Archaeologist for a day: Find Temple Mount treasures — at a school near you
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Archaeologist for a day: Find Temple Mount treasures — at a school near you

The Temple Mount Sifting Project takes its show on the road with a pilot program in which it uses dirt to connect students to the past and future of the Jerusalem holy site

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Temple Mount soil being sifted in the city of Petah Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)
    Temple Mount soil being sifted in the city of Petah Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)
  • One of the two ancient bronze coins discovered as Temple Mount soil was sifted in the city of Petach Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)
    One of the two ancient bronze coins discovered as Temple Mount soil was sifted in the city of Petach Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)
  • Temple Mount soil being sifted in the city of Petach Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)
    Temple Mount soil being sifted in the city of Petach Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)
  • Temple Mount soil being sifted in the city of Petach Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)
    Temple Mount soil being sifted in the city of Petach Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)

Petah Tivka high school pupils got their hands dirty on Wednesday and Thursday this week when the Temple Mount Sifting Project’s new mobile unit paid a visit.

The Yeshurun High School’s hands-on experience was the second of the pilot project’s pit stops in an effort to “bring the mountain to Muhammad.” Previously, elementary school pupils in Tekoa also had the opportunity to sift for treasure during a special session with the Temple Mount Sifting Project’s staff using wet-sifting apparatus.

Students are given a presentation by an archaeologist on the history of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in particular, and are then trained on how to search to artifacts among the dirt. Using water, they “wet-sift” batches of dirt, and sort out the various rocks, pottery and other debris.

So far the pupils in Petah Tikva have found huge amounts of pottery, mosaic tiles, glass and metal. Luckier students have discovered a Crusader coin, a 1st century CE coin, a partial 3rd century CE oil lamp, an iron hook, a leg of an unidentified, potentially First Temple period cultic clay object, all of which will be cleaned and analyzed at the Sifting Project’s Jerusalem lab.

One of the teens said Wednesday that the physical task of searching for a connection to Jerusalem’s past was enlightening. “We feel like we are taking part in a really important project finding old and important artifacts,” she said.

In the 1990s, during unauthorized renovations of the Temple Mount’s subterranean “Solomon’s Stables” to enlarge its contemporary use as an underground mosque, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and the Waqf, the Jordanian administrators of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, removed 9,000 tons of antiquities-rich earth from the Temple Mount and dumped in the nearby Kidron Valley, according to the Sifting Project.

Salvaging the artifacts discarded during the 1999 unsupervised renovation of the Temple Mount’s Solomon Stables was the genesis of the Temple Mount Sifting Project. (Temple Mount Sifting Project)

In an effort to salvage what precious artifacts could be found in the rubble, in 2004, archaeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira (Zweig) founded the Sifting Project. Since then, some 70 percent of the recovered dirt has been wet-sifted, primarily at the project’s previous location in Emek HaTsurim, abutting the Mount of Olives.

Last April, the project began to husband its budget for research and ties were cut with the Emek Tzurim location — which still continues under the auspices of the City of David to wet-sift materials from Israel Antiquities Authority dig sites.

While much of its funding comes from private donors, the Sifting Project is optimistic that it will receive a grant from the Prime Minister’s Office to cover shortfalls, she said.

A 6th-century BCE stamp seal bearing the name of a Judean official believed to be Galiyahu, son of Imer. (photo credit: Courtesy of The Temple Mount Sifting Project)

The project estimates it has another 5-6 years of sifting to complete from the Temple Mount soil, which is currently stored in the Emek HaTsurim National Park, hidden in plain site under a grassy knoll surrounded by trees.

Dealing with a large budget deficit, the primary focus of the project right now is to complete a 2021 publication which will compile a scientific study of the up to half a million artifacts discovered in the soil, spanning from the prehistoric period to today, with a concentration on the First and Second Temple eras.

After they are fully researched, the numerous priceless artifacts will be handed over to the IAA, or put on display by the Israel Museum.

One of the two ancient bronze coins discovered as Temple Mount soil was sifted in the city of Petach Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)

According to Zachi Dvira, co-director of the project, the point is for communities and schools outside of Jerusalem to develop a newfound appreciation for the historical ties to the Temple Mount.

“We want to make Temple Mount heritage accessible to the entire Israeli public. We will provide them with the experience and the privilege of saving antiquities from this soil which was savagely excavated with no archaeological supervision. In this new program, we now aim to reach the parts of the public who found it difficult to come to the sifting site in Jerusalem.”

Temple Mount soil being sifted in the city of Petach Tikva by Yeshurun High school students (Inbal Dasberg/Temple Mount Sifting Project)

“The sifting activity touches upon the past, and allows us to meet ourselves in the present, while showing a commitment towards the future. The act of sifting, while seemingly an act of separation, in fact enables us to come together and be a part of the unfolding story of Jewish history. This is doubly felt in Petah Tikva, with its strong commitment to Jerusalem,” said Yeshurun High school principal Rabbi Yaniv Cohen.

There can be no doubt of the educational worth of the hands-on experience for the pupils.

“Seeing the students fascinated by the tangible interaction with the Temple Mount artifacts is exciting,” says archaeologist Haggai Cohen. “The students keep asking for a detailed explanation about each artifact they find, and with this hands-on experience, they are getting a deep education about the heritage of Jerusalem, its history, archaeology, and the cultures that formed it.”

The Sifting Project has applied for a grant from the Education Ministry which would subsidize the pilot project. Likewise, communities and schools can offer to cover the project’s costs and make a date to enjoy the sifting experience themselves.

“We hope to reach every sector of society – Jews, Christians, and Muslims, religious and secular. The history of the Temple Mount shows that the Mount was an important center of activity for all the monotheistic religions for over three millennia,” said Dvira.

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