Jerusalem is an almost unimaginably old city. Millennia of history lie underground. Every object has a story, even though most of the objects never will be found and most of the stories will never be told.
Of all Jerusalem, it is possible that the Temple Mount is richest in compressed history; in objects and their stories.
Archaeologists get to find those objects and discover and tell those stories. Their work is painstaking, glamorous in theory but hard, muddy, sweaty, and most boring in reality. It has to be done carefully. Context is everything; everything is in spatial relationship with everything else.
So what are archaeologists to do when precious sites long barred to them — as complex, often deadly politics play themselves out — are clawed out, hauled above ground, piled in trucks, carted off, and then unceremoniously dumped as if they were garbage? As if treating them like that could convert them to garbage?
The story that archaeologist Aaron Greener will tell for Congregation Kol HaNeshamah of Englewood on Sunday, April 27, has many beginnings — you could start at the very beginning, with the first settlement of Jerusalem — but the most relevant one for him is in 1999. That’s when the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf — the Islamic group that controls the Temple Mount — decided to excavate so it could build a new entrance. “Many truckloads of earth” — it’s estimated at more than 9,000 tons, which is a lot of dirt — “were basically bulldozed out,” Dr. Greener said. “They were dumped out in the Kidron Valley.”
As is just about everything in Jerusalem, this was a political decision. The Waqf’s relationship with the municipality is complicated; its officials might or might not clear its decisions with the local police, but it would not and did not concern itself with such technicalities as permits, which would have left it in the position of accepting the legitimacy of the government.
“Another way of looking at it is that now there is the idea that there never was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem,” Dr. Greener said. “This is a relatively new idea in Islam; up until several decades ago, it was obvious to every Palestinian that there was a temple on the Temple Mount.” But whatever the politics — to negate the historic Jewish presence or simply to show its disdain for the current Jewish presence — “from their point of view, it was just rubble. They don’t care about the antiquities. The Waqf is a religious organization. It doesn’t care about science or history.”
The result was “trucks leaving the Temple Mount.” People saw what was going on; “they followed the trucks, and there was a big outcry.” In just a few days, it was over. Some of the dirt was dumped in small amounts; some ended up in the municipal dump, where everything inside it was lost. But most ended up in Kidron.
“If archaeologists had done it, it would have taken years. This was really a big scientific crime.”
But it was done. So what next?
“Once the things are out of their original context, they have lost most of their potential to teach us about the past,” Dr. Greener said. Archeologists look at how deep objects are buried, and what else has been buried near them. Objects also are less likely to be broken if they’ve not been subjected to backhoes and dump trucks. But even given that there was less to learn, that’s not the same as nothing.
“There were two archaeologists, Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira Zweig, who decided that something had to be done,” Dr. Greener said. “It took them a few years to convince the Israel Antiquities Authority,” but eventually they did, and in 2004, permit in gloved, muddy hand, they started the Temple Mount Sifting Project.
“It’s a big project,” Dr. Greener said. He was there from the beginning, first as a student; he earned his doctorate in archeology from Bar-Ilan University. He’s there still; he’s also a fellow and program coordinator at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. He’s doing post-doctoral research on the tools that metalworkers used in an ancient copper mine, and he also directs “Dig the Past,” a program that allows North American summer campers to replicate the experience of being at an Israeli archaeological dig.
“The earth was moved a few times, and now it’s at the Mount Scopus National Park, in a greenhouse,” Dr. Greener continued. “We began work there very slowly, with volunteers.
“We developed a system called wet sifting, where we take all this earth, put it in buckets, fill the buckets with water, let it set for a while, and then we or the volunteers take the buckets, pour them onto sifters, and then wash them with a high-pressure hose,” he said. “That helps clean them, and we are left with larger pieces.”
It’s really an application of the have-lemons-make-lemonade principle. “It’s a better way to do it than dry sifting, and we’re able to do it because we are connected to the municipal water supply.”
The sifting project has unearthed finds. “We are finding artifacts from all the history of Jerusalem, all mixed up together,” Dr. Greener said. “It’s from the beginning of the First Temple period, and even a little before that, up until modern times.
“Sometimes we’ve found large pieces, like marble columns or capitals. Of course those things aren’t sifted. But most of the things we find are very small and broken. There are many pottery shards, of course; that’s the most commonly found artifact in every excavation in Israel. We also find mosaic tiles from every period, glass, metal, and animal bones. We also have more special finds, that are more exciting for volunteers, like coins.
“We can’t identify everything that we find, particularly when it’s broken. And this is a project that is so huge that one archaeologist can’t possibly know everything about it. It’s the entire history of Jerusalem.
“We have many specialists to go to who look at objects once they’ve been cleaned. We have specialists for coins, for glass, for animal bones — for everything.”
This making meaning and narrative out of disaster — taking a pile of dumped rubble and mining it for the treasures it contains, if only they can be found, cleaned, studied, and eventually understood — underlies the entire sifting project.
