In an statement timed just ahead of Passover, the Temple Mount Sifting Project said Sunday it had found a stone finger that may have belonged to a Bronze Age Egyptian statue, but conceded it wasn’t sure.
The unusual announcement may have been an attempt to keep up pressure on Israeli authorities to resolve a funding crisis that has brought its operations to a halt. The project, which has been in dire straits in recent weeks after its main donor, the City of David Foundation, pulled its funding, made the announcement of an Egyptian find ahead of the Jewish festival marking the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt.
Israeli archaeology organizations often peg Egypt-related discoveries to the holiday because of its association with ancient Egypt.
“It was found a while ago,” the project’s director, Gabriel Barkay, told The Times of Israel over the phone, but declined to specify when. He said the sifting project ceased operations two weeks ago.
The organization headed by Barkay sorts through soil removed by the Palestinians from the Temple Mount during unsupervised construction between 1996 and 1999.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project issued a statement last Monday announcing the halt of operations due to a “lack of funding and differences between the directors of the Sifting Project and the City of David Foundation.” The Prime Minister’s Office said on Wednesday that ongoing funding had been secured, but officials at the project said on Sunday that the crisis had not yet been resolved.
Jerusalem’s 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 in the late 1990s. Tens of thousands of tons of dirt — roughly 400 truckloads — were excavated by heavy machinery, without the supervision of archaeologists, and 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.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project said in a statement that the finger found in the fill “probably originated in Egypt” but couldn’t be accurately dated, and was “currently being examined by the leading experts in the field.”
Barkay told The Times of Israel that he was the only one currently studying the artifact and that it would be sent to “ancient art researchers and Egyptian researchers and others” at some point in the near future.
“It’s still at an early stage. Research hasn’t been completed,” he said.
In the statement released by the Temple Mount Sifting Project to the press, Barkay was more authoritative in his assertions about the artifact than he was in conversation on the phone.
“This is a fragment of a life-size statue, which was made in Egypt and imported to Canaan,” the statement said. “We clearly notice that this is part of a pinky finger measuring 3.5 centimeters (1.4 inches), from a man’s hand, which includes also a fingernail. The statue is made of a hard black stone originating in Egypt. The statue most likely represented a figure of a god or king. The black stone from which the statue is manufactured testifies to its Egyptian origin.”
He posited that the statue to which the finger belonged dated to the Late Bronze Age, around 3,500 years ago, based on the style, but conceded that “We cannot exclude the possibility that the statue is from a later period.”
“If it is indeed Egyptian, and apparently it is, the Egyptian objects from Jerusalem in ancient periods are very few.” He said they could be counted on one hand.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project’s find was presented as a buttress for its main message, which was that it was in dire need of funds to continue its work, and that despite assertions by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, its financial crisis hasn’t been resolved.
Contrary to reports published last week, it said, “the sifting was not resumed, but a meeting will be scheduled for after the Passover holiday to resolve the crisis in order to resume the sifting.
“As we mentioned in our first announcement, the main problem we are facing is finding the funding for the research and publication of the many artifacts that we have recovered. The sifting cannot be resumed until this is solved,” it said.
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.
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 in 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.