the Temple Mount], in one way or another. There’s therefore significance to everything that comes out of there,” she said during a chat at her offices on Mount Scopus. Mazar called the sifting project “exceptional” for its aim of saving what was left to be saved, whether it was Islamic or Jewish in character. The value of the statistics of what was found — and what wasn’t, and of salvaging artifacts that would have otherwise been relegated to a garbage dump — is unquestionable, she said.

Despite the City of David Foundation’s funding for the project, Barkay said the right-wing organization has no influence on the archaeology of the site.

“My condition is that nobody should tell me what to find, nobody should tell me how to interpret the finds, and nobody should tell me to ignore this or that find,” he said.

A surreptitious visit to a lecture for Israeli schoolchildren given as part of their visit to the Temple Mount Sifting Project, however, discovered that the lecturer, an archaeology student working at the site, made no mention of Islam or Arabs, and solely emphasized the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount.

Yonathan Mizrachi, head of Emek Shaveh, a group that promotes Israeli-Palestinian coexistence through archaeology, contends that the sifting project “doesn’t have any archaeological value,” but has “a lot of impact” concerning the modern Israeli, Jewish narrative surrounding the Temple Mount.

“After one destruction you cannot do a proper excavation. That’s how it is,” Mizrachi asserted.

Mizrachi contended that even if something as revolutionary as an inscription bearing the name of Solomon and a reference to a temple were found during the course of sifting, it wouldn’t be of great value; its correlation to the site can’t be definitively ascertained. “Even this inscription would raise more questions than answers, and scientifically it has no value.”

Mizrachi’s bottom line is that “pottery without structures has very little value” out of context, and as far as he’s concerned, the objects gleaned from the Temple Mount fill lend little to the scientific understanding of the site.

Despite the controversy, Barkay remains unfazed and committed to his work. “Whatever you do, and also whatever you don’t do, in Jerusalem is political,” Barkay reflected. “Whatever is done on the Temple Mount is even more political.”