“It is exciting, and the only way to do it is to work with volunteers,” Dr. Greener said. “It’s a huge job. So since the beginning, we’ve relied on volunteers — both local, from Israel, and tourists — to help us.”
It requires no knowledge or skill and no heavy lifting, although it’s possible that volunteers might get wet. It’s a two-hour task; volunteers first are given an introductory lecture, and then let loose to sift. And it’s not feel-good make-work; the soil is so rich in enigmatic pieces of … something … an object that is unidentifiable to the volunteers but possibly important certainly can validate volunteers’ work. And it’s necessary. The task would be impossibly huge without them.
So far, Dr. Greener estimates, about 60 to 70 percent of the dumped dirt has been sifted. “Obviously it would be optimal to sift everything, but we may not. We may just say, here at the pile, that we can take a break for 10 years. And who knows? You don’t know what’s in the mound. You can leave it and move on, and leave the rest of it for the next generation. That is a possibility. We might continue for another few years.” Much of it depends on politics and funding, and of course the pandemic hasn’t helped.
Dr. Greener does not sift often. He oversees. “My job as an archaeologist is to sit at a table, and to register and catalogue the items that are brought to me,” he said. But back when he started at the pile, he sifted more. “I found little coins,” he said. “You can’t tell exactly what they are until you clean them. When you first find them, they look like little green buttons. They’re corroded, and they have that green patina. I also found a die — like a gaming die — with six numbers on it.”
He thinks back to other finds.
“This didn’t really change anything that we knew, but it confirmed it. We found an arrowhead that belonged to the Babylonian army. We know the exact date, 586 B.C.E., the time of the destruction of the First Temple, and of Jerusalem. We know that this arrowhead took part in the battle that led to that destruction.
“These are very rare finds, these arrowheads,” Dr. Greener continued. “If they won the battle, the Babylonian soldiers would retrieve them and use them again. They’re made out of good-quality bronze, so they’re valuable. Only a handful have been found in Jerusalem so far, and we found one in our project.
“We also have found stamps, the kind you’d use to seal a document by stamping it on a ball of clay, and we’ve also found the clay that it was stamped into. We have a whole bunch of them.
“We have a cool one that we could read, although it was broken, because someone broke the seal.
“It’s from the First Temple period, and the first name is cut off, but the family name is one that is mentioned in the Bible. It’s Imer. That is very cool, and hard to find.”
That said, it’s also true that some antiquities are being thrown away, their importance missed by the volunteers who overlook them. “We do what we can,” Dr. Greener said.
The sifting also has begun to change perceptions of the Byzantine period, from about the eighth to the fifteenth century of the Common Era. “According to tradition, during that period the local population used the Temple Mount as a dump site. It was part of the Christian tradition,” to show disdain for the Temple by leaving their garbage on it. According to the stories, “When Omar, the first caliph, went to Jerusalem in 1637, at the end of the siege, they took him to the Temple Mount, and he met women who came all the way from Bethlehem to drop their garbage there.
“So people assume that nothing was going on there, but we are finding many artifacts from the Byzantine time, including many mosaic tiles,” Dr. Greener said. “We are finding a lot of those tiles, thousands of them, as well as many other artifacts from this time period. This tells us that there were either several structures or one large structure there. We see hints of this in texts that people have disregarded, but we are saying no. Don’t ignore those hints. We are saying that we have all these artifacts from this time period, and that tells us that there was a structure and activity on the Temple Mount.
“Another cool discovery is that over the years we have found many marble slabs in different geometric shapes — squares and rectangles and triangles of different sizes and colors, made of different types of marble, much of it imported.
“We have someone on our team — Frankie Snyder — who has a mathematical background, and she managed to reconstruct the geometric designs on the floor of the Temple Mount from the time of King Herod. We know that there are mosaic designs from that period known all over the Roman world, but these designs are not among them.
“It seems like Herod or his architects created these designs, which repeat themselves. Frankie discovered several of these patterns, based on the tiles that have been found in this project.”
The Sifting Project, run by Bar-Ilan University, has taken an archeological debacle created by bad-faith political action and turned it into a resource that unearths historic treasures — yes, fewer than could have been found had the site been excavated properly, but far more than would have been found since proper excavation never would have been permitted, at least not within the lifetime of any newborn in this world. And at the same time, the project manages to engage and inflame the passions of volunteers, who actually get to try their hands and eyes at for-real archeology, at least for two hours at a time. That is a total win-win, for volunteers, for science, and for history.
Who: Dr. Aaron Greener
What: Will talk about the Temple Mount Sifting Project; a question-and-answer session will follow
Where: On Zoom
When: On Sunday, April 25, at 2 p.m.
For whom: Kol HaNeshamah of Englewood
For more information and the link: Email info@KHNJ.org, call (201) 816-1611, or go to www.khnj.org. Registration is open until noon on Sunday.
To learn more about the Temple Mount Sifting Project: Go to tmsifting.org/